From Clare to Christchurch – creating a ‘learning environment’

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Books at the apex of business, culture and sport are my cat nip.

I love a good strong read that offers an insight into a sporting culture, that I can take away and implement in business or life, or at least record for future use.

The best sports teams, like the best businesses and institutions, have an indestructible culture of constant innovation, positivity, peak performance and modsty, just look at the Irish rugby team that captured the 6 Nations last Spring for a great example, or Stuart Lancaster’s strive to bring a humility to the English rugby team.

I also love connecting two disparate pieces of a book on different subjects, joining the dots and understanding how great teams, again like great businesses, create that culture of excellence.

In the past three weeks, I’ve read Damien Lawlor’s Fields of Fire, an excellent insight into the current state of hurling, and James Kerr’s ‘Legacy’ a look at the culture of the All Blacks.

You’d probably think that there’s little that two teams can learn from each other?

One is an amateur Irish side with full of young students, sales reps and teachers who, ostensibly, play their sport for the love of the game.

The other is the most successful, professional and feared rugby team in the history of the game.

But it’s funny how one winning culture emulates another in facilitation of its players.

‘Looking after lads in a holistic sense’


Clare have founded a new golden age of hurling upon youth success, player development and a refreshing brand of hurling, but it’s not just on the pitch that the county has sought to innovate. Gerry O’Connor and Donal Maloney both key lynchpins in this underage, and thus senior success, have looked at developing people as well as players. According to O’Connor, in Fields of Fire, he sought counsel from people like famed boxing coach Billy Walsh, and the message was clear, look after the players away from sport and other elements will fall in to place.

According to O’Connor ‘we see these young lads as more than just a product. We see the guy seeking employment, or not knowing where to go next in his life. Before you look at on field success, you have to look at education and life skills.

Maloney re-iterates the point: ‘when players see you care about their personal lives, they respond. Our approach is to develop young lads both hurling wise, but personality wise too. Then they will buy into a discipline code without even thinking about it’.

Elsewhere in Gaelic Games this personal development and educational model is being put into practise. Cork, who look strong for a crack at this year’s All Ireland, have used a progression model from UCC, where Cork legend Ger Cunningham has instilled a drive for success on and off the pitch into guys like Seamus Harnedy, Alan Cadogan and Conor Lehane.

The ‘academy’ model has also been put into place by a variety of inter county teams, most notably Armagh’s ‘Orchard Academy’ where the focus is both on sporting prowess, but also instilling in all participants a ‘desire for continuous improvement, education, and personal development’.

A county notorious for being at the forefront of training methods and marketing, Armagh have developed a mantra of ‘better players, better people’, perhaps hoping to cultivate their own ‘learning environment’ in a bid to emulate the success of Clare and Cork in hurling.

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High performance educational atmosphere

In ‘Legacy,’ consultant James Kerr examines the structure of the All Blacks camp, with particular reference to the level of responsibility given to the players, and the continual process to  get better. He says ‘leaders design and create an environment which drives the high performance behaviours needed for success. The really clever teams build a culture of learning that drives the behaviours they need‘.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry, quoted above, places a huge emphasis on the holistic side of player welfare, both physical, but also psychological and educational, with the premise that players who are well rounded, always being challenged and always learning will be more motivated and alert.

This is the most successful All Blacks side in history, and the first to win the World Cup, so the environment of learning and self-improvement is seemingly paying off.

A similar scenario has worked for Ireland in recent times. Joe Schmidt has revolutionised team culture with a focus on learning and continual improvement. Brian O’Driscoll has often spoken about how much he values Schmidt’s input on his game, and the fact that players learn something new about themselves every day.


So how does this manifest itself for your business?

Well, if you’re tuned in at all, the answer should be obvious.

If one of the world’s best professional sportsmen can value a learning environment, what could it do for your business, and more importantly, your employees?

Org. architecture

Money is one thing that motivates, but as any good organisational behaviour manual will tell you, or in particular the peak of Maslow’s pyramid, having a positive purpose and development opportunities mean a lot to us too.

Creating a ‘learning environment’, a culture whereby your employees have the opportunity, support and corresponding organisational architecture to grow their skillset could be the difference between keeping a great employee, or losing them to a bigger rival.

Google, the poster company for org. culture, offers a host of free training to its employees, while Zappos almost makes it mandatory that its workers are learning new skills and being educated by other departments.

Specifically, a ‘learning environment’ might be as diverse as giving people access to books, magazines or resources in their area of business, cultivating an atmosphere of shared knowledge (maybe ask a developer to present for 15 minutes on the basics of buildning a website), bringing in speakers from outside to share their story or at the highest level, offering access to and grants for formal education and training.

People will act up to the perception that you project onto them. If that’s one of a subordinate with a limited role in the company, they’ll play that. On the other hand, if it’s an offer of authority, knowledge development and growth, a worker will be motivated to work harder to reach those goals.

Sport and business can learn a lot from one another.

While we in business can’t all be Podge Collins or Dan Carter on the pitch (no matter how much we’d like that!), we can certainly learn a lot from Davy Fitzgerald and Graham Henry, and other great coaching leaders.

For other great sports leadership reads, check out any of the myriad of books on Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi or John Wooden.