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John Eales on Connecting Sports Leadership and Business Success

The connection between successful leadership, sports and business runs deep. Kouichi Tamai, President and Representative Director of Fuji Xerox, and John Eales, the Australian Rugby legend, leadership specialist and non-executive director at Fuji Xerox Document Management Solutions discuss the importance of performance on and off the field, teamwork and strategies for a winning business.

The power of rugby to inspire success

Eales: Looking back over my long career as a rugby player, it makes me think about the driving force behind all sportsmen and sportswomen—the desire to succeed and win. When leading a team in the world of business, the goal is no different. We all want to achieve high-level success.

Growing up in Australia, I loved cricket but I also loved rugby union. I got attracted more to rugby union because it’s the ultimate team game. To win, you need to assemble 15 people who all have different roles on the pitch and get them to work together as a team. You might have some great individual players, but there’s no point unless they work together as a team.

When I was younger, I didn't qualify for any representative teams—I had to wait until I was a little older before that happened. I was lucky: during my first opportunity with the Wallabies—the Australian national team—we ended the season winning against England in the decisive final match. I learned a lot about the game that year, particularly about people and the importance of teamwork.

Tamai: You and I share a passion for sport, John. As a young man, my biggest achievements were in the field of gymnastics. It was fairly modest compared to your worldwide success, but I did compete as a national athlete.

Gymnastics has many events; floor, pommel, parallel bar, horizontal bar and more—in my case, I excelled at pommel horse. Although my focus later shifted towards research and design, the dedication and desire to succeed I developed as a gymnast made me a stronger leader.

Eales: Gymnastics is intensely focused on detail. You've got to be perfect. With rugby, you don't have to be as perfect, but there’s still a lot of attention to detail. That's what I learned in those early years, with some really strong leaders around me to teach me about the game.

 

Embracing leadership from the inside out

Tamai: Japan hosting major international sporting events is an excellent opportunity for Japanese business leaders to adopt a stronger position on leadership. We hope, John, that with your guidance and expertise, we can develop and instill a progressive strategy at Fuji Xerox that will allow us to exceed, the success of other leadership strategies at a global level.

Japan still has a long way to go in terms of individual leadership. We all need to face difficult challenges in order to grow, and I hope watching different countries compete during international sports competitions will inspire everyone.

Strong leadership is essential in sports and business. You have proven time and time again that you’re capable of delivering it. This is why I’m confident that working with you will inspire future success for Fuji Xerox.

Eales: Thank you, Tamai-san. Learning from my experience on the rugby pitch, there are a handful of principles that help companies and organizations develop solid leadership strategies from the inside out. I think one of the most important principles is ‘agitation’—how do we create a mindset where people are continually agitated and determined to keep driving as hard as they did to get where they are now? It’s important to identify agitation in other people—not just yourself. If you can identify their agitation—even sometimes before they do themselves—it’s possible to create a pathway for them as a leader.

We can always look back and find other people who were significant leaders in our lives. Sometimes those people saw something in us before we really saw it in ourselves. On a rugby team, everyone is a deep specialist, but they're also a generalist. In the world of business leadership, people have their deep specialty, but they also need to have general skills too. The key is bringing this all together.

Tamai: I completely agree. A company has many teammates, or members—just like a rugby team. Each member excels in different ways, and as such, every individual will be presented with different challenges. It’s important that these high-level challenges are faced directly. When overcome, they will lead to growth both personally and as an organization, which will empower us to deliver exceptional value to our customers. As President of Fuji Xerox, I must continually hone my skills as well.

This may be a culture unique to Japan, but I have found that other manufacturers who develop their own products are very generous, and take time to teach me their skills. I think this is a very good aspect of Japanese culture. That is why I do not hesitate to go to others who have high skills, to learn from them. I’ve been doing this for a long time.

 

Maintaining composure on the journey

Eales: My theory on leadership revolves around the idea of composure. Composure is the ability to remain focused under pressure, the ability not to get carried away when things are going well, and not to get panicked when things aren’t going to plan. To be composed revolves around three ideas that concern faith. 

First, it's about faith in yourself. It's about developing those individual skills so that you have the confidence you need in your own ability. Not arrogance, but confidence. Second, it's about faith in the teammates you have around you. Third is faith in your strategy. That's the same for sport as it is for business. You might have faith in yourself, faith in your team, but if you don't have faith in your plan, then nothing will move forward.

Tamai: We have a culture of faith at Fuji Xerox. We’re constantly developing our products and strategies, and everything moves in the right direction. Regarding the three levels of faith (faith in themselves/leaders, faith in their team and faith in the strategy), I don’t think there are many companies that have achieved all three. It’s imperative that the whole company moves towards a shared goal. It’s more of a journey than a destination.

 

Knowledgeable leaders are the best decision makers

Eales: Tamai-san, I think that in the business success you’ve had creating patents and inventions.You’ve found opportunities where others didn’t see them. In embracing leadership, we often don't know the challenges and situations awaiting us before we actually face them, and the world is even more ambiguous today. It's becoming harder to guide as a leader, to know what we should and shouldn't do. Leaders need to be able to make the call based on their knowledge and experience.

Innovation is fluid. It’s dynamic. Sometimes we invent things and win patents, in other circumstances we invent the way forward. The plan is just as significant. But it's important to be able to make that call, to have the courage to make that call in the face of uncertainty. And after you make a decision, you need to have faith in it. To develop that faith, you need a strong communication strategy supported by leaders who believe it.

For me, my rugby experience provided important turning points in my career. Based on the experience we had earned as a team, we decided to change the way we played the game. And that took us from being a follower to a leader. We were then able to become the best team in the world for a many years after that.

Tamai: Decision-making is vital to strong leadership. Right now, my biggest mission is to develop good products whilst maintaining profitability. We need to reinforce R&D activities and capabilities. In particular, we need to speed up the design process.

Last year, our products were on schedule, and this year they’re even three to seven months earlier. This is all thanks to critical decisions and speed.

It’s important to maintain the corporate culture, but the system needs to adapt. For Fuji Xerox, it’s especially important to change the part of the system that affects speed. We have the knowledge, but we need to deploy our ideas with greater confidence and urgency.

 

A message for Australia

Eales: I’m honored to be associated with this great business with such a strong history. Sometimes great businesses with strong histories go through tough periods. But it’s what they do to move on to the next stage that counts.

Tamai: Thank you John. I’d like to take this opportunity to send a message to Fuji Xerox Australia and our customers there. Fuji Xerox Australia will continue to deliver outstanding products and services to help our customers work more efficiently, and with the support of someone like you John, all of us at Fuji Xerox know we have a strong partner to help further improve ourselves.

 

Because in the end, the score matters

Eales: There's a saying in sport that the score matters. Each team wants to win, otherwise you wouldn't keep score—and I've never played sport without keeping score. There's always a scoreboard. And a winner.

That said, there is also a loser in competition. I believe everyone should also experience failure at an early stage. Global leaders in the world of sports have experienced more defeat than anyone—and they also have the most experience with winning. That experience of compounding losses will always lead you on a path to the next victory.

We need to understand and challenge ourselves with this question regarding winning: are we winning for the short term, or are we winning for the long term? This is true in sport, but particularly so in business.

I think one of the great things about Japanese business culture is its emphasis on the long-term view. If you can marry that with your focus on short-term excellence, short-term challenge and speed, you're going to be sure to win.

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