The Australian Cricket Team V Sunderland AFC - The Culture Clash!

The Australian Cricket Team V Sunderland AFC - The Culture Clash!

The COVID-19 crisis has meant that many of us have had time away from the office and our colleagues to contemplate how we will make our companies as successful as possible. Implementing your ideal culture is I’m sure at the top, or near the top of lots of the “to do” lists many of us have been compiling. Joining CultureBlox recently has also made the me think deeply about organisational vision, values, behaviour management and the ideal organisation culture. 


The time away from family, shops, bars and restaurants has also given many of us the opportunity to catch up on Box Sets. I must admit with the excellent weather and challenges of homeschooling I have not really watched as many as I’d have liked, however, two series on Netflix/Amazon Prime I really wanted to watch (in the interests of cultural research obviously!) were "The Test” (which follows the Australian Test Cricket side post the "Smith/Warner sandpaper gate bans”), and Sunderland ’til I die Series 2 (a behind the scenes documentary following the footsteps of the failing footballing giant that is Sunderland AFC). Both series are well worth a watch even if you don’t follow the sports in question.


The overarching theme of both programmes was their need to radically change the behaviours and ultimately culture of the Australian Cricket Team and Sunderland AFC. Australia had hit absolute rock bottom in terms of the lack of respect their side had at home and globally for pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. The side were losing lots of games against teams they would have expected to beat or at the very least compete with, in short they were a national embarrassment and a figure of ridicule in the global game (shame I hear many of you say!). Sunderland AFC were also a massively failing organisation, haemorrhaging cash whilst still significantly underperforming on the field, despite the fact they have a huge and passionate set of fans to be envied by many Premier league clubs. Sunderland in fact had failed to win a home game for over 12 months, so to attract over 25 thousand supporters in League One each home game was truly astonishing.


The two organisation's approaches to changing their success on and off the pitch differed significantly. Justin Langer (the Australian Head Coach) wanted to completely change the players approach to the game,and for the side to respected and successful on the field of the play. Langer defined a very clear vision, set values and behaviours that from the outset he felt were needed to change the culture of the side and the way they were viewed not only by other countries, but also by the Australian public. Langer himself lived and breathed those behaviours, despite the obvious temptation at times to deviate when the going was tough, Cricket Australia played their part also through backing him completely and more importantly giving him time.


For Langer to get his side to the World Cup Semi Final and retain the Ashes in England (through a series draw) was quite a remarkable achievement, his side were rock bottom when he took over. This radical change took 2 years, they took some heavy defeats, major criticism and faced huge challenges along the way. Tim Paine (the Australian Captain) was also key to making sure the players bought into the “Langer way”. This included the disgraced duo of Steve Smith and David Warner, who, despite huge provocation from the baying English public, adapted their approach to such an extent that they earned the respect of many English fans for their performances.  This Australian side, although perhaps not the most gifted will be very difficult to beat for years to come if they continue to build upon the culture that has taken them so long to establish. Langer got his side to where he wanted them to be, successful on the field - yes, but more importantly respected off an on it by not only the Australian public but by the world game.


Sunderland, by contrast, had a slightly different approach. New owners came into the club and quickly embedded themselves successfully into the football mad community of the North East of England. They tried, and succeeded in the short term, to build a relationship with the club's long suffering supporters. The management however still struggled to quickly change behaviours and ultimately the culture within the club. Not all players bought into the management vision. One player in particular held the club to ransom before inevitably leaving for the increased wages for him (and his agent) on the continent, despite the club bringing him through their academy set up. The club also continued to significantly overspend, making major mistakes along the way to defeat in two Wembley finals. The Management couldn’t change years of a failing club culture by simply telling staff how to behave and yet not demonstrating those behaviours that they were so keen to establish. The best example of this was when the CEO lectured staff on poor financial performance, then on transfer deadline day the Chairman is seduced to paying nearly £2m over the odds for at best an average League One striker, who had a catchy song with the fans (Will Grigg).


The club need a long term clear vision and a clear culture that will bring that vision to reality. They should proactively work with the staff, supporters and management across the club to define values that all will recognise and embrace.  Establishing positive, measurable behaviours and have a sustained and passionate approach to displaying them in all day to day activities will positively change the culture of the club. This will allow them to build the ideal platform to achieve long term, sustained success on and off the field of play. 


Will Sunderland get there? The club have a very likeable Chairman who has an enviable passion for success, you can see he clearly acknowledges the culture of the club needs to change.  If this is managed and channelled in the right way I am sure they will eventually get back to the promised land of the Premier League. Could they do it quicker following Langer’s approach?  In my view absolutely, I think their chances would be significantly improved for long term, sustained success if they did.


Australia v Sunderland AFC. In the "culture management clash" for me Justin Langer and the Australian Cricket Team won hands down.  Do I want sustained long term success for Australia? …..yes, I really admire Langer and how he turned his vision into reality. It will also however make it even sweeter when England take the Ashes off them again next winter!


As for Sunderland, I truly hope they get a break and get back in the Championship soon. You can’t help but feel sorry for them (unless you are a member of the Toon Army). I think they now have the Manager  (Phil Parkinson) in place who will change the culture of the club long term. He just needs that precious commodity that is missing in football….time. Langer had the vision and the backing to deliver it despite major setbacks, Sunderland should follow this example.


The CV19 crisis has no doubt allowed many of you to reflect on your company's ideal culture, your workplace and working practices. I am sure these will change forever as a result, and in most cases for the better. Perhaps it is time to give thought on how your company's behaviours and culture will need to evolve and adapt to meet the new challenges we all face now and post the epidemic. Get it wrong and you could be like a big fish languishing in League One, not fulfilling your obvious potential. Or alternatively, be like Langer, acknowledge the challenges and take proactive steps to tackle the problem through managing behaviours and establishing your ideal culture and you will make significant gains on world class opposition.


At CultureBlox we work with organisations to define, measure and build behaviours to implement your ideal culture. If you would like to know more about what we do, or simply want a chat on Football or Cricket please get in touch!


James Thirkill, June 2020

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