Footy legend Brendon Gale’s lessons in leadership for super funds

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There’s a whole industry that has developed around providing advice for good “leadership”. It’s actually worth billions, this new industry. Someone who doesn’t care too much about the theory but who delivers, to the delight of thousands of Richmond football club supporters each week, is Brendon Gale.

Gale is a keynote speaker at the upcoming SuperRatings and Lonsec ‘Day of Confrontation’ conference in Melbourne on October 30 at the Grand Hyatt.  He is the grandson of a Richmond player who had a handful of games in the 1920s, Jack Gale, and the son of Don Gale, who was a champion of the Tasmanian league. His older brother, Michael, also played for Richmond. Brendon Gale took over the running of the Richmond club in 2010, then at a low point of its illustrious history, and set about rebuilding the club, from membership, then talent, through to its overall culture. His story is interesting on a range of levels.

A good chance to win the premiership again this year, Brendon Gale says that, back in 2010, it was a transformational period where he was trying to turn around a business. His first task was to get the membership numbers up. “I knew we’d lose more matches than we won,” he says, “but we had to build a strong organisational platform. We then had to build a business and make sure that we had enough money to do the things we needed to do. And then, we knew, football success would come.”

He broadened the definition of “success” though. It’s not just about scoring more points than the opposition on any particular day. “We didn’t over-promise to our supporters. We were open and transparent with everything we did,” he says. “People started to take pride again in their memberships and also in our numbers.”

What “success” looks like, he says, is having a “strong premiership club”. This means having a strong culture, being bold and regularly competing for the premiership.

James Kerr wrote a business book called ‘Legacy’ on the culture of the All Blacks, probably the most successful national sporting team in history. A few things stand out:

  • “We sweep the sheds”, Kerr wrote about what the All Blacks did, meaning the insistence on humility among senior players. Everyone gets down and does the menial tasks together.
  • “Legacy” refers to what the players leave behind after they’ve gone.
  • As an aside, and unlike other teams, they banned alcohol or a “beer culture” which began to creep into the team, partly due to sponsorship by Lion Nathan.
  • They instilled a sense of pride in every single person who worked for the side – not just the coach and players – from physios to cleaners.

Of course it probably helps if every boy in New Zealand wants to be an All Black and every girl wants to be his girlfriend.

Gale says he has read that book “probably 10 times”. He notes, though, while the All Blacks are certainly a great sporting team, they did “choke” more than once during World Cups. A true competitor, Gale is never going to give too much away to an opposing team, not even one which plays a different code of football.

He agrees with the All Blacks’ insistence on humility among the players – “sweep the sheds”. The mantra for Richmond this year, for instance, is “humble and hungry”.

As a chief executive he is aware that a big football club, such as Richmond, is a diverse business. It’s a consumer business, it’s a media business, it’s a sponsorship business. And then there’s the business of competing every weekend with talented young sportsman trying to win a game of footy.

Gale doesn’t like referring to the players as “kids”. They are “young men”, he says. But, as all fans know, young men who are well paid and full of testosterone tend to get themselves into trouble from time to time. The problem with this is that first-grade footballers are considered role models to the fans, whether they like it or not.

Gale says that in recent years the standards of expected behaviour have increased. There is a lot of public pressure on them, both on and off the field. He says, though: “we are the beneficiaries of the public’s investment in our code”. He expects his young men to behave themselves. And he’d really like them to win the com.

– G.B.

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