Date posted: 11/09/2023 5 min read

Five business lessons from a rugby referee

Wellington rugby referee Hamish Mexted CA has learned valuable lessons about motivation and more, which he uses to be better in business.

In Brief

  • There are numerous lessons to be learned from the sporting field for all areas of life.
  • From the point of view of a top-level rugby referee, it pays to be human and authentic, which can help reduce abuse and disrespect on the field.
  • There is great joy and honour in refereeing a sports match, as there is in managing people in a business. Use this joy to ensure you turn up with the right attitude.

With the 2023 Rugby World Cup underway, lessons from the sporting field – particularly around teamwork, performance and motivation – come into play in other areas of our lives, including business.

Hamish Mexted CA, director at Convex Accounting and referee of top-level Wellington club rugby matches, has a particularly powerful point of view into that world. He has officiated over matches at such events as the Hong Kong Sevens and in front of 30,000 screaming fans in Japan.

Mexted began refereeing in 2002, partly as a result of a challenge from his father, who was tired of his son’s constant criticisms of the decisions being made during televised games. If he knew so much, his dad suggested, he should go out and referee games himself. And so, he did.

“I was doing it to achieve something,” he says. “I wanted to reach National Provincial Championship rugby, which is the top domestic level in New Zealand. I didn’t make that, so then I was doing it for a competitive reason. I wanted to go as far as I could, as fast as I could.

“Now, since coming back a couple of years ago after a break while my kids were young, I just do it for fun.”

Hamish Mexted CAPictured: Hamish Mexted CA

What are the business lessons Mexted has taken from his unique perspective amongst giants of the sporting world? Here are his top five.

1. Pace yourself for performance gains

Leaders and staff often hope for overnight success. But there’s great wisdom in slowing down and ensuring you’ve got the experience and knowledge, and the right people around you, to reach your strategic goal, Mexted says.

“When I started refereeing, I got pushed forward too quickly,” he says. “Deliberately slowing down is OK.

“I was in a rush and I probably had a sense of entitlement around it as well, because I had come up through the Wellington ranks so quickly. I didn’t have anyone to tell me to pull my head in. If I had someone chopping me down a little bit, rather than building me up, that would have made a difference.”

2. Don’t be afraid to be human

If people in business, particularly leaders and managers, stay aloof from staff or pretend they’ve got all the answers, there will be less respect and meaningful connection within the workplace.

“On the field, if a referee presents themselves as a robot to appear impartial, then it’s easier for players and fans to abuse that referee,” Mexted says.

“But if we’re authentic and we have personality, if we make ourselves human and a little fallible, there’s more empathy and more respect.”

3. Recognise triggers of problems

In some games, when Mexted makes a certain call, the players simply get on with it. In others, players explode in anger. In those games in which flare-ups occur there is always a trigger: something that happened to create the environment for the flare-up.

It’s the job of a manager to learn what these triggers are in their workplace, and to recognise them and resolve them before they become a major issue, Mexted says.

“If a staff member is suddenly performing poorly, for example, what has caused that?” he says. “How can you recognise that underlying thing and nip it in the bud?”

4. Set clear and simple expectations

“Prior to a match, referees chat with both teams,” Mexted says. “We speak with the front rows about scrums and some referees will go through a list of about 42 things they expect.

“I tell them that they know more about scrums than me. They always agree with that. Then I’ll just ask them to do two things for me. One is to stay straight and stay square. The other is for them to just keep chatting to me, just like we are now in the change room, all game long, to keep it respectful.

“Then I’m out of the changing room before they realise. But they’ve heard the important things that I need them to hear.”

The workplace is no different, Mexted says. Keep expectations few, simple and clear, and communicate constantly and respectfully.

5. Recognise the joy in what you’re doing

There is a “pure joy” in refereeing, Mexted says, in being on a field amid such a great battle of bodies and minds.

“When you walk onto a field thinking about how much fun it is, and what an honour it is, you’ll perform differently than if you walk onto the field thinking how difficult the job is going to be, or how awful this team was last time you refereed,” he says.

“When you walk onto a field thinking about how much fun it is, and what an honour it is, you’ll perform differently than if you walk onto the field thinking how difficult the job is going to be, or how awful this team was last time you refereed.”
Hamish Mexted CA, Convex Accounting

Leading a business and managing people to get the best out of them is a similar joy and privilege, Mexted says.

“Your job is not about going to work every day, clocking in and clocking out,” he says. “It’s about shaping the performance and the lives of people who choose to spend their days with you.”

So, if you turn up with the right mindset, rather than dreading dealing with a specific person or team, it affects your own engagement and performance in a powerfully positive way.