Recently there has been a lot of commentary about the growing divide between AFL clubs in relation to the budget available to spend on their football departments (outside player payments).

In particular, there have been numerous articles about the relationship of the size of the football department and its impact on field performance.

Even the less resourced clubs are experiencing quite rapid growth in terms of the sheer numbers of staff in football. The areas of sports science, medical and rehab, list management and recruiting, development, opposition analysis and IT have ballooned, and this doesn’t include coaches.

On the surface, this bigger is better argument is reasonably sound. If you have enough money in your football budget to attract the best “technical” experts this should provide some sort of competitive advantage. But does it?

This is similar to some of the corporate teams we work with at Leading Teams Australia who are going through a growth phase. You certainly need a clear commitment to the common vision, very clear strategies for growth, and measurable performance indicators for the growing number of staff. Above all you need to ensure that the growing team remains functional. Just collecting together the “best” technical experts is not an iron clad guarantee for success.

So what does functional look like?

In a functional environment, a high level of trust exists. To test this, ask yourselves, is it safe for anyone on the team to say what they think without fear? Can you have a different view and not be isolated? or Is there an environment of superficial harmony and the real conversations take place without the right people present?

Another test of functionality is to determine whether people are clear about their roles. Is there role ambiguity as the numbers grow? If there is confusion, the outcome will be unproductive behaviour, which may include people trying to justify their positions or running around trying to look busy. Either way, this behaviour does not support a functional, high performing team.

Perhaps the ultimate test as to whether you have a functional football department is the extent to which we are able to put egos aside for maximum team performance. This is particularly important among what I call the key centres of influence (COI) in football. It would appear the combination of Frank Costa, Brian Cook, Mark Thompson and Neil Balme must have come close to getting this right at Geelong for a number of years. Of course, as key personnel change, you must apply the same effort with a new team.

If the maintenance of individual egos is more important, then performance will always be adversely affected.

Should teams wish to address the functionality within their football department two steps are pivotal. Firstly, the development and ownership of a clear behavioural framework for the football department. In other words, the non negotiable behaviours we are all prepared to live by while we are a part of the team. This does not have to be a complex document but you do need the centres of influence to have the discipline to drive it.

The second step in developing a functional team is a proactive approach to developing strong, professional relationships. Our definition at Leading Teams of a strong professional relationship is when you can have the uncomfortable conversation with one another without reprisal. In functional teams there is an acceptance that we will sometimes have conflict but we are strong enough to resolve this.

Having worked at the Carlton Football Club for the past two seasons we are pleased to now see some acknowledgment for the in-roads the senior coach, Brett Ratten, has made in this area. He has taken responsibility for driving the development of these strong relationships with both the coaching and playing staff. I feel this has enabled him to understand far more about the motivation of individuals within the team and as a consequence, enabled him to have much more open dialogue with players about their performance and development.

We are sure the rapid growth of football departments has led to the discussion of the relationship between the positions of Senior Assistant Coach, Coaching Director and General Manager of Football Operations. At some clubs there has been a lack of clarity around these roles and where they overlap, especially during their growth phase.

In summary the money helps but there must be strong accountability that the increased spend leads to an improved performance through creating a functional environment characterised by a high level of trust between team members.

Ray McLean

Ray McLean

Ray founded Leading Teams in 1992 after working as a leadership officer with the Air Force. He has published two books, ‘Any Given Team’ and ‘Team Work’. Ray is based in Geelong.
Learn more about Ray.