Sep 18, 2016
CME Group Leadership Series: Neil de Kock
Sports and business abound with the successes and failures of organizational leaders. In both examples, the importance of motivating groups of people towards a common goal is the lifeblood of prosperity. This is best exemplified in the world of sports by rugby players doing battle at the highest level. Members of the CME Group-sponsored Saracens Rugby Club have provided insights into the characteristics of leaders, from inside the scrum to the front office.
Q: What was your takeaway from playing London Irish last year at Red Bull Arena?
ND: First and foremost, as a player it was exciting to play a game abroad — particularly in America where sports goes hand-in-hand with the culture. Our game is constantly growing, and hopefully will continue to do so in the States — especially with the success of the USA Sevens. It was a hell of an exciting trip for us. First being one of the teams to play in the match, and secondly we wanted to be one of the clubs to bring the game to America.
Q: Does being a leader take on new meaning after winning the Premiership and European championships?
ND: It’s a bit of a different ballgame this year having achieved double success last year. We were always striving to do that, and I suppose the focus now is to figure out what to do to remain there and stay at the top. We’re going to have to work just a little bit harder, which comes down to coaches and players alike. Within the team we have plenty of leadership, and a lot of international players at the moment that are really at the top of their game. It’s a long season — 40 weeks I believe — and it’s so important that the greater squad have a massive influence over how successful we are, because for about one-third of the games throughout the league we miss our internationals, and we need our others guys to step up and fill that void when the time comes.
Q: How does being a team leader on a squad that boasts such a global mix of players present unique challenges?
ND: It’s always a challenge to get everyone singing the same hymn so to speak when you’ve got different cultures throughout the team … people from all over the world. Without getting too long-winded about it, it’s as simple as getting everyone to buy into one idea, one plan — to work as hard as we can together to achieve what we want. Everyone’s got the same ambition. We take this opportunity to become a tight-knit group — a family. We work so hard at that. You become aware of the core values that we hold dear to this team: our work ethic, honesty, discipline and humility. Regardless of where you come from in the world, if you get those things right and you put a good bunch of people together, who work incredibly hard for each other within a magnificent club where you get treated very well, you hopefully go from strength to strength. We try to remain grounded and realize we’re owed nothing. We came off a very successful year, which is going to be even tougher this year to emulate — which we’re quite well aware of.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
ND: I try to incorporate as many people as I can, but not with an iron fist so to speak. I believe that in a group of 30 to 40 players, there is already an incredible amount of leadership, so the last thing you want to do is quash ideas from the people around you. You want to be yourself. A big focus for me is on the younger guys coming through. We call them the Class of 2014-2015. I believe that the incumbents on the club will have us in a good place for a couple of years. It’s those guys that are now 19 years old who in two to three years need to make that big step up and buy into our culture.
Q: Did you have specific role models who helped you become the leader you are today?
ND: Role models inside and outside of rugby have been very important. I’m a very quiet guy and am very close to my family. My old man set a good example for me. Within rugby there were always senior players around me who would set a good example. The way they treat you as peers sets a brilliant example of how to carry yourself, even when times are tough and your backs are against the wall. John Smit — a former South African Springboks captain — was one who played with me here at Saracens that I learned from every single day. And it’s not necessarily just the 80 minutes played on the pitch, but rather every single day in-between those 80 minutes that you see those leadership qualities come through.
Q: Are you involved in the Second Career Program?
ND: Yes I am. I have a role this season to design and develop a leadership program whereby we use the lessons learned through Saracens and sports to translate them into business. We’re doing it through Saracens and a leadership consultancy called Management Futures. They’re going to be assisting and guiding us on this journey. It’s pretty exciting for me; it’s a massive challenge and something new. I’m going to be juggling playing with this new venture. It’s a dip into the real world and something I’m very much looking forward to. It’s something I believe in, in terms of what we’re trying to achieve here at Saracens through the way we train, play and teach each other day in and day out. I think it could be a real value to businesses and organizations.
Q: What specifically do you think leaders in the business world can learn from what happens on the rugby pitch?
ND: Practice what you preach. At Saracens it’s been a big focus for us to live our values and culture, and to be very protective of it. I haven’t worked in the business world, so I can’t speak for a lot of companies, but I do know from the sporting point of view that if you design a culture within a team that you don’t just talk about, but push one another to live those values and pull those back into line who fall out, it puts an organization in a much better place. Everybody is pulling in the same direction, and it’s pretty similar to what you’d like to see in an organization.
Q: Define The Saracens Way.
ND: It’s a privilege to be a part of this club — bringing 100 percent work ethic, discipline and humility and always putting the team first. You bring your part of the bargain, and you’ll be treated unbelievably well. It’s also an organization where we have fun and where we’re continually trying to improve and better each other week in and week out. We’re not satisfied with just going through the motions. That sums it up in a nutshell.