I recently chatted with Alex Magleby, the CEO of the New England Free Jacks Rugby Team. Alex previously served as USA Rugby’s General Manager of National Teams & High Performance, where he oversaw all sides of performance rugby at the National Governing Body—including World Cup and Olympic campaigns. We discussed many areas of Alex’s leadership journey that can apply to all leaders managing teams and organizations.
The Back Story
Leverage All Relevant Experience
Alex was an engineer major at Dartmouth, where he played rugby. After college, he began his career in focused analytics and systems—not sports. That experience in analytics along—with his rugby playing—helped Alex lead, first as the national team captain, and ultimately as CEO of the New England Free Jacks. Alex shared that his early experiences served as a lab of sorts; he could innovate and think about workflow and systems and apply those systems to his rugby career. Alex advises everyone to think about micro-steps, not big leaps, when it comes to learning. Don’t discount past experiences; instead, leverage them as you focus on your career goals.
Free Jacks Leadership Tenets
Determine Your Competitive Advantage
Alex shares it was important to think about how he wanted to develop US talent in the competitive world of rugby. He set the goal that the US would be in the top five teams in the world. To create this competitive advantage, Alex looked at the American system to determine where he could break it down and rebuild.
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Adding skills would take a long time—there had to be another way. Alex wanted to leverage skills the Americans already had. He concluded that American athletes had the advantage of playing other sports in addition to rugby, and this was where he could create a competitive advantage. Americans could catch the ball above their heads with great accuracy—this was one small skill that Alex could leverage on the pitch for his team’s success.
Have a Competitive Code
Leaders are naturally focused on competition and winning. Alex said that even among highly competitive rugby teams, there is a code of honor: players from opposing teams will shake hands and share meals together. Rugby fans also share this code. Alex encouraged leaders to adopt this moral code; to engage and learn from competitors in the marketplace, at seminars, and other events that are important for the brand.
Build a System
Alex says that being motivated isn’t enough: having a success system in place with specific tenets and guidelines is what helps build a high functioning team. It’s important that all team members, not just the leader, understand how the system works. Alex achieves this in his organization by having all relevant parties debate a question: the open dialogue leads to knowledge transfer among team members.
It’s important to Alex that everyone in the organization has the same language to speak about an issue or opportunity; everyone understands the competence level required of them, and everyone knows their specific role. Alex advises that adaptability is key to the system working: everyone must collaborate and learn together. This system inculcates a sense of belonging and connectivity among team members. Alex’s system helps the team create rituals, which in turn create more consistent execution and performance on the pitch.
While Alex spoke a lot about the system, one of the areas he is passionate about is fun. Alex says it’s important not to take yourself too seriously as a leader; he encouraged leaders to openly laugh, sing, and poke fun at themselves. According to Alex, no one is perfect, and being vulnerable when appropriate helps a leader build trust with team members. Alex points out that having fun and being playful make space for imagination and innovation. ‘Fun’ is what makes the system go.
Through determining a competitive advantage, competing honorably, building a success system, and remembering to find joy, Alex has built a successful organization. Alex’s experience is testament to the power of playing to strengths—both on the field and off.