On Top of His Game

Wednesday, November 1, 2006 - 15:18

Having been thrown in the deep end when captaining the Wallabies, John Eales discovered that the art of great management is about constant training. The problem, he says, is that most managers aren't getting enough. Chris Sheedy reports.

It wasn't the two-metre, 115-kilogram frame of Wallabies captain John Eales that struck deadly fear into his opposition on the football field. His imposing physicality, of course, didn't go unnoticed, but what truly left other teams shaking in their studded boots was his ability to manage his team-mates, to ensure they were always composed and always a threat, whether they were winning or losing the rugby match.

But what seemed a natural, inbuilt talent to lead men on a football field was sometimes simply a result of snippets of advice from respected business managers, accidental guesswork, and copied behaviours from great captains, coaches and team managers he'd played under in the past.

"The training, at times, was almost haphazard," the 36-year-old says of his management skills during his period as captain of the Australian rugby team. "It's more organised these days, but then it was more accidental. You were expected to just learn from experience. Occasionally you felt out of your depth, but fortunately I had a lot of experienced and trusted people I could turn to. Having access to people who can give you great advice is very valuable."

Many businesses today, Eales says, are at that very stage: throwing their managers in at the deep end and hoping that they'll swim. It's a situation he's witnessed too many times and it was a large part of the inspiration behind his current business, Mettle. Among other things, Mettle helps organisations to develop strong and effective management teams.

Solid management skills, Eales says, can be taught - absolutely. After all, he's a living example. The learning process that Eales went through, though, was about as intense and public as it gets. The ex-professional sportsman draws a fascinating picture in order to give an understanding of his baptism of fire.

"Imagine if every meeting you had was on camera, and you then had to go back and watch it over and over again," he grimaces. "Imagine that you had to watch every interaction you had with a staff member, in slow motion. Imagine you've got 30 other people analysing your performance and telling you where you went wrong and where you weren't very good. It's a daunting experience but it gives you a great incentive to learn from and fix your mistakes."

It's not what he's suggesting should actually happen in business, but he says that a similarly structured environment, where a manager is constantly given feedback, advice and mentoring, is a vital ingredient in any successful organisation.

"Managers are often left to their own devices," Eales says. "I was fortunate because I had a lot more exposure to people who wanted to offer feedback. In sport, you're very aware of the skills that you need to develop, and those skills are broken down and practised again and again. They're worked on so much that you become an expert. Why shouldn't this happen in business?"

At the time of this interview, Eales was putting the finishing touches to his latest book, Learning From Legends, the results of which he'll be presenting to the Australian Institute of Management's convention launch in New South Wales in March 2007. Unlike many sports stars, Eales did not choose to use a ghost writer, but instead personally conducted in-depth interviews with 41 sporting legends, then wrote the chapters about each one of them in an attempt to communicate some of their unique ideas about leadership.

While leadership and management are intrinsically connected, he insists that there is a difference between the two. "Management is when you're managing to a specific direction and towards specific goals," he says. "Leadership is about being able to create the direction yourself and drive the people in your team in that direction."

From his own experience, and from those he has interviewed for the book, Eales has learned that before becoming an effective leader or manager it's important, first of all, to learn to be comfortable with your own mistakes. "If you haven't made mistakes then you're not learning," he explains. "I look at when I was first captain of the Wallabies - there were a lot of times when I was uncomfortable because I was in a position I wasn't used to. People said to me there would be times when I had to make mistakes, and it was really hard going out there and knowing I was going to make mistakes. It can make you feel quite vulnerable."

It's also vital to have faith on three separate levels, Eales says, in order to gain the type of fearsome composure that the Wallabies had under his leadership. "To me, composure is all about faith. You must have faith in yourself in the role you're going into, knowing that you've covered all the bases and that you're as good as you can be in that role. That gives you confidence. Then it's about looking around at your colleagues and team mates and having the same faith in those people. Then, when you've got all that covered, it's important to have faith in the system in which you're operating. So it's about understanding yourself as an individual, understanding and leading your team mates, and understanding and trusting the structures of the business." Only then can one step into the realm of effective management and leadership.

According to Eales, Mettle is often called upon to build strong management teams. Here are some of the vital components.

  • Being absolutely clear on the goals and purpose of the team.
  • Team members are clear on roles and accountabilities within the team.
  • Ability to have 'dual citizenship' - members can work vertically within their team and horizontally across other teams.
  • Distinctive systems and processes to effectively and efficiently get work done.
  • Strong relationships with team members.
  • Distinct cultural norms and behaviours that team members are prepared to call each other on.
  • Robust individuals within the team who have authentic conversations with each other.
  • Trust is built as the foundation of the team ethos.

Eales has learnt from, and worked with, many great managers. As well as holding the position of Director of Mettle Group, writing books and regular newspaper columns, his many business interests include his brand John Eales 5, which deals in corporate hospitality and is run in conjunction with sports management business International Quarterback. He is also a consultant to the BT Financial Group and has been a director of QM Technologies, a business process outsourcing company that listed on the ASX in November 2005.

"When you're playing professional sport you're always working under the premise that any day could be your last," he says, explaining his breadth of interests. "You can go to a training session, damage your knee and suddenly you'll never play at that level again. Because of that I always had in the back of my mind that if I had a career-ending injury, what would I do the next day? So you're always doing a couple of things to prepare for that scenario. I no longer think everything could end tomorrow, but I've never lost the enthusiasm to have a few different focuses."

Mentors and heroes from his time in business, since his retirement from professional sport in September, 2001, include Chris White, CEO of International Quarterback: "He has enormous integrity and he has a great manner about him. He never wants to be in the limelight himself, but is absolutely dedicated to helping his clients"; Mettle's CEO Ian Basser: "He's been involved in starting businesses all over the world and that experience means he's very composed at times when things don't look as though they're going right"; and BT's CEO Rob Coombe: "He's been so supportive, and to watch how he managed BT through some of those really hard times to make the company the best funds manager in the country, it's been a wonderful achievement."

Eales's experience and advice from mentors such as these over the last five years has taught him enormous amounts about what goes into making a great manager, and he now recognises certain specific traits common to all successful managers.

"They tend to be very organised and they have a very clear idea of where it is they want to go and where it is they want to take the people they're leading," Eales says. "They can articulate that view extremely well. They have a passion for what they're doing and they can push that passion across to people - they inspire people through their excitement. From my experience, they also show a great interest in their staff as people - they know them as people and not just as someone filling a position. That makes a big difference."

Finally, Eales says, once all is said and done it's important that a manager and their staff enjoy a healthy work/life balance, something this father of three is still struggling with, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his many business interests.

"It's always a battle," Eales admits, when discussing the amount of time he spends working as opposed to the time he spends with his wife Lara and their children Elijah, Sophia and Lily. "The difficulty is when you love what you're doing and you also love your family, it never feels as though the balance is right. Ultimately, though, the most important thing in your life is family, so we have to make decisions about our business interests together.

"At certain times of the year, especially when rugby test matches are on, I find it gets busier and harder to balance. Probably 15 weekends of the year I have something on. Every other one is sacred. But other than that, the ability to turn your phone off the moment you walk in the door is really important. The things that keep us all sane are those pockets of time with our families."

Find your mettle

What are the special qualities that great managers share? The experts at Eales' company, Mettle, who identify, train and create successful managers on a daily basis, fill us in.

  1. Balance between managerial leadership and engaging leadership: 'managerial' being clear on roles, accountabilities, using systems and processes to get work done and key knowledge of the financials; and 'engaging' being inspirational, connecting, empowering, empathic, values driven and a great communicator.
  2. Clear picture of a future that is easily understood by others and is a place that is better than where they are today.
  3. Great storyteller who helps people connect more easily and visually into what needs to be done.