With all the hype surrounding the possibility of Jordan Speith pulling off a Grand Slam of major wins, my mind turns to the comparisons of individual sporting success versus competing as a team. Keen golf enthusiasts will remember the last Ryder Cup in 2014, when, for the sixth time in seven competitions, the United States lost to Europe. This is a significant turnaround for the European team, which, between 1935 and 1985, only won the Ryder Cup once. Additionally, the aftermath of the latest Ryder Cup battle has seen the European captain Paul McGinley being praised whilst the US captain Tom Watson received a lot of criticism even from his own players.
After the defeat in 2014, when asked “what had worked in 2008 (when Paul Azinger captained the USA team) and what hasn’t worked since?”, USA team member, Phil Mickelson, openly criticised Watson’s leadership skills by praising the last winning Captain, saying that “Azinger got everybody invested in the process: who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod. He had a real game plan; how we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well: we had a real game plan. We use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”
Golf is usually an individual affair and playing in a team sees completely different dynamics on the course – players are no longer in competition, but playing together towards a team victory. The same applies to successful business leaders who have their individual agenda, however when coming together with their peers in the boardroom they unite to deliver joint results. The characteristics of high performance team-working apply to the C-suite as well as Ryder Cup teams. As has been well documented, the parallels are endless. A good Ryder Cup team can be transformed into high performing team by adopting these following leadership characteristics:
1. Discussing and building commitment to a common vision and purpose
There is a significant difference between a close-knit team that drives towards a clear vision or purpose and a group of individuals that happen to play together. By the very nature of the tournament, the teams who play in the Ryder Cup consist of individuals who are ranked as top performers and being part of the Ryder Cup team represents a pinnacle of their individual golfing careers. It is then the Captain’s role to shift their mindset from individual to team performers with a common vision.
2. Establish clearly defined goals and review expectations
The goal is clear – to win. As with business, in order to achieve the goal it is essential to review progress throughout the process. As the Ryder Cup lasts for three days, expectations need to be reviewed based on daily results and acted up on accordingly. For example, if at the end of day one the score line is 6-2, the losing team may need to revise their strategy for the next day to recover the situation.
3. Share information in ways that directly adds value to the team effort
Team members learn about the competitive environment and conditions by experiencing them. After each match, the Captain needs to involve each individual, asking them to share their feedback on how they are feeling about their own performance. Sharing their experience and knowledge openly results in expanding views and revealing new facts which can have direct impact on other players. In 2004, exhausted after the first day and having lost in the morning of day two, Europe’s star performer, Colin Montgomerie, famously asked his Captain, Bernhard Langer, to leave him out that afternoon for the overall good of the team. In doing so he ended his own personal record of successive appearances in Ryder Cup matches. Self-sacrifice was made to benefit the team. Sharing information about how they are feeling and what support they require allows the Captain to react and adjust the game strategy accordingly.
4. Set high standards of performance for themselves and follow through
The Ryder Cup is a prestigious event and high standards of performance are essential throughout the tournament. In any given Ryder Cup, players and Captains look back at historical results and strive to take their team’s performance to the next level. With the quality of performance so high in years gone by, the competition presents a new level of challenge, providing the opportunity for players to inspire themselves as well as their team members. This is the highlight of their careers and they are naturally driven to perform at a level that will make their mark in the history books.
5. Review complimentary skills and utilise them effectively as well as understand their weaknesses and how to minimise their impact on team performance
Team performance is obviously strongly dependent on the playing form of its individual team members on that given day. Knowing how to utilise your strengths and minimise weaknesses provides a competitive advantage in the game. For the first 2 days of the Ryder Cup competition, players are paired so they complement each other’s skills in an attempt to maximise the overall effectiveness of the broader team. If a key team member’s form is poor, the Captain may need to adjust his strategy to ensure that the overall team is not impacted.
6. Hold themselves mutually accountable for the successes and failures of the team against agreed goals
When playing as an individual, one poor shot can negatively impact the performance on that hole and even the entire round. This is exacerbated during the Foursomes part of the Ryder Cup, when teammates share one ball and take alternate shots. Success or failure of one player directly impacts the other player. Therefore it is crucial to embed a culture of mutual accountability with a no-blame mindset and to adapt quickly. Being mutually accountable and able to recover quickly even under pressure helps the team to correct their thinking and return to a positive mentality. It is one for all and all for one when it comes to teamwork – sharing success and failure (instead of a culture of blame of other team members…or even the Captain, as demonstrated by Mickelson) is the attitude that creates a culture of engagement and drives performance.
7. Manage team morale and create a motivational climate
Morale and motivation is a key element in team golf – often when under pressure it is not about the technical skills but the mindset of the players that determines success. For a team it is crucial to create a connection between players and it is the Captain’s role to gel the individuals into one unit. Naturally the mindset of the individual will impact the overall team morale and it is therefore essential that players receive the support and encouragement to feel and perform their best; as it is equally important to focus on developing and driving a team climate. As an extension to this thinking, a supporting network can add to this motivational environment.
The 2004 European Ryder Cup team, and its captain, Bernhard Langer, took unprecedented action to build morale and create a motivational climate. Assisted by US sensitivity to excessively patriotic behaviour, Langer instructed his players to be as friendly to the US spectators as they could. From the practice days onwards, the team talked, joked, and laughed with the fans; they presented balls, gloves and hats. In contrast, Team USA remained distant, aloof and disengaged. As a result, the gallery provided only muted support for the home team and gave unexpected support to the visitors. Through its efforts, Team Europe achieved a public relations triumph and Team USA lost the battle for popular support. This proved decisive. Instead of being put under the immense psychological pressure that results from competing on enemy territory with a partisan home crowd, the Europeans gained psychological space and emotional stability.
8. Regularly identify and discuss ways of improving the way they do things
A team’s ability to improve is determined by reflecting on past performance via a collaborative process between the players, captain and others. Coaching throughout the build-up and the tournament itself has significant impact on the entire team dynamic. Just as in the boardroom, it is essential for the captain to respond quickly to poor performance and a constantly changing competitive environment during the event. Each captain will want to out-perform his predecessors, to leave a legacy; therefore a spirit of continuous improvement is at the heart of the team effort.
9. Use opportunities to build collaborative and cooperative relationships
The team climate is determined by its leader. It is the captain’s role to build a collaborative environment between players and build cooperative relationships that drives team performance. The captain also has his own small army of non-playing advisors, comprising of vice-captains, sports psychologists and other support staff to help to build this culture whilst the individual players act as technical experts to execute the strategy – and it is the combination of the two that creates a winning team.
10. Manage inter-personal interactions within the team in appropriate ways
It only takes one bad egg to negatively impact the entire team – Tiger Woods’ brilliance over the past two decades as an individual performer has arguably not translated into positive team performance. His performances over the years in the Ryder Cup have been ‘patchy’ at best. His behaviour on the golf course has on occasion not reflected the traditional spirit of the game’s history, where etiquette is paramount. This behaviour is detected by his team-mates, creating tension. Similarly, Mickelson has been reported to have practiced on his own in preparation for a Foursomes match, rather than in a pairing. Players who are not being team players and take an individual approach will have negative impact on team performance and that’s why it’s so important to make sure that the team members get along with each other, are motivated and driven to win – not as individuals but as a team.
Business leaders should remember that a high performing team is greater than the sum of its individual players. Teams with the best individual players don’t always win. More important is to create a climate where individuals work together towards joint success, thereby having a positive impact on performance. I wish Jordan Speith all the very best for the rest of 2015, but the bigger challenge will come when the European and USA teams next meet to compete for the coveted Ryder Cup at the Hazeltine National Golf Club, Chaska, Minnesota in 2016.