The elusive role that culture plays in a club’s success

In the corporate world, just like in sporting teams, there is a tremendous emphasis placed on the importance of culture.

New CEOs try to create a specific culture, HR departments thrive on creating an engaged group of people through culture and every company worth their salt has culture and values at the forefront of their business strategy or external communications.

AFL clubs operate the same way. Every club has a culture, just as every business does. It may not be articulated or formalised, it may be unconscious or even neglected, it may be a poor culture, but every place has one.

Whether or not it impacts at all what happens on the field is another matter. However, it is clear that the success of some clubs is in some way linked to a particular culture and trying to recreate or duplicate a rival club’s culture is a foolish pastime.

Just like football clubs, many companies spend a significant part of their overall expenditure on people, through salaries and development. The last three businesses I have worked at spent in excess of 60% of their annual total costs on labour, and so treated that large investment accordingly.

This is different to a company where most money is spent on infrastructure, where again, money is spent on that investment accordingly, as it drives the success of the business.

But in a business like AFL where the landscape and rules are the same, such as salary caps, television revenue, rules and shape of the ball for everyone, it is always interesting to look at the points of differentiation that make one club or organisation more successful than others.

Recruitment is the lifeblood of a business, and the ability to attract and retain key talented people often makes them successful. AFL clubs are no different and in fact are probably even more reliant on successful recruitment, through drafting and trading.

However, companies have the luxury of hiring from competitors or other industries people with proven experience in similar roles, with referees to vouch for them, and the knowledge that they are often mature and moving into roles that they have performed elsewhere successfully.

Whilst that occurs with trading in the AFL, there’s no such luxury in drafting players.

Imagine what would happen if your business had to attract half their employees every year through hope, limited experience and trust.

That’s why it is always worth looking at successful teams, what role the draft has or hasn’t played in their success and what a vexed issue culture becomes to supplement pure talent and ability.

Geelong has a reputation of bringing into their organisation lesser known or recognised players from the draft and developing them along the lines of their culture and expectations. In a similar way, the Swans do this, more often with players who have spent time at other clubs.

Since the 2001 draft, when the trio of Hodge, Ball and Judd sent the benchmark for all subsequent drafts, Geelong has never had a top 5 pick (Mackie and Selwood were picks 7 in 2002 and 2006 respectively, Bartel 8 in 2001), and the Swans just one (McVeigh went 5 in 2002)

Other successes still going around from that 2001 draft include: Stevie Johnson and James Kelly; Sam Mitchell and David Hale; Nick Dal Santo and Leigh Montagne; LRT; Campbell Brown; and a bloke called Dane Swan who went 58.

Since 2001, the Cats have had only 3 top 10 selections and none in the top 5, the Swans only 1 top 5 choice (strangely enough, Adelaide have not had a top 5 pick in that time either, Dangerfield going 10 and Talia 13). In that same time Melbourne have had 6 top 5 picks, Carlton and the Bulldogs 5 and Richmond 4. Hawthorn and the West Coast, both premiers since 2001, have also both had 4 top 5 picks.

So much has been written about the Cats system that seems to, through great identification in the draft but then excellent development and mentoring, produce such high quality footballers.

So culture, in its many and varied forms, must have something to do with creating good players from an even field of untried and raw 18 and 19 year olds boys.

Jack Watts hasn’t developed like Nic Nat, Hurley, Hannebury, Rich, Hill, Hartlett, Zaharakis or even Ballantyne or Sidebottom, all taken after him in that year. However, many other clubs would have taken him at No. 1 had they the chance.

Richmond is ridiculed now for taking Adam Fiora instead of Pavlich, however the Dockers are on the record as saying they would have taken Fiora before the Pav if the pick order was different.

That’s the risk when you try to identify someone who you hope can play 200 games for you over their 20s on what they’ve done or become by age 18.

Recruitment is often about risk minimisation. I can’t guarantee that the person I hire will be a success, but if I interview and review carefully, then induct and develop well, into a positive and engaging culture, I reduce the risk of it going pear shaped. AFL drafting is the same; you hope the kid becomes the man.

Culture is often defined in business as ‘the way things are done around here’ and there’s a lot to take from that simple description.

If the way things are done around here is to be disciplined, accurate, hard-working, trusting and intense, then new employees will fit in with that if they wish to be part of it, or move away if they don’t or can’t accept that.

The key to Geelong’s success must be in part due to culture. It isn’t, as pointed out, the draft. It isn’t Leading Teams, as other clubs mimicked that and haven’t thrived as much. It can’t solely be location, as the isolation or country town mentality could be ascribed to Brisbane or Adelaide. It can’t be facilities solely, as the Cats have trained on the same ground since day dot.

Other clubs can adopt a no dickheads policy like the Swans and recruit mature players. Other clubs could even poach Stephen Wells, the Cats wonder recruiter

But there’s something that can’t be bottled, defined or imitated with the elusive thing that is culture, and that’s where the beauty lies.

Geelong and Sydney have had the same opportunities that the Dees and Bulldogs had.

Knowing what the points of difference are is both the true skill and a path to success, and the great mystery of player selection and people management.

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. Stainless says


    The thing I find interesting about the culture argument is that most of the clubs that we would define as “successful” or having a “strong culture” have not always been this way.

    For decades Geelong had a good culture in the sense of attracting and retaining talent and playing entertaining football but were notoriously flaky when it came to performing on the big stage. It’s hard to be definitive on such an elusive subject, especially as I have no real knowledge of the inner workings of the club, but I would argue that these days, there is a steely, hard-nosed professionalism about Geelong that simply didn’t exist in the early 1990s. Something changed around 2006-07 to bring this about. If you could put your finger on what it was, you’d be a rich man.

    I’d argue a similar story about Sydney. In fact, their case is even more extreme. Geelong at least had a long record of good teams and talented players fromwhich to draw inspiration. Sydney had only a history of poor performance that characterised the old South Melbourne and their early years in the Harbour City. In 1993, the Swans won one game for the year and the AFL could have shut the Swans down, so parlous was the club’s state. Instead they threw them a lifeline involving money and access to uncontracted players, appointed Ron Barassi as coach and things began to look up from there.

    Track it back further and you can find Essendon transforming itself in the early Sheedy years, Hawthorn in the Kennedy years, North Melbourne in the Aylett/Barassi era.

    But there’s always the “chicken-egg” argument about whether culture breeds success or vice versa. E.g. what would the Western Bulldogs be like today if they’d hung on in that ’97 Prelim Final and won the Flag the next week?

  2. Nice work, Sean. For me there’s a key word that goes alongside of “culture”. You mentioned it once – “expectation”. I think expectation weighs hugely on players – people in general – in an indefinable, intangible way.

    Using the 1997 Bulldogs example, my theory is that if those same 21 players that wore red, white and blue on Preliminary Final day that year had been wearing a dark blue jumper with a CFC monogram on it, they would have found a way to win and probably won the flag the following week.

    “This is Carlton. That’s what we do!”

    Not every time, but more often than not.

    At Doggieland, nobody actually says, “we will go very close but we will fail” (actually, some probably do actually say that), but that is the expectation. And at critical moments, that expectation subconsciously takes hold.

    It’s a giant hurdle, but not an insurmountable one, as Collingwood demonstrated in 1990, and Sydney and Geelong have more recently.

    I cling to hope.

  3. Thanks both of you.

    In some of the cases you mentioned Stainless, the clubs in question probably had a bit of ‘enough is enough’ and sought to sepearate themselves from whatever was causing them years of disappointment.

    And in addition, the way they had to do this was get total commitment from everyone that this was the way they’d operate. Witness the Swans dropping or not playing some guys until they were satisfied they ‘bought in’ to their ways.

    I agree soem clubs refuse to accept mediocrity, or honorable losses. Of course these things go in cycles, and yes Gigs, what mght have been. I felt each year after that loss, despite making other Prelims, the Dogs got further away.

    Who is to say that years of expectation hurt the Saints twice in recent GFs, when their opposition simply had a stronger will?

    What would Watts have been like in an embracing, stable, positive culture?

    You can’t define it, can’t bottle it, but you sure know it with some sides.


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