with greg layton

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In this episode, we meet Neil Craig, AFL Coach and England Rugby High Performance Manager.

Neil is best known as being a former Australian rules footballer and as the Head Coach of the Adelaide Crows Football Club.

His other stints in the AFL have included being the fitness adviser at the Crows, and having various coaching roles at the Melbourne Demons, Essendon Bombers and Carlton Blues.

Since 2017, he has been England Rugby’s High Performance Manager under the head coach Eddie Jones.

In this episode we talk about:

  • What a high performance environment is and how to create one;
  • Why knowing your North Star – your purpose and values – is critical to success;
  • How to make complex decisions under pressure; and
  • Why leadership is not about you, but all about you.

Connecting with Neil Craig

You can reach Neil on LinkedIn.

Thanks to Peter Knight for recommending Neil.

On why he has been successful

  • I think, firstly it's a passion for me. It's something I really get a lot of enjoyment out of. I don't see it as a job.
  • Secondly, athletes don't get to that level without being highly motivated, and they have a very clear picture of what they want to do. So as their coach, you have this capacity to enable people, or you help them to be the best they can possibly be. I get great satisfaction out of that and also when someone comes and asks me for help. “Help” is a pretty powerful word…”Can you help me?”
  • I also appreciate that there is this higher purpose of what sport does for people or can give to people. It is unbelievable.

On what a high performance environment is

  • A functional high performance environment is really uncomfortable because of the daily feedback that you get as an athlete, coach or staff member. This is because of the high standards set on a daily basis that you have to meet.
  • A high performance environment is not for everyone. I often say that to athletes that this may not be for them and that's okay. The best high performance environments I've been in are not for everyone and they're very clear in their mind that they don't want to make it for everyone.
  • Once an athlete knows his or her why, that's really important because once the why's embedded it gives them the energy and the resilience they need to handle the environment. There's a lot of tough times, ‘cos you don't win all the time, and you do get injured, and you do miss out on selection and you do get criticised in the public arena, and you do have contractual negotiations and you are away from your family for long periods of time, and it can be lonely, you don't get along with everyone in the environment. If I just painted the picture for you what it looks like, you might say that's not for me. But there are so many good things as well. That's why your why gives you the energy, perseverance and resilience and is so important to know it.

On his role with England Rugby

  • First and foremost it's to be what I call a critical friend to the head coach, a guy called Eddie Jones, who coached the Wallabies back in the early 2000s. It's a lonely position and because of the nature of the chair that you sit in, it's very rare in actual fact for people to give you feedback because of the power of the chair.
  • I also do a lot of work with the senior leadership group, which I really enjoy.
  • The third part of my role is to coach the coaches. We spend all this time and resources in coaching the players when in actual fact, the people who have the biggest influence on players are the coaches. Who's giving them feedback every day?
  • I do a small bit of technical coaching in terms of the high ball, which is critical in AFL.
  • And finally, there’s ensuring collaboration between all the different departments of a high performance environment. You've got a coaching department, an analytics department, logistics, sports science, strength and conditioning, medical etc. So you can just imagine the capacity for all those to collaborate, communicate, be on the same page; it doesn't always run smoothly. I, therefore, spend some time trying to maximise the working capacity of all those different environments.

On building a high performance culture

  • This is done via a series of questions. Firstly, I want people to understand why their company or club existed . This is the higher purpose about why and why it is important. Is an English national rugby team important to England? If the answer is yes, then why is it important?
  • Then, with the head coach or CEO, I’d ask where they want to take this team or organisation. What does that look like? In reality, they are a provider of hope to create something different and better in the future.
  • The last question I would ask is when they will know they have achieved success. In sport, you'll know when the scoreboard shows you have won. But what will winning look like internally without the scoreboard? How will you know that you're progressing and when will you know that you've arrived in those areas you’re measuring?

On having mentors

  • Mentors are really important, if for no other reason that they would ask you questions about why you think that way, what you think about certain things, and why you’ve made that specific decision. In actual fact, rarely do they give me their opinion; it's more about them asking me questions.
  • I find that mentors just keep you balanced in your thinking and try and keep the emotion out of it because the capacity to be able to lead under adversity is a really important concept.

On decision-making in high performance environments

  • It’s important to know “what's important now” and also know “what's important in the future” as to where we're going because you've got to weigh that up sometimes.
  • As a senior coach or as a leader, you have to have calmness in your thinking and maintain stress levels at a good level, because they're complex decisions that you've got to make and think through. You've got to know what the critical information is in order to make what I call “the right decision.”
  • It's more often than not the most difficult one to make because you get faced with different options. You’ve got the most popular decision, the safe decision, the best political decision. Very rarely are those all associated with what's the right decision, so you need to be very clear as a leader that this gets back to your philosophies and why as a leader.

On having a coaching philosophy aka North Star

  • You've got to be really clear on your philosophy and you need to know what you value. It’s also your capacity to not be black and white because there's never a perfect answer. There's case studies everywhere. There's the rugby union one at the moment with Israel Folau. It's not a black and white decision; some people think it is, but it's not.
  • Your values and your philosophy about why you do things do change over time, but they become your guiding principles, your North Star if you like. If you haven't got a well thought-out ingrained philosophy, it will be reflective of your decision-making. You'll be wishy washy. You'll actually make a decision based on the last person you spoke to.

On why leadership is not about you, but it's all about you

  • It's not about you because there's an understanding that to get a performance, you can't create that performance as you don’t do the hands-on work.
  • So you need to select good people, train those people, retain and develop those people so they don't want to leave our organisation. And why would you train these people if they want to leave? Well, why would you want to keep them if you don't train them?
  • But it is all about you because you have to create an environment where these people actually want to do the work, they're enthused to do the work and they share ideas, they collaborate and they bounce out of bed in the morning, and they want to come into this environment.

On other lessons from his coaching journey

  • Be very careful of the spoken word because once it comes out of your mouth, you can't grab it and bring it back in again. Verbal communication is really the only tool we have as coaches to have an effect, so be very careful or be aware of the words you're using. Words can be so positive and yet in a lot of ways they can be so negative and have an effect on you.
  • I'm a great believer that success leaves clues. Go and look at the serial successful companies who have stood the test of time, because they have jumped all the hurdles and they've been able to continue to perform for long periods of time.

On a routine that is working for him

  • I try and get up at about 5.30am and come down to my study and I spend about half an hour preparing for the day. I do some journaling, write down some key things I've got to do today, note down what my overall aims for the day are. One might say that I continually recalibrate my thinking to make it world-class.

Books and resources mentioned in the episode