Outgoing New Zealand Rugby President Bill Osborne on strategy and leadership

Bill Osborne, the outgoing president of New Zealand Rugby and celebrated All Black player, is one of the few sports stars who later succeeded at translating their skills to the field of business. He went on to serve in senior roles at New Zealand Post and Quotable Value New Zealand. He also served on corporate and not-for-profit boards, including 2 Degrees telecommunications company, CoreLogic New Zealand, and the Maori Economic Development Commission. In this episode of the Inside the Strategy Room podcast, he tells associate partner Guy Mullarkey how his Maori culture and rugby career shaped his approach to business, leadership, and strategy. This is an edited transcript of the discussion. For more conversations on the strategy issues that matter, follow the series on your preferred podcast platform.

Guy Mullarkey: When you think back to your time with the All Blacks, what aspects of that experience most permeated your post-rugby career?

Bill Osborne: To meaningfully answer that question, I have to share some of my cultural background. The Maori worldview has something called whakapapa, which is similar to heritage. It links people back to their origins as well as to the present and future, both physically and spiritually. It’s a hard concept to explain in English, but whakapapa brings the All Blacks jersey to life for those who get to wear it. Imagine the first time you pull on the jersey. You go into the change room of your country’s main stadium and there is the jersey with your number on it. You think of all the deeds that people who previously wore that jersey had accomplished, people you look up to as heroes. Whakapapa links you to that. It then moves to another principle called kaitiakitanga, which means to look after or take care of, but goes deeper. It’s about taking care of the spiritual value that the jersey represents because you realize that you are only its caretaker.

That spiritual attachment to the jersey creates a powerful purpose, and that translates to business. All businesses I am associated with want to give their people a deep sense of purpose, because that is the most compelling way to keep employees engaged.

Guy Mullarkey: How can organizations effectively link that purpose to their culture, strategy, and outcomes?

Bill Osborne: Well, it’s great to have a meaningful purpose, but unless you create a culture that makes that purpose alive, you have nothing. Culture enables strategic execution. We have many cultures in New Zealand: Pacifica, Maori, and various Europeans who came here. In New Zealand Rugby, we hold sessions to understand the cultural motivations important to team members, and businesses should do that as well. People have to recognize who they are and what they stand for. Only then can they engage in a conversation about the organizational culture needed to execute strategic plans.

Another dimension comes into this. New Zealand Rugby has the principle, “better people make better players.” Rugby is populated by young people who are in periods of their lives when they are growing and learning. If we can guide them on that journey, we can make them better players. That also translates to business. To build the culture, you need to execute on strategy, and you need to invest in people because the more capable you make them, the better human beings they become, and the better they will execute your strategy.

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Guy Mullarkey: Many organizations are trying to better engage with people, and I know rugby faces similar challenges. How have you tackled that?

Bill Osborne: The origins of rugby in New Zealand go back to about 1870. In those days, we had a largely rural economy. Settlers were resilient people who had to build support networks within their communities, and rugby clubs helped bring those communities together. Today, we have about 500 rugby clubs around New Zealand, but the structures of families and communities, as well as how we interact with each other, has changed.

We struggle, like other organizations, to bring ourselves up to date. The stadiums aren’t full each time we play anymore unless the All Blacks are on the field. We were so secure in our foundation and connection to communities that we missed the fact that our communities were rapidly changing. What New Zealand Rugby now has to do is reconnect with our communities, so we’re looking at digital connections with a new generation—how do they want to interact with us?—the same way businesses all over the world are rethinking how to connect with and serve their stakeholders and customers.

Guy Mullarkey: What is your advice to organizations struggling with that connection challenge?

Bill Osborne: My one piece of advice is to set up mechanisms that allow you to listen—listen and hear what people are saying. Because these are two different things. Sometimes listening becomes a process of selecting what fits with your own thinking, but people don’t always use the words they mean. When people say, “I’m not comfortable” or “I’m not sure about that,” it’s not that they don’t understand you. Rather, they don’t support what you are saying but they won’t argue, so you have to drill down.

Set up mechanisms that allow you to listen—listen and hear what people are saying. Because these are two different things.

Being a good listener is about building trust with the person communicating with you. If they know it’s safe to say what they really think, they will be open. And trust comes with face-to-face communication, transparency, and authenticity. That’s hard to fake; people know when you are not genuine. One of the strongest things we have in New Zealand Rugby is authenticity. We are prepared to face up to the hard stuff and when we do, great insights emerge. If businesses can be open to new ideas and allow employees to explore them safely, then there is trust and every new idea will be explored in a positive way.

Guy Mullarkey: How do you engender a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion of different views?

Bill Osborne: We are lucky in New Zealand to have a largely inclusive society, and we have learnt that diversity enables us to think about things differently. Fundamentally, diversity is about diversity of thinking—it is that contest of ideas that matters in the modern world of business. Every organization has many different cultures, so to create a common culture you have to include everybody and understand their cultural perspectives. Only when you understand what people stand for and what they value can you build an organizational culture that can execute on strategy.

Diversity is about diversity of thinking—it is that contest of ideas that matters in the modern world of business.

Guy Mullarkey: That contest of ideas sometimes literally becomes a contest. How do you prevent such discussions from devolving into being adversarial?

Bill Osborne: I think the All Blacks have been magnificent in turning those contests of ideas into an advantage on the field. When a rule changes or something else alters the game, we have been the first to innovate through an inclusive process that allows people to bring forward ideas. Every business has a stream of ideas that flow down the river; the challenge is to pluck out of the water and nurture the ones that will give the biggest bang for the buck. It’s incumbent upon us all to hear those ideas, and that comes back to that listening skill. When I’m getting ideas thrown at me, I never say “No,” but rather “We can, if we ...” do something.

Guy Mullarkey: When you were playing rugby, you had to make instant decisions with considerable uncertainty around the outcomes. What did that experience teach you about problem solving amidst uncertainty?

Bill Osborne: On the rugby field, there are key decision moments. You get a penalty: Do you kick for goal and take three points, or do you kick for the touch and go for five or seven points? Those decisions are all environmentally dependent based on the stage of the game, the score, the fatigue level on your team versus the other team. New Zealand rugby teams traditionally go for the active option. In fact, the All Blacks don’t just want to win, they want to win with mana—a Maori word that means authority, respect, and dignity. We want to win by playing open, fast, running rugby. We want to do better and more.

But when decisions happen on the field, leaders have to resist the urge to play how we intuitively like to play and think, “What are we striving for?” That’s where team leaders, just as leaders in business, have to stand away from the emotion of the moment and make rational decisions for the future, not only for right now. Those moments require clarity, and leaders will fall back on their purpose and what they value to decide, “What do we need to do to get to this point in the future?”

Guy Mullarkey: So there are short-term decisions as well as the long-term strategy, both in rugby and in business. How do you manage that tension?

Bill Osborne: When an important decision must be made on the rugby field, leaders gather to have a conversation. That’s how it should work in business, too: it shouldn’t be up to one person but a team of diverse minds analyzing the situation and considering the big picture, the organization’s capabilities, and the needs of stakeholders. On the field, everything happened so fast that I had to rely on my intuition to steer me in those key moments. When you get into a fatigue mode, and this is the same in business, you don’t think clearly and can’t rely on the rational answer to come to you. That’s why I think it’s important to get lots of rest before you make critical decisions.

Guy Mullarkey: One of the challenges many organizations, including New Zealand Rugby, are grappling with are their environmental, social, and governance [ESG] obligations, where different stakeholders have different perspectives on the short-term and long-term actions. How can diversity and inclusion lead to better ESG outcomes?

Bill Osborne: Today more than ever we acknowledge the importance of the environment in which we work and the social license needed to operate. ESG is not a foreign concept to Maoridom. For a thousand years, Maori have known the value of the air, the water, and the land in the cycle of our own lives and that people and the environment need to look after each other. The principle of kaitiakitanga applies to how we think about environment: Maori belong to the land, not the other way around. The European concept is, “We own land.” The Maori worldview says, “You don’t own the land. You are only here for a short time; you belong to the land.”

New Zealand is starting to adopt the Maori worldview in how it looks at our dependency on and responsibility for the environment. In fact, the government today requires all state organizations to consider matauranga Maori, or the Maori worldview, applying our learning from over 1,000 years to the preservation of our land and well-being. ESG is important because you cannot care about your social responsibility and the environment without understanding your governance responsibilities. In business, we think of ESG as a modern idea, but we have had that responsibility forever and are only now grappling with its importance.

You cannot care about your social responsibility and the environment without understanding your governance responsibilities. In business, we think of ESG as a modern idea, but we have had that responsibility forever and are only now grappling with its importance.

Guy Mullarkey: Leadership has been a thread through everything we have discussed. What leaders have inspired you personally and professionally?

Bill Osborne: I was fortunate enough to meet Nelson Mandela, one of the most inspiring people I ever had the privilege to talk to. I also look up to people who changed the rugby landscape or led organizations through difficult times. One such person is [the late] Jock Hobbs, an outstanding All Black who became chairman of New Zealand Rugby. He took it from the amateur era to the professional era, and he did it with panache and genuine leadership. He inspired me to come back to work with rugby organizations. We have to give back to the game which has given so much to us.

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