Gary Kirsten – Protea Coach and Leader – with Q&A

Michael Jordaan, CEO of First National Bank says this of Gary Kirsten, our national cricket coach: “I had a beer with him in India to chat about leadership which turned into a 3.5 hour conversation. We spoke exactly the same language even though we come from such different disciplines.”

Following our conversation I understand this comment. Kirsten is an avid reader and student of leadership, people and ways to get them to achieve their best, which is exactly what he seems to be accomplishing with our current cricketers. He is interested in leadership as according to him quality leadership is that ingredient that “makes a difference to a team, an organisation and a family.”

There have been three vehicles through which he tried to understand leadership. One was through research, by reading many books – leadership, management, business, autobiographies and much more.  The other vehicle was the influence of an executive coach that shadowed him in India, that gave him feedback on a daily basis, resulting in personal growth; and of course he had views of what a great coach is all about from the perspective of being a professional cricketer for seventeen years. The information he acquired from these vehicles are invaluable. However, as Kirsten explains, “I felt I could present this information to the individual in the right way. For me that is one of the qualities of leadership. It’s not about the new information or any intellectual property. It’s how you deliver it.” His personal experience was that the quality of information delivery to him as a player determined to what extent he bought into what his coach said.

Many believe that coaching is eighty percent luck and timing, in terms of the team and talent the coach inherits, and only twenty percent or less is about the skill of the coach. Kirsten agrees. But at that level a great coach with a leadership approach can take a sixty percent team and turn them into an eighty percent team, which is the difference between being the best in the world on a consistent basis and always coming close. We all know that this is exactly the movement that the advent of Kirsten as coach has brought about. How, is the real question, which answer should make any leader out there sit up and take note?

To start with he felt that he could tweak something in the Protea team, “otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he says. He recognises that he inherited a very good, experienced, high performing team, with an experienced Captain. But what contributed to the ten percent tweak? He explains: “In leadership you live your values on a daily basis. A lot of those values will then be infiltrated into the team culture. From a leadership perspective it was a lot about who I was everyday towards those players and the environment. By doing that, was I able to influence the environment in a positive way that would give them the ten percent tweak?” So here is the first secret, and it isn’t rocket science. Kirsten looked at himself first and asked himself the difficult question: “Am I offering everything of myself to set up this environment for success?” It was firstly an intimately personal journey. Once he felt he was moving in the right direction he could authentically pose the same question to every player “to make sure our environment was fool proof”, says Kirsten. This sounds so simple, nevertheless effective, and what a difference such an attitude would make in any organization. In my opinion very few leaders manage to achieve this.

His approach created an environment where players were not playing for any one person but for the group, the team. Kirsten comments: “When you get people playing for each other you have a very powerful force that goes way beyond individual credibility and success. The success will come, but players are playing for a bigger cause.” For him, “if you cannot create that in any team, organisation or group of people I don’t believe you can really lead the people forward.”

Kirsten coachOver and above this when he became the leader of our national team he pulled them together because they and Kirsten knew some tweaking had to be done.  They created their own language or words, together, which in essence meant standards of behaviour or values as we know it. Kirsten saw his job from then on as fairly simple – live the valued standards of behaviour and make sure these find its way into every day conversations with the players. In other words, not a day goes by that he does not refer to or somehow mention the values to players or a player. One example is the word “care” – they care for one another. And now “players hear the word care every single day of their lives” explains Kirsten. But, he realises: “I needed that language that everyone bought into, not my language, their language, their content. And it was my responsibility to deliver the content in the most appropriate way.” He had to add value to this outcome and ensure individuals in the team understood their responsibility in relation to what they want to achieve. He adds: “I am right in there. This is my massive responsibility.”

Very importantly, “if they are showing behaviours that don’t reflect the values then I check in with them, because that’s their words, not my words. I have to check in on the behaviours,” explains Kirsten. He personally is weary of placing the values or words on a wall, “because it is easy to put those words up and then walk away. The words are crucial, but if the words become your organisations language then the behaviours of the people in that team should be a reflection of the words. It has to be lived out by the leaders.”

Adopting these values make it possible for team members to “live in harmony as a group of people, because we have all bought into that system,” says Kirsten. He believes it cannot work in any other way. One set of values is the way! He accepts that over and above this someone can bring their attitude, energy and commitment along to add value.

All the above constitutes most of the ten percent tweak and represents what takes a team to being the world champions; crossing the line and finishing off, or closing the loop on what must be done.

When leaders knew I was sitting down with Kirsten many wanted to know how he united the team; how he managed to get individual egos to become submissive to the team? In summary his model could therefore partially be: First, authenticate yourself – make sure you are on a personal journey of improvement as a leader and person; second, challenge your team members to do the same; third, unite the team around their own language, values, standards of behaviour; fourth, as the leader, live these values to be the example; fifth, import the values and standards into your everyday language; sixth, somehow measure the behaviour; seventh, hold team members accountable when they don’t live the standards.


BRLP: As is always the case for a national coach, being a leader in one’s own home is the most challenging as it has to be done amidst everyday pressures and extensive traveling. How do you balance this?

Kirsten: The toughest component of the work has been absenteeism from home. I have three young kids. Last year I was away from home two hundred and fifty days of the year. So it does not bode well for a fully functional family environment. It has been a massive challenge and continues to be so. At this stage I haven’t found the formula that allows me to be successful at both.

BRLP: Someone wondered why you accepted a job where you will be fired in four years. Seriously, being a coach is a career that is exceptionally unsure.

Kirsten: There is no long term plan, because it is so results orientated. You sign a contract for two years, or whatever and that could be it. I manage this by not focusing on trophies, even though I am measured by it and accept it and the responsibility that comes with that. I rather focus on leading people and helping them be the best they can be, and creating an environment for people to be as successful as they can be. If that brings trophies and success then I am grateful for that.

BRLP: Do you look for more in players, other than the obvious talent and certain skills?

Kirsten:  Yes I do. But we are somewhat restricted as resources are limited. We only have certain very talented players around. So, it is not as if I can say I have five guys from which to pick for one position, who are highly talented and can make it at international level, and I can now pick the one that fits into the team value system, culture. That’s what I would love to be doing. Sometimes we don’t have five but two or one. So you have to take that individual and work with him; try to get the best out of him; make sure your critical mass in your team is up in such a way that the majority of the individuals buy into the team value system and what it stands for. In any team one is going to have mavericks that feel it is their show because they are the high performer who believes the team needs them.

BRLP: How do you handle that?

Kirsten: They can be very destructive. In my limited experience there are two ways of dealing with it. You have to get that guy on your side or you have to try and create an environment where your senior players get him on side, because it might not always be able to be you. Ultimately you don’t necessarily need the player completely on side. You just have to have him not be destructive, or the cancer in the team. If he starts trying to win people over or lobbying people over to a way of doing things then you are in trouble. If he keeps to himself, pretty quiet, performs well, doesn’t get involved too much, not destructive, critical mass is up and don’t really need him in a leadership position, his accepting enough of the culture, I can work with such a guy.

BRLP: What is it like traveling the world with these youngsters, who are on another wave length as you, at a different phase of their lives?

Kirsten: I certainly wouldn’t want to be in any space where I am with the perfect set of people. I don’t coach or teach because of that. I actually want to be in the space where I am with a lot of very different people, because then you can influence and have a positive influence on people’s lives. I don’t want to be in a comfort zone. I am in the people game. I don’t view my players as performance tools that must leave their ‘stuff’ at home. They are human beings with issues, and it’s my responsibility to make them tick the best way I can.

BRLP: One would think a national coach should preferably be from the same country so as to feel an allegiance towards country, yet you transcended this principle in India. How did you do that?

Kirsten: Whatever team, organization or group, you have to understand that environment you are going into; what you need to do; how you need to shift as an individual; not how the people around you need to shift. So I need to understand that space. Then ask: “Within my leadership philosophies, what do I need to do, say or be to these individuals, based on who they are as people?” That was an incredible learning experience for me in India and SA, two very different cultures. I felt that the needs and requirements for the SA team were very different to the requirements of the Indian team, within who I am as a person and my coaching philosophies. I ended up leading very differently.

BRLP: Summarize your leadership philosophy?

Kirsten: What can I do in my personal capacity, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, within my power, as an individual, to positively influence a group of individuals to create an environment where people are happy and enjoy what they are doing and thrive, are highly successful?

BRLP: You seem to be calm under pressure. How do you do that?

Kirsten: I think I hide it. I think we always feel it. What is important for me is when you become a person of influence, as a leader, people are looking at you; they watch you; follow your lead. So if you have poor body language and panic in it, yet you are an inspirational leader to people, by definition you are going to make your subjects panic as well, because you are inspiring as a leader. So if you have high intensity, panic, or whatever, I think it is going to affect your players. But there is also an upside in that when you show great intensity that will come through into the team. I have always gone for the theory of just remaining neutral. The downside is that people criticize you for not caring enough. I’ll take that hit. At the end of the day my influence is what happens behind closed doors.

BRLP: Favorite leadership books?

Kirsten: Jim Collins – Good to Great; Pep Guardiola’s – Another Way of Winning; Bill Welch – The Score Takes Care of Itself: My philosophy on leadership

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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