Andrew Christophers – Leadership Lessons from the All Blacks

Books in Action Conversation

Sketch note by Sam Warburton

Books In Action Andrew Christophers sketch note

The conversation

In this conversation, Andrew Christophers shares how he’s applied lessons from James Kerr’s book, Legacy at Brand Genetics. This conversation includes applying ideas around the role of a leader, values, and teamwork to build a high performing culture. 

More about Andrew Christophers

Andrew Christophers is Co-Founder, Co-Owner and Chairman of Brand Genetics, ‘a start-up with 25 years’ experience.’ He previously worked client-side at Cadbury on food brands, as Head of Marketing for Guinness’s lagers, and as Head of Innovation for KP Foods (United Biscuits).

Brand Genetics is a brand growth consultancy, specialising in front-end insight, strategy and innovation, headquartered in London and with offices in LatAm and North America. Brand Genetics helps its clients answer the question, “what’s next?” using deep-rooted human drivers and a range of different human-centred insight and innovation techniques. This helps to identify scalable opportunities for brand growth. Global clients include ABInBev, Britvic, Diageo, Electrolux, Meta, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Reckitt and Unilever.

Andrew recently published Starting Up & Scaling Up a Human-First Business, which tells the story of the first 25 years of Brand Genetics. Using an A-to-Z structure, this is an easy-to-read guide for anyone who is starting up or scaling up their own business – or anyone who really cares about company culture, and wants to create a uniquely human work environment.

Andrew’s book

Legacy, by James Kerr

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Table of Contents

About the book: Legacy, by James Kerr

Rhiannon Gibbs:

So, we both love the book Legacy, not least because of its connection to our own areas of expertise and our common love of continuous improvement, which is one of the underpinning concepts behind the All Blacks success. But can you start by summarising the book for me please?

Andrew Christophers:

Yes, of course. I mean, it’s Legacy by James and it’s subtitle is ‘15 Lessons in Leadership from the World’s Most Successful Sporting Team.’ And that’s the New Zealand rugby All Blacks, which for a population, tiny population, they’ve continually been up there as a leading beacon of sporting excellence.

I think what attracted me to this book was I’ve always loved team sports personally, but also I’ve been interested in what we can learn in businesses about team culture from super successful high performance teams.

There’s a phrase, I’m sure you will have heard of it, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ And I’ve always loved that because I think it’s like, how can you actually build a unique culture and business? And I think what attracted me therefore to the Legacy book was that they do talk a lot about building a shared identity, a shared ethos.

They have things like a black jersey and a hacker dance, so they’ve got a lot of nice unifying factors. But it’s thinking, what are the importance of those items? And how can we apply them in our own world to what we’re doing to build really successful team culture?

Rhiannon Gibbs:

And of course, that’s what this podcast is all about. How could you adopt those concepts to improve your own business or your own life in some cases.

Andrew Christophers:

Yeah, absolutely. We’ve both reread it in preparation and there is so much practical stuff, which again, as part of this podcast is just great to, you know, the theories all very well. But actually, how can I apply this? What can I really take out of it and how can I make it real?

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Absolutely. The book is one long you know, Books in Action podcast, really, because they give the concept in really simple terms and then dozens of examples, dozens of stories about how people have done it. And you’ve touched on the famous hacker, of course, which is one of their rituals. And then they talk about things like sweeping the floor of the changing rooms after each match.

I have to say, one of the things I really got excited about when I heard it, which I missed it the first time. I don’t know how that happened, but when it cropped up, I did a little air punch, was the fact they talked about Drive by Dan Pink. I absolutely love that book. The concept in it is so simple and yet so many people fail to grasp the importance of those three elements he talks about.

So yeah, it’s a fantastic all-around book, Legacy. And I’m really excited to hear about your experiences of applying the concepts from the book in your own life and work.

A leader’s role is to connect personal meaning to a higher purpose

So, should we start by discussing leadership which is one of the areas you wanted to talk about, a running theme throughout the chapters of the book? And the bit that spoke to me was about how the leader’s role is to connect personal meaning to a higher purpose. The cliched example is the man at NASA sweeping the floor. Who says, “I help people on the moon.”

Can you tell me a little more bit more about the All Blacks concept of leadership and how you’ve applied those lessons?

Christopher Andrews:

Yes. I think some of it and you reference it, which is great, is this sweep the sheds mantra. Even if you’re a top class international, even if you’ve just won the World Cup, what you do when you’ve finished is you sweep the changing room clean and you put everything away so that you’re saving the task from the cleaners.

I think it’s nice because in the book, it comes up that in Maori culture, humility means the word ‘humility’ translates as ‘being normal or natural’. And I think that’s such a strong thought for leadership. That great leaders should balance pride and ambition with humility, and you should take personal responsibility for that. Nobody should ever be too big to do the small things.

And I think how that manifests itself. Just over the years, even though we’re a bit bigger as a business now. We have about 40 people and three global offices, but a lot of stuff hasn’t changed from the beginning.

Even if you’re the founder or the CEO. You make the tea, you change the light bulbs, you get the new ink cartridges in and change them because it sets an example, and so I think that humility side of leadership is a really strong theme through the book.

The other one, which I know you’ll be a great advocate of, is this. Given agencies work is this theme of continuous improvement. There are some lovely soundbites and they talk about leaving the jersey in a better place and planting trees you’ll never see grow.

I think true leaders, they talk about, are stewards of the future. That was a point about looking you pulled out about winking at the moon and knowing who’s come before you in that chain of All Blacks and who’s going to be coming after. So you know your place about legacy.

I think that’s what our job as leaders is to do and that’s what we have tried to apply in our business at Brand Genetics is to leave the business, but also our people in a better place than when they started. To do that, you have to be brave, to be bold, to be curious.

We’re now a 25 years old business, but we were small for the first 15 years and we’ve been growing a lot in the last ten years. But we love the phrase that we are a startup with 25 years’ experience because the tension in that statement keeps us on our toes so that we don’t rest on our laurels. The All Blacks talk an awful lot about always improving, always learning.

There’s a phrase that leapt out for me – “if you’re not growing anywhere, you’re not going anywhere.” You have to always get better, even when in that case you were the best, they say, especially when you’re the best. And we’ve translated that into our internal soundbite.

We talk about something that we call being comfortably uncomfortable. What that means is it’s the sweet spot of learning between feeling uncomfortable because you’re breaking new ground, you’re being challenged, you’re having to grow. But the comfortable preface is that you’re being supported in that you’re part of a team so you’re not left out on your own.

One final point is we’ve come to the view that leadership should set the culture for a business, but it obviously must be owned by the whole team. And therefore, for a while we used to talk in recruitment terms about, we’re recruiting for culture fit, and we’ve now kind of amended that language to culture.

And because you don’t want to be counterculture, but the culture has to grow and develop with the business. And I think that’s so important to recognise as well.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

I absolutely love that. And as you know, we’ve been recruiting this week in particular, the idea of, adding value to the culture is fantastic. I really like that idea. That’s a lovely segway into what we wanted to talk about next which was values, because that’s a critical component in the development of culture.

Values develop culture

Rhiannon Gibbs:

As you say, leadership sets the tone for culture. My favourite quote about culture and leadership is that “culture is a shadow of the leadership.” I’ve seen cultures in organisations change dramatically when leaders, the people at the top change, both good and bad.

I’m going to use a swear word here. So if anybody’s listening to this on an Alexa or anything like that, you might want to turn it down if any kiddies present. The book talks about the value of no dick heads, and that really spoke to me.

A year ago, we revisited our values and how they translate into behaviours. It’s an exercise we try and do regularly. We had some new starters and somebody said we needed an internal facing value of ‘don’t be a dick.’ What I’m trying to establish right now is whether they already knew about that ‘no dick heads’ value at the All Blacks. So it’s interesting to reflect on that.

Tell me more about values from Legacy and how you have actioned in your own world.

Christopher Andrews:

Yes, certainly. When our business, Brand Genetics was in its infancy, it was very small. We didn’t want it to be (and we still don’t want it to be) too corporate. It wants to be very personal.

We talk a lot about human first. That’s our kind of thing in our thinking. But I remember some early employees, way back when mobile phone calls were very expensive, asking about rules and what was chargeable through. And we just thought, goodness, that is just too boring to have to think about what’s chargeable through. So we thought we’d have one rule only and we called it the ‘don’t take the piss’ rule. Basically, it was just permission for being adult-to-adult in behaviour rather than us adopting a parent-child mentality. Having read Legacy in All Blacks, that was almost our version of it to an extent.

I think the other translation of that in terms of values is that, when they talk about values in the Legacy book, there’s a lovely summary that they went off site when things weren’t going well and they had a three-day meeting and came out of that three-day meeting, the All Blacks with six words. The six words were ‘better people make better All Blacks.’

They talked about underpinning that character triumphs over talent. No individual is bigger than the team. Translating that in our own businesses, that surrounds hiring great people, not just great professionals. So not just people who maybe tick the boxes, but what are they really like as people?

That caused us to try and think because we’ve been growing. How do we define what great people are for us as a business? And that will be unique for every business. But we came up with a shorthand of that; people who are smart with heart and self-start.

Just to unpack those a little bit, smart people, obviously, because they’re bright, they’re talented, that they’re inspirational to be around. Heart, equally important because are they good people? Are they genuine people? Do they have integrity? Are they people that you want to hang out with? And self-start, because I think so often in smaller businesses, consultancies, you need people who will pick up the mantra.

It formed a recruitment mantra of Brand Genetics, and we wrote a manifesto which defines the values that we feel makes our business work. The central one is a phrase we use, which is ‘go be uniquely human.’ That’s where a lot of our human first purpose came from.

Our purpose to enable human first growth for our clients our people are our brands are our businesses. I had 15 years in big corporate marketing companies before co-founding Brand Genetics, and I used to put on a suit and go to work and play a certain role. Then when I got back home with my partner and family, I was a completely different person. When we set up Brand Genetics, what we wanted was those two worlds to come together, not in the middle, but based on what’s the true person. So, people could come in to work in our business and be their true selves.

We had an early hire with a lovely guy who’s still with us. He’s a director now. A guy called Cliff who just came in in his shorts, his sandals, his t-shirt with his dog because that’s who Cliff was. A brilliant thinker, planner, everything else, but we accepted him for who he was. I think that authenticity is so important. If we can role model that and our values, treat people as people, not just as employees, and embrace the whole person, the whole human being.

I think that value set is so important in a business. What defines it and how it comes across. Ultimately, so much of it does bow down to integrity and doing what you say you’ll do, having consistent behaviour, and building that culture of trust.

I’m sure that’s the experience of you guys as well and many other small growing businesses.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

I love the idea of bringing your whole self to work. We often talk about it the other way around at Ad Esse as well. As Lean continuous improvement professionals quite often in our WhatsApp chats or in our emails or in our meetings, we talk about how the work side of us slips into our personal life.

I was at the cinema and the machine wasn’t working properly. I went upstairs to tell them and they said, “not my problem, but here’s your tickets.” The idea that they would get all that failure demand from other people where the machine wasn’t working made me go downstairs and put a Post-it note on the machine saying, ‘Machine not working. Try another one.’ People would talk about how they’ve done things more efficiently at home or 5S their cupboards.

Trying to encourage that whole person at work as well, whether it is in style and I think particularly style and comfort and things, that work is something that’s changing more than a few years ago when we took over Ad Esse. We asked the person we hired to do our design and content, the lovely Sam, to assess our brand versus what she knew about us from meeting us.

And she said, “well, you look like wealth management consultants now because on the website the pictures were all very formal.” It didn’t actually reflect the brand we wanted or the brand people knew we were. We don’t go to work in tracksuits and things like that, but we are more relaxed; we don’t enforce the dark suits thing. It is appropriate to the client we’re working with, but it’s about making people relaxed and making our people feel comfortable as well. So I totally, totally get that.

Andrew Christophers:

And I think work has changed so much like that, hasn’t it? It needs to be an expression of treating people as true human beings, and that comes with hybrid working, more flexible working in terms of locations or number of days. I think there’s a very different contract between employer and employee. Thank goodness we are all more enlightened in that sense these days.

Teamwork as part of culture and leadership

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Completely agree. And lastly, but not unsurprisingly for a book about sports, a concept that really needs no other introduction from me other than to say is that of teamwork. Tell me a bit about that from the book and your experience.

Andrew Christophers:

Yes, certainly. One of my favourite quotes when I first read the book was, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack.” And it just struck a chord with me. And they unpack it in the book and they talk about lovely analogies.

One of them is around the story of wild geese flying in formation. And that enables them to go 70% further on a 4,000-mile round trip. That’s a lovely example of different people taking up the lead at different points, and I think we all need this sense of belonging in a team in business as in life. Indeed, I think we realised in Brand Genetics in lockdown that a company is called a company for a reason; because we had all enjoyed one another’s company and we were missing it.

It taps into what we were just saying previously. Work is not just about getting the job done. We are all social animals. It’s everything else on top. The human interpretation and understanding is so important. There’s another quote from Legacy, which is “a player who makes the team great is better than a great player.”

In our very early days, we tried that, literally. We tried to just recruit at one level and everybody would be equal salary, equal status, equal title. Then we found that certain people obviously did do more, did do the pulling the extra business or do all the weekend work.

So, we moved on from that, but what has stuck with us very much, is that the team is above the individual. We talk about at Brand Genetics (BG). The ‘BG We’ rather than the ‘Andrew Me’ or anyone else. And therefore, we do need to set targets as we’ve got bigger, but it’s team alongside targets. It’s people as well as profit, and it’s balancing work and wellbeing.

In our businesses, none of us have a black All Blacks jersey to put on like the New Zealand team do, so what’s our equivalent?

I think it’s our logos and as you say, our visual identity, how we come across. We evolved our logo at Brand Genetics. It was a very product centric barcode type logo and it’s evolved into a DNA which represents our human first thinking. So that’s a symbol of our shared identity and being people first, everyone being unique.

We ensure that we have pin notes up in the office that celebrate a lot of the great occasions, the great moments, the social events. We have company trips if we do hit targets and that’s very much on a team basis. We have set behaviours as well, and stories. This comes through the Legacy book as well; they help to create an identity because a common language can help shape culture.

I recently written a little book myself which is called Starting Out and Scaling Up a Human First Business, which covers the first 25 years of our business. And it aims to tell some of those stories, because it’s all about human interest stories. That’s what stick, that’s what creates a legacy within the business.

Just to wind up on teamwork, there’s a lovely phrase, “Once an All Black, always an All Black.” I’ve always felt that in our business, once a BG as we call them, always a BG. I think keeping in touch with your alumni, people who’ve left and moved on, bringing them back to various events, that’s a great thing to do because you recognise people do move on sometimes.

You’ve shared something during that timeframe. So, it was nice just in doing this book to be able to list the whatever it was, the 75 people or so who’ve contributed to helping us get to where we’ve got to, because they’ve each done work in that team. They’ve all been team BG at one point or another.

I think there’s lots of great inspiration in there to help shape a team identity.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

That’s such a lovely idea. I’d never thought of this idea of bringing back people that have worked for you before. We’re about to lose a consultant from our team who is wonderful. He’s a fantastic human. He’s going off to do conservation as well, so I can’t even hate him for leaving because he’s going on to do such a wonderful thing. I think we won’t lose touch.

But the idea that staying in touch, that alumni feel, is great. I’m learning so much from this this conversation.

Andrew Christophers:

That sometimes helps with recruitment. We often tell new hires, people we’re trying to perhaps get across the line, they’ll get to meet current team, but sometimes speak to people who’ve moved on because that’ll give you a dispassionate view on the good, the bad and the ugly.

And why not do that as well? You shouldn’t be afraid to put future hires in touch with your Conservationist. I’m sure they’ll get a great insight.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Thank you, Andrew. And I’d like to finish by putting you on the spot a bit and saying if there is one thing from Legacy that any leader could do to have the biggest impact on their life, their business, their team, what would that be?

Andrew Christophers:

Good question because there is so much. There’s 15 different chapters and there’s a different moral in each chapter. I might cheat a little bit and go for two, but I’ll keep them very brief. I think one is ‘find a vision and stick to it.’ I think in our business, it took us a long time to get to this articulation around being a, what we call human-first business.

But once we got there, I think it then gives you your direction and your North Star, your glue for recruitment, everything like that. What type of person are you looking for? I think getting that purpose, and I know you guys talk a lot about that, is so important. So, finding that, and sticking to that.

Then the other one is around continuous improvement because I think it’s about always challenging, adapting, improving, because ultimately, if you’re growing your people, you’re growing your company and your business. So that’s something that we found is really important to be committed to, and genuinely committed.

It’s lovely then when you see people move through. Our first ever intern from eight or ten years ago became the head of our first overseas office in Latin America, and she’s now got a team over there as big as the Brand Genetics team. She first joined in London. So that’s lovely. I mean, that’s an example in action of that happening and people growing and developing.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Thank you so much for your thoughts and reflections on Legacy and the principles in there. And you have to tell us the name of your book now as well so we can all go and get a copy.

Andrew Christophers:

Yeah, it’s Starting up and Scaling Up a Human-first Business and it tells the story of the first 25 years in a very easy to read A-to-Z format with a lot of pictures. It’s a nice, hopefully light fun read, but very insightful as well. I think about some of the issues we faced in scaling and growing and it’s really a book about people and a book about culture.

Rhiannon Gibbs:

Andrew, thank you so much.

Andrew Christophers:

My pleasure. Thank you.