Business Lessons from the AFL

If there’s one phrase I never want to hear again it’s “we’ll have to performance manage them out”.

You’ll be familiar with the situation.

It’s been decided that a certain employee has to go because their performance [their value add to the business] no longer justifies their ongoing employment with the business.

Usually it’s actually been the case for an extended period – they’re a zombie employee, the living dead.

The default position seems to be “Can we make them redundant ?”. That seems to be the preferred way out. A quick execution – nobody’s fault – shit happens.

If not – then “we’ll have to performance manage them out” which is code for – maybe after years of letting you work in the organisation with little guidance or clarity on what we actually wanted, with very little constructive effort, coaching and mentoring,  suddenly we are going to micro manage you and make your life so difficult that you will resign.


It gets worse – often these people have been receiving annual pay rises and promotions that results in them getting paid way beyond their ability to add value. So – why wouldn’t they think that they were doing at least an OK job ?

Often the Manager is angry at the “failed” employee. “They don’t get it”.

Not often enough has the management team got the self-awareness to recognise that they over-promoted someone or got the “job-design” wrong or paid little attention to the team dynamic.

It’s not you, it’s me. Similar mistakes made over and over again.

The cost of years and years of under-performance conveniently blamed on Australia’s HR laws.

We need to thank (and pay attention to ) Grace Collier.

Her brilliant weekly columns in the Australian should be compulsory reading for every Australian Manager, Business Owner, Politician, Employee, Policy designer and Union Official.

She correctly points out :

  • that for every corrupt Union Official there is a complicit boss,
  • the appallingly “slack” design of most EBA’s (including hard-wired contributions to union run insurance schemes) and
  • “copy and paste” contractual arrangements – where the sub-contractors must “copy and paste” the same employment terms and conditions of head-contractors. (common in construction).

Many Australian Managers are hiding behind a poor understanding of our legal  HR framework.

It’s someone else’s fault.

The net effect ?

Performance is down, costs are up and the “cosy” arrangements between big business and the unions pushes a flexible, efficient small business sector out of the game.

We could surely improve our Industrial Relations framework but that is no excuse for not getting the best result within existing arrangements.

What’s a model for doing it better ?

One of the best I can think of is The Australian Football League, the AFL.

OK – so it’s a bit different – but there’s a lot that’s the same.

It’s become very professional and very competitive in the last 15 years.

Looking at each element:

A vision for success

Clearly the flag ! [the Grand Final, the Cup, the Premiership]

Well to be frank – it’s more like – winning the flag every year.

So one flag becomes the North Pole whilst a flag every year is the North Star.

Sustainable, repeatable success is the long term Purpose.

Success is measured by the season and by a group of seasons.

But every coach has a slightly different vision of a winning strategy and the team that will be able to implement that strategy. And the game continually changes, continually evolves.

Skill in pulling it all together is important but luck plays a part. The luck of the draw, the weather, injuries, bounce of the ball, umpires decisions etc.

Team Rules & Leadership

A team needs team rules.

What does everyone agree to be bound by ?

To hold each other accountable to for mutual success ?

By early 2007 the Geelong Football Club had been under-performing for some years.

Tom Harley was appointed Captain, a decision that surprised some outsiders.

The team decided that they needed to be serious if they were to challenge for a premiership.

They decided as a group that one of their team rules was not to consume alcohol inappropriately

Early in the season serial offender Steve Johnson broke that rule. The leadership group (players), lead by Harley, decided on a 5 match penalty. Club executive endorsed the decision.

To everyone’s credit Johnson knuckled down and ended the season as an All-Australian and Norm Smith winner – and the Club won the Premiership, their first for 44 years.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of that suspension decision.

Importantly it was the players holding this bloke to account after they had all “opted in” to rules designed to help them achieve high performance.

It could have ended differently. Johnson may have “thrown his toys out of the pram” and moved on. But that would also have been the “right” outcome.

You either play by the team rules or you find a new team. And a team that doesn’t apply consequences to its rules – has no rules.

How many workplaces have clear team rules and apply the consequences consistently and fairly ? No rules or “flexible rules’ might help you win a few more games in the short term but what are the long term consequences ?

Do the Leaders look people in the eye and have the honest conversations, make the required decisions ? Too often the little moments of truth are let slip.

No consequences, no change.

Real leaders never let a crisis pass without using it to good effect.

Getting the right team – List Management

Most AFL Players have a career of maybe 10 years at the top level. A handful get longer.

Injuries and poor form cut short the careers of many others.

Every year there are changes – young players coming up , older players going. Increasingly players traded to other Clubs.

Occasionally there are “Moneyball” like selections of older players from non-traditional pathways. Take a bow Michael Barlow, James Podsiadly.

Players peak usually when they are physically mature and have maybe 100 games experience.

So whilst there are some reasonably definable parameters, there’s also a bunch of unknowns.

Another key factor is the Salary Cap – Clubs must juggle rewards amongst players to keep within the Cap.

It is no mean feat to manage all of those parameters to consistently have a quality playing list.

Recruitment, development, managing sudden departures (through injury), form slumps, impact of personal lives, trading, voluntary and forced retirements.

This is a complicated business. The AFL teams have specialist recruiters and list managers. Someone who gets up every morning and thinks about where they can find great new talent and secure it at the right price (or right draft pick).

Someone else who gets up every morning and thinks both strategically and tactically about the building and developing the playing list.

Clearly the Club CEO and the Senior Coach have a critical interest in all of this but they are busy people with lots of things to think about. They cannot get up every morning and think principally about recruitment and list management.

There is a lot of sophistication about this.

Here’s an example of factors that are considered in player recruitment. Thanks JT.

AFL Talent Map


Source : John Turnbull


What’s your version of this ?

Why do they put so much effort into it ?

Well it’s highly competitive, these people are highly paid and the costs of getting it wrong are high.

Actually – doesn’t that sound like most businesses ?

Why do we consider HR a compliance function ?

What is the cost of our failure to put enough resource and sophistication into recruitment and list management ?

Why is the average AFL team so good at it and the average business so bad ?

Can’t afford all of this you say.

But have you really bothered to understand what your sustainable high performance dividend might be in terms of profit, growth, survival ?

I’m pretty sure that you could justify a greater performance on this stuff.

Why did Richard Branson participate in the final selection of the initial flight crew of the airline Virgin Australia ?

Because it was so important – these people were the living, breathing face of the new business – how critical is that ?

[Actually I can think of another reason why Branson might have got involved but that’s a whole different topic.]


And when you are defining what you mean by “great talent”  – separate what is inherent and what is relatively easy to train for.


Starbucks recruits people who smile naturally and easily and teaches them how to make coffee.

What’s your version of that ?

Coaching & training

The AFL teams take training seriously.

Training is not optional – try skipping a session.

They train for various scenarios.

Alastair Clarkson (coach of Hawthorn) travels overseas every year looking at innovation in coaching within other sports.

He experiments in the pre-season. Much of it doesn’t translate but some of it sticks.

You don’t know until you try. He’s prepared to fail to improve. He’s not going to die wondering.

He apparently learned about the importance of training for “close finishes” from NBL. So Hawthorn developed a playbook for and trained for “close finish” scenarios.

Happens fairly often so it makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

One or two improved results in “close finishes” per season could be the difference between winning a Grand Final and finishing ninth.

Understanding team objectives, team strategy (strategic scenarios)  and individual roles

I wish that I had a dollar for every time someone says I don’t actually understand what we are trying to do.

So – be clear about what the objectives are.

What does “success” look like, sound like, smell like, feel like ?

Define “success” at a point in time or several points in time.

Describe it, talk it through.

What are the various scenarios (plays) that we might need to deal with ?

What could possibly unfold ?

And what is each person’s role within the team and each scenario.

I’ve often heard said about Ross Lyon (Fremantle Coach) that the reason that he is so good is that each player has a deep understanding of their role, they know exactly what is expected of them.

Could the players on your team say the same ?

Performance Measurement & Management

Stats, Stats and more Stats.

Again to reference Alastair Clarkson.

You’d think that this bloke could intuitively recognise talent and make performance judgements.

Well I was surprised to learn that Clarkson spends 8 hours “coding” the video of each game to create a “tagged” timeline that has multiple purposes and can be watched in different ways, customised for each player or groups of players.

Each snippet of the game can be reviewed, individually and in bundles. Did a player make the right strategic decision ? Did they make the right tactical decision ? Did they make skill errors ? What was their “off the ball” work like ?

He then spends 3 hours with other coaches to swap notes etc.

I learned this from the great documentary about AFL coaches – The Chosen Few.

It’s worth watching the whole thing but the points I referenced above can be seen in the 3 minutes from 1:01:40

The Chosen Few (Life of an AFL Coach). from Peter Dickson on Vimeo.


Interestingly Mick Malthouse didn’t feel the need to code.

So – what is Clarkson doing here ?

It’s a deep analysis of individual and team performance.

They provide deep feedback to players and they keep learning how to improve their coaching and training.

The customised training regime for a player can continuously be tweaked and refined.

This is a deep, continuous feedback loop. What did we learn, how can we do it better ?

What is your version of this ?

Compare this deep, continuous learning to an annual “half arsed” Performance Appraisal that more often than not is seen as a compliance “chore” if it happens at all.

This is a massive lost opportunity.

Why isn’t “performance” a continuous, constructive conversation ?

We need to measure “output” – can you even define the “outputs” by which you might measure employee performance ?

In the coming years we will see many big data solutions to better understand an employee’s  output and new contracting offers so that we can pay based on outputs.

Paying for hours worked is paying for an input – what are the required outputs or results ?

The world wants to pay for outputs not inputs.

Deconstructing High Performance

Reflect on your highest performers.

How much better are they than average ?

How much more customer and business value do they create ?

How much more opportunity do they create for your business to grow ?

However you define it – how much better than average is their output ?

Do they coach and mentor others ?

Do they help build greater team capability ?

Are they less “trouble” ?

I bet you have under-performers who in some way drain your energy – they are “Energy Vampires” – draining energy from you and your team.

Like Clarkson you need to de-construct high performance.

Why are the top performers, top performers ?

What is it that they actually do differently ?

Is it skill, energy, attitude, decision making ?

Are all of your high performers high performers for the same reason ?

I doubt it? There’s an angel in this detail.


In AFL the required standard is well known and the consequences of under performance are well known.

You get dropped, your contract is not renewed or is shorter than you want.

You get paid less. Your career ends.

And doesn’t having a highly rated and deep “pool of Reserves” enable you to demand more of the Senior Players – if they knew that they could (and would) be replaced?

A new soldier to replace a fallen soldier.

It is much easier to “drop” a previous high performer if you have a rich vein of replacements.

Talented but “difficult”

I call this the Brendan Fevola problem.

Despite their individual talent they do not fit within a team pattern of play.

A champion team beats a team of champions.

Too many businesses have a Brendan Fevola or two.

If you don’t understand the problem – try and get hold of Michael Voss to discuss.

Do everyone a favour and set them free – or better yet identify them and avoid them like the plague at recruitment.

Talented but “don’t fit”

This happens regularly.

A player who is clearly “good” and maybe used to “fit” just doesn’t fit anymore.

Maybe there’s a new coach with a new plan or maybe the team dynamic has changed even subtly.

Or maybe one or more parties has lost Trust or Confidence in the other.

They’re still a good player, they’re not disruptive but for reasons that are often hard to define they “don’t fit” any more.

More often than not they perform well in a new team, in new surroundings with a new coach.

Bernie Vince , ex Crow, now Demon would probably fall into this category.

You are doing everyone a favour to set them free to flourish a new environment.

But treat them with respect – help them transition to a new environment.


Brutally honest conversations (with empathy).

It’s time for Australian Managers to become more self aware about HR.

You need to stop blaming your employees for everything.

As I once said to a mate complaining about his ex-wife.

“Well, you picked her”.

We need to be having more brutally honest conversations about where we want to go, what we need from the team and each member.

In many cases we have been so slack for so long it’s hard to start.

But start we must because this issue is not going away.

We need to get very clear on what constitutes minimum acceptable performance and we need to give very clear feedback.


So often I hear people who complain about Australia’s HR framework but they haven’t even issued written performance warnings that are the required process for their existing system.

The “written warning” seems to be the objective, rather than just the hard-copy summary of the overdue brutally honest conversation. Be brutally honest but always be empathetic and respectful.


I often hear – “we need to be really careful so we don’t get a wrongful dismissal lawsuit”.

At those moments the words of Malcolm Gladwell from his book Blink ring in my ears.

Gladwell examined the reasons why doctors get sued for medical malpractice – for making medical mistakes.

“The overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. Patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care  – and something else happens to them.”

Gladwell, in fact, tells us:

“What comes up again and again in malpractice cases is that patients say they were rushed or ignored or treated poorly.”

So, maybe I’m misguided but my usual advice is focus on the right business decision and  doing the “right thing” by the affected employee.

Doing the right thing means treating them as you would like to be treated or as you would like your son or daughter to be treated, your mum or dad to be treated.

Acknowledge your role in why things are at this point. The mistakes that you have made in their recruitment, the design of their role, communicating what was needed, training & mentoring them.

Be brutally honest with yourself and with them.

Figure out where your moral line in the sand is.

If appropriate pay an ex gratia amount – because it is fair and the right thing to do.

If it isn’t don’t – but just be honest and be fair.

Treat them with respect – in most cases the failure is with you, not them. Own that failure and learn from it.

Learn from both Geelong and Hawthorn and the way that they treated players who were at the end of their careers.

Many of those players wanted to keep playing. They were loyal servants, legends, still playing well. Those Hawthorn players were good enough to play in a Premiership Team for God’s sake.

Do you think that these were easy decisions? Of course they weren’t.

Maybe those players could have performed well for another year. The easy decision would have been to give them another year.

These are hard decisions – made with imperfect information in a volatile environment.

They are judgement calls.

The interesting thing was how the players reacted. Things might have been slightly different in private. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, so I can only judge from a distance.

But from what I observe – hat’s off to all involved. What’s happening here ? From a player’s perspective – someone who you respect and trust is giving you some brutally honest but unpalatable news.

You might not like it but you understand it. You’ve seen it happen before and you understand the organisational framework for it.

But even during this process – you are treated fairly, you are treated with respect. It’s not personal – it’s the business reality.

Stevie J will always be loved and respected at Geelong. He will always be welcome at Geelong. There’s a fair chance he’ll kick a bag of goals for GWS this year. He’ll probably have a huge, positive impact on the playing group.

Will that mean that the decision to end his career at Geelong was a bad one ?

Absolutely not. That’s high performing HR right there.

GWS is a different club with different needs at this point in time.

I’ve seen business who have made up their mind about an employee – they are the “living dead” BUT nobody will deal with it for fear of the tough conversation and the fear of an unfair dismissal claim or the cost of a fair ex gratia payment.

Instead they bitch and moan (doing nothing) or they start the process of “performance managing them out”.

Meanwhile many team members are unhappy, energy that could be devoted to growing or improving the business is drained. Everybody can see the managemnt failing, the public humiliation.

They incur the ongoing cost of the under-performance but it’s hidden, swept under the corporate mat but I can almost guarantee that this “cost” will exceed the cost of making and implementing the right decision.

Learn from Gladwell’s insight into medical practice lawsuits – you will probably get sued if you rush, ignore or treat people poorly.

Be honest and treat them fairly and with respect and odds are you won’t get a wrongful dismissal claim.

But – also learn from the AFL.

Create a vision of a high-performing team, filled with high performing team members who know what they are trying to achieve. They understand the strategies and they can make appropriate tactical decisions. They have the skills that matter.

They get quality coaching and training and regular, honest appraisal and feedback.

They know how they will be assessed, they know what the minimum performance standards are and they understand the consequences.

They know that there is a pool of quality people who want their spot.

This is all transparent and accepted.

They opt-in to team rules and hold each other accountable.

It is very competitive and the competition forces everyone to get better.

Their journey never ends.


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