Rugby super league stars Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Jones-Buchanan recently appeared at an exclusive event at HUB’s studio, to share their inspirational stories as sport stars and how their experiences can be applied to the business world.
After a welcome from Prolific North’s editor David Prior, HUB’s CEO Rob Shaw welcomed attendees to the agency’s studio 2 in Leeds, as well as to those tuning into the event virtually via a live stream. He explained the catalyst for this event was after Jones-Buchanan came and spoke to his team about his background, values and beliefs, realising the insights that can be pulled from sport on how to build winning teams.
Kicking off the Q&A session, Shaw first asked the duo when they realised they were part of something special as part of a high-performing team.
Those successes are often not celebrated enough as a winning team as “sport moves so quickly, explained Sinfield, who couldn’t pinpoint an exact moment.
Sinfield, formerly a professional rugby player for Leeds Rhinos and currently the defence coach for the England Rugby League team, is perhaps better known outside of sporting circles for his fundraising efforts on behalf of MND Association, for his former teammate and best friend Rob Burrow.
He joined Leeds Rhinos aged 13 and was part of a team that was “hungry to succeed.” There, he found there was a big investment from the club into young players and the senior team were “very accommodating” and welcoming.
“We just wanted to be better everyday.”
For Jamie Jones-Buchanan, a Leeds Rhinos Rugby League coach who was awarded an MBE in 2022 for services to rugby league football and the community in Leeds, he didn’t quite realise “how special it was” at the time now he has time to reflect on his career during retirement.
He’s also Head of Culture, Diversity and Inclusivity at Leeds Rhinos, where he discovered having “synchronicity” to work as a collective was key to having the right team in place who were hungry to learn from others with different cultures and values.
Coming to Leeds Rhinos, he understood that there was a “way to behave and perform.” When the team walked through the changing rooms, it was like a “werewolf walking under a full moon,” where they became a collective. On how do you know when you’re part of a successful culture, in the first chapter of his life as a professional sportsperson he didn’t realise how good it was until it “all disappeared.”
Culture and team isn’t something you can “copy and paste” from one moment in time to another, to continue it needs “succession” but it also needs to “evolve” as everybody is different and that should be embraced.
Finding the right talent and what works to bring people together
Although players didn’t have a big part to play within the recruitment of other members of the team, they were still asked for their opinions. Striking the right balance between having fun off the pitch but knowing what was right or wrong was very important, explained Sinfield.
There were “mistakes made” off the field and if someone didn’t fit or adhere to the team standards set, they would soon be moved out of the club and “stood out like a sore thumb.”
Using a seesaw analogy, he explained getting the team right is “crucial” as the moment it tips away from having “enough good people” and you don’t replace them, it’s tricky to get that balance back.
Keeping that balance and remaining consistent is key, agreed Jones-Buchanan, pointing to his creativity and Sinfield’s consistency. Before his last training session, he discovered his very first training kit in his loft with an old crest. Wanting to wear it for his last training session, at the time Sinfield was quick to point out that it wasn’t the right brand and didn’t let him wear it. Looking back now, he realises how important it was that Sinfield flagged it, to keep that consistency.
To bring the team together – the best thing is time. The more time you spend with people, the more you forge those connections.
“Adversity and tough times bring us together,” said Sinfield, pointing to how the team came together to raise funds for their friend and former Leeds Rhino player Rob Burrow MBE , who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND).
Whether it’s out on a rugby field or in an office, he adds: “be prepared to make yourself vulnerable and trust the team” as similar to a marriage, “you can’t just throw people together.”
Those tougher times help pull those friendships together, he said, reflecting on the challenges the team encountered during training sessions. Agreeing with him, Jones-Buchanan said “pain and adversity” is where teams are “galvanised,” drawing on the grit and determination needed to power through rugby matches and training.
Leaders and culture
“Good leaders create good leaders,” said Jones-Buchanan. Everyone needs the opportunity to master their craft, and if they get that, they’ll go above and beyond.
A few people were moved on “pretty quickly” if they didn’t care about the other players but other than that, there were all types of people both Sinfield and Jones-Buchanan worked with.
Particularly in sport, knowing Sinfield could trust the team with his life was a powerful thought: “We are all people focused.”
Although Sinfield was captain at Leeds Rhinos, over the years he realised a “big leader” doesn’t exist and recognised he was already among “great leaders.”
“The new generation wants to be led a different way, more as a collective,” he explained. As a leader, his tips are setting high standards, don’t allow for mediocrity, have the courage to stand up for what’s right, and integrity.
“The team was always at the heart of every decision made. If it’s the right thing to be said or done, do it.”
How do you deal with losing winning team members or talented people, or negativity and adversity?
Growing up in Leeds, a young Jones-Buchanan knew he always wanted to work for Leeds Rhinos. So, when a player would leave, he thought “why would you want to leave the best place in the world? We’ve got to make them not want to leave.”
Recruitment through algorithms will never be able to spot values or leadership qualities, added Sinfield. “If you have good staff, try and keep them. Whoever is in charge of the ship should display those values every day.”
“I don’t remember a time in my life without pressure,” said Sinfield. “Being in a good team, outside noise wasn’t something we thought about.”
In a rugby team, players worked best under pressure. But it’s always important to remember that it doesn’t matter “if you lose” and to keep going forward, explained Jones-Buchanan.
With other members of a team relying on you, you can’t grow “unless you get out of your comfort zone, otherwise you will stay stagnant and stay still.”
Back to when he first joined the Leeds Rhinos team at the age of just 15, there was only a men’s team. That’s since evolved into many more teams, such as a women’s team and wheelchair team, to name a few. He fondly reflected on how Leeds Rhinos has been able to create a “fertile, diverse flowerbed of opportunity.”
By inviting diversity into your team, he says you’re also inviting different beliefs and backgrounds. To do that successfully, he explained you need “clear, defined values and objectives” and stick to them, otherwise there will be “chaos.”
On what they’re up to in the future, Sinfield revealed he was setting off again to do more marathons on behalf of MND with “Rob Burrows at the heart of it”.
Although he could think of a “million reasons not to go” his big reason is to help more people across the MND community. “We will keep going and keep fighting,” he said.
Since the event, Sinfield has completed the final leg of his ‘7 in 7 in 7’ ultra marathon charity challenge for people affected by motor neurone disease (MND). He has run an ultra-marathon every day, for seven days across seven cities.
Sinfield’s fundraising efforts especially inspired Peter Ahye, founder of The Luxury Food Collective, who subsequently became an official sponsor of Kevin’s “7 in 7 in 7” ultra marathon campaign after attending the event.
Peter Ahye commented: “Kevin’s fundraising efforts for MND Association align perfectly with our own values here at The Luxury Food Collective: community, passion, and a commitment to a better future. I was blown away by his dedication to his friend and the MND community, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to support Kevin on his latest endeavour.”
You can watch the full chat here.