Face to face: Sean Fitzpatrick: No need to be liked

Thanks,” says Sean Fitzpatrick turning to the waitress. His trim flat white delivered, he turns his attention to our conversation. “I never intended to write another book. But I am really pleased with this one. It’s work tool.”
The former All Black, captain of front row niggle, and author of two other books, was in Auckland promoting his new title, Winning Matters: being the best you can be. He was also agreeing to help Kiwi businesses leverage opportunities from the Rugby World Cup.
Fitzpatrick, with his wife and business partner Bronwyn and their two daughters, is now based in England. He’s making “pretty good” living from speaking, motivating, commentating, running specialist hospitality business and developing the odd piece of property. Winning Matters is part biography but, more business how-to. Its genesis lies in the leadership lessons he learned on the rugby field and his post-sport business life. “It is an honest, chronological look at my life and how things have shaped it,” he says. “I draw on analogies between business and sport. There are so many of them.”
The first and most obvious analogy is his explanation of the benefits that come from being “a little bit nasty”. How does that work in business and leadership?
“You have to know what you want and how you are going to get there. That might, sometimes, involve being bit of nasty bugger,” he offers. “The All Blacks sometimes need to be bit arrogant or nasty to be successful on the field. But, that’s where you leave it. You don’t take it off the paddock. The analogy with business is, I suppose, that if you deploy degree of arrogance to succeed, do so but leave it in the office.”
People can, says Fitzpatrick, be too nice to get to where they need to be. “One of the key messages of the book is that to be successful, you must sometimes be ruthless,” he says without hesitation.

Don’t cheat
But where, in business, does nasty end and unethical begin? “Simple. You do everything you can to win, but you don’t cheat. Honesty, integrity and respect are equally important in sport and business. You don’t need to write it down to know that’s what life is about. The way you are at work is the way you are at home, and vice versa.”
Fitzpatrick thinks the sense of fraternity that goes with donning an All Black jersey can be created in business. “The ‘once an All Black, always an All Black’ phrase struck me as particularly useful way to think. It has stayed with me ever since I heard it. It’s about the culture of the organisation.”
He’s always proud to say he played for the All Blacks. If companies can get employees to feel similarly positive and committed “it is enormously powerful”, he adds. Companies need to engender “passion” in their people in the same way coaches and the Rugby Union engender passion into the All Blacks. “We have the legacy of the jersey and that is what makes the best players stay in New Zealand. The first 15 players don’t leave New Zealand, because they want to be All Blacks.
“It might be bit of generalisation, but those that go overseas do so because they can’t get into the first team. They leave for more money, which is understandable. We [New Zealand] can’t compete on the money but the pride that goes with wearing the jersey is phenomenal,” he says, leaving the parallel with business and remuneration hanging.
Being an All Black does, of course, mean that rugby is “your number one job and family is number two”, he says. And that, to his mind, is true in business. “To be really successful, the job comes first. Many people say family comes first, but if they’re honest, there’s no doubt the job must come first,” he adds.
“But you do need to talk the realities of the commitment through with your partner and both understand what being committed to success means. You have to sit down and say exactly what is involved. Like, how many days you will be away this year. Then you ask each other, ‘Do we want to be part of this?’ If the answer is yes, then you go forward together as family unit. World-class organisations need committed people.”

Fear of failure
The fear of failure, according to Fitzpatrick, is powerful motivator for any sports person, particularly an All Black. Great All Blacks, to man, talk “intensely and movingly” about fear playing large part in their success. “They use it as motivator,” he says.
He draws the parallel between fear or failure and feedback in organisational life. “The key,” he says “is to understand that there is world of difference between fear of feedback or failure and harnessing that fear to positive effect.” In other words, don’t be afraid of feedback. Turn it to account.
Fitzpatrick refuses to settle for anything less than being the best he can be. “The idea of just turning up is load of rubbish,” he says. “I can’t believe anyone would seriously advocate that philosophy.”
But while he desperately wanted to be the best All Black he could be, he didn’t particularly want to be leader – the team’s captain in other words. “I got the job by default,” he says. “It took me two or three years to feel comfortable about it.”
He saw leadership as burden. The 1992 team he inherited was not one he felt particularly enthusiastic about. It had, unceremoniously and publicly, been stripped down and culled of some of his “mates”. And he did not, he says, feel comfortable in the role.
He doubted his ability to lead but decided, soon enough, to give it his best shot. If he was going to be the All Blacks’ captain, then he wanted to be the best captain he could be. “Fact is, if you’re made captain, you are captain. No sense debating endlessly about whether you’re ready for it, or what skills you possess or lack; you have to knuckle down and be the captain. Be the leader,” he says in his book.
It is, of course, easier to lead an organisation with strong and positive culture. That applies in business too, says Fitzpatrick. And even though rugby is now professional and vastly different from what it was when he played, it has retained its culture and its focus on winning. “The culture needs to be deeply embedded in the organisation.”
The All Blacks are, of course, the “ultimate brand” and therein lies lesson for every business enterprise. Managing brand properly is, he says, critical success component. Fitzpatrick has, it seems, learned important lessons by watching and involving himself in the process of promoting the All Black brand. He would, he says, like to see the Rugby Union set up an office in Europe but, there’s hint of self interest in the smile that floats the idea.

Ambitious Kiwis
Leaving New Zealand to set up shop in the United Kingdom after his playing days ended helped Fitzpatrick focus on the global opportunities that exist for ambitious Kiwis. “I realised there’s big wide world out there. And in my experience, New Zealanders do very well on the world stage. They like the challenge and they like fighting for acceptance. They like to show people what they can do.
“I love working in that global environment and coming across Kiwis everywhere that are doing amazing things and running extraordinary businesses. There are thousand people out there doing what I do, so you have to be good and committed to compete successfully,” he adds.
His life’s work now revolves in large measure around rugby-related activities. He has, for instance, box at Twickenham and uses it in the hospitality business run by him and his wife Bronnie. “We put people together to facilitate and develop business opportunities.” But even more, he likes developing houses and “does bit of that” around the UK. It is an activity rooted in his first career as builder in Auckland. “I don’t get my hands dirty but, I love working with people in the trade. I love the idea of it and being involved. I get very excited

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