Last Saturday the Geelong Cats crushed reigning AFL premiers Collingwood to win their third premiership in the past six years and stake their claim as one of the best sides in AFL/VFL history. Geelong’s dominance in recent years is remarkable of itself given that the AFL is designed to share success around through mechanisms of equalisation such as the player draft and salary cap. Yet it must be remembered that Geelong is no ordinary football club - their 2007 premiership win came on the back of finishing tenth in 2006, broke a 44 season premiership drought, and as recently as the late 1990s the club was on the brink of bankruptcy. By the club’s own admission, Geelong was very good at being average.
The turnaround at the Geelong Football Club was led by Chief Executive Officer Brian Cook and President Frank Costa. Costa and Cook applied organisational development (OD) models and techniques, many of which had rarely been seen in the football industry, in a bid to improve the flagging fortunes of the club.
The seeds of success were first planted in 2006 when Geelong’s players all participated in a peer evaluation process. It was reported that key players Cameron Mooney and Gary Ablett Jr both received particularly hard hitting feedback from their peers as part of the process; Mooney regarding the need to improve his discipline and Ablett in relation to his lack of training intensity and poor conditioning. At the conclusion of the evaluations clear performance and behavioural expectations were outlined and a culture of feedback was well on its way to becoming entrenched at the club.
After winning the premiership in emphatic fashion in 2007, thumping the hapless Port Adelaide side by a record margin, Cook was not yet satisfied with what the club had achieved – there was much unfinished business. So in 2008 Cook, inspired by the work of Jim Collins, led the development of Geelong Football Club’s strategic plan Good to Great by 2013 (G2G).
G2G was pivotal in creating a clear and unified direction for the club and in driving planning, decision-making and performance at Geelong FC. It defined Geelong’s mission as being “To win more premierships than any other club, while being consistently recognised as the best all-round club and admired for our strong values”. The notion of best all-round club goes well beyond just winning premierships and extends to contributing to the community, satisfying members etc.
The strong values for which Geelong aspired to be admired are ‘respect’, ‘precision’, ‘adventurous’, ‘conviction’, 'unity’ and ‘commercial but considered’. For each value there is a list of behaviours which demonstrate living the value. Some are fundamental such as “Being punctual every time is a basic foundation for respect” while others make a statement such as “Those who demonstrate the capability and commitment to the club’s values are welcome – those that don’t are challenged”. Cook has stated that he believes that driving values through an organisation provides a competitive advantage – Geelong’s premiership successes provide strong anecdotal support for that claim.
G2G also articulated very clear and measurable key performance indicators (or targets) to be achieved. One KPI to warm the heart of any OD professional is “Strengthen the Club’s constructive culture each year between 2010-2013 (all measures to be 75%+ by 2013)”. Yes, a football club is using culture assessment tools to assess their current culture and identify the gap compared with their desired culture. Cook has spoken about how the insights from the tools have helped him make positive changes to his own behaviours as a club leader.
The detail associated with the KPIs shows that Geelong was focusing on excellence in recruitment and selection, player retention, succession planning, talent management and player development. The drive and focus in these areas undoubtedly contributed to Geelong’s era of success, as the Geelong pipeline seemed to produce more top line players than any other club. As senior players retired, new players replaced them and immediately performed. ‘Rebuilding’ is not a word in the Geelong vocabulary.
Accountability was a driver of success at Geelong. However, Cook knew that telling people they are accountable for an outcome simply isn’t enough, reasoning that the more accountability the club wants from its people the more support that the club needs to provide them. Encouraging senior leaders to delegate also helped push accountability down to the right level and further develop the capability of middle managers.
Cook also strongly holds the view that culture is defined by who you promote to leadership positions. Only those players who lived the club’s values in an exemplary manner were promoted to the leadership group – they weren’t necessarily the team’s best players.
Geelong’s recruitment was also was critical to driving its culture and therefore success, "The Geelong way is that we recruit for both talent and character but we're genuine about it", Cook said. "And whether you talk about a board position, a coaching position, a player position or a staff position, we do that all the time. And by doing that, [we] maintain our culture".
Geelong’s 2011 premiership win defied the critics who at the start of the season had all but declared Geelong’s premiership window to be well and truly closed. The Cats, the experts said, had an ageing list of players who would not be able to recover from the loss of Ablett Jr who defected to the new Gold Coast franchise and coach Mark Thompson who controversially resigned and then took up a role with Essendon. Surely rookie coach Chris Scott was going to try and rebuild the side for a tilt at another premiership several years down the track and use 2011 as a development year?
Cook now reflects that Thompson’s departure, as painful as it was for the club at the time, was a blessing in disguise. "I don't think that if Mark had have stayed, we would have achieved what we've done ... I don't think he would have played all the kids or had the same energy to regenerate our squad ... It was obvious that we needed to change our playing ways". According to Cook, "The main change was Scott's appointment, as he brought to our club a fresh pair of trained eyes. So we were in a state of readiness to change".
After the Cats’ most recent premiership win, Cook finally conceded that Geelong had scaled the mountain, “We've moved from being a very, very good club to a great club”. The vision and strategy has been executed!
So there it is. A tangible example of applied organisational development helping deliver outstanding results for an organisation. The Geelong Football Club has a competitive advantage that is difficult to replicate. Can they sustain their success for a few more years or longer, or has the club reached an inevitable peak that will see a dip in performance as a raft of experienced players retires? It’s a safe bet that even if Geelong’s success does taper off in the short-term, it won’t be long until they are AFL front runners once again.