Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Interview: Sir Clive Woodward on people management and driving culture

Interview: Sir Clive Woodward on people management and driving culture

There’s no difference between sport and business, Sir Clive Woodward tells Calum Fuller

FEW would argue that winning a World Cup is comparable to their day job.

There’s little that Jonny Wilkinson’s last-gasp drop goal against Australia in the 2003 World Cup final has to do with, say, supply chain management or working capital.

But for Sir Clive Woodward – the man who guided English rugby to that exultant moment – there is every reason to treat them in the same way.

“There’s no difference between sport and business,” he tells Financial Director ahead of his appearance as a keynote speaker at this summer’s CFO Agenda.

Indeed, Sir Clive is well-placed to make that assessment given his 18-year career both at Xerox and his own leasing and finance company prior to moving into professional rugby union, along with the rest of the sport in the mid-‘90s.

He became England manager in 1997 and set about overseeing the national team’s transition from amateur to professional, in 2003 culminating in a Six Nations Grand Slam and winning the World Cup in Australia with a tense 20-17 win over the hosts in the final.

Today, Sir Clive spends much of his time running Captured, a company producing software managers in both business and sport can use to analyse the performance of their charges on a forensic level.

“It puts into the digital age the coaching process I used in my rugby career culminating in winning the World Cup in 2003,” he explains. “Fundamentally, if you imagine the England team all sitting around a table, we became very good at capturing everybody’s thoughts, knowledge and understanding about that certain subject.

“Those 30 players didn’t work for me, they worked for 12 different clubs, so they would come to those various meetings with different ideas about the way to do things based on the way they did things at their clubs.”

That process is what Sir Clive calls ‘peer group learning’ and forms a key part of his work with Captured, enshrined in its website and app for business and sports team to use themselves.

“It makes learning stick and it makes coaching stick,” he says. “It’s a proven way of making sure everyone in the team contributes and understands what’s going on.

“I think today, Formula One is the flagship sport in terms of technology, both in the car and the athlete,” he adds. “A lot of other sports piggyback or copy things that Formula One is doing. Technology in sport is massive, but we’re probably at level one out of 20 in terms of progression and where we’ll actually get to. Whoever wins in IT tends to win.”

Coaching philosophyImprovement across the board

A proponent of “doing 100 things 1% better” – similar to the successful ‘marginal gains’ policy used to great effect by former British Cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford – Sir Clive believes in both business and sport, it is very unlikely vastly improving in one area will yield great results. Rather, he says seeking to build on several areas in a small way frequently yields dramatically better outcomes.

“If you go into every aspect of what you do and break it down and improve those things by 1%, it all adds up,” he says. “In rugby, we understand all the parameters – let’s break it down into as much detail as possible and try and do every bit of it slightly better than anyone else.

“It has to become part of your culture,” Sir Clive adds. “You have to be always doing it and just because you’ve improved something one day doesn’t mean you can’t improve it the next. It has to be the ethos of everybody. Everyone in that team has the obligation, if they think we can do something better, to hold their hand up and say it.”

That philosophy extends to canvassing the input of independent third parties in order to pool as much knowledge and ideas as possible in pursuit of higher performance levels.

“These ideas can come from anywhere, not just you as a leader,” he explains. “What we’ve got really good at is having other people from other areas coming in and looking at what we’re doing. It’s understanding that it’s not just using your own people, it’s using other people who you like and respect and are bright enough to look in and you’d be amazed at these new thoughts and new ideas. That’s what high-performing teams do.”

Introducing that methodology can potentially be troublesome, particularly when there is already an entrenched way of doing things in place at an organisation.

“There’s no easy answer to that, there’s no magic fix,” admits Sir Clive. “The only easy answer is this: you sit down with your team, you explain it one-to-one, you empower them to get involved and it’s not a case of saying ‘we’re going to have this big change’.

“The ‘Big Change’ philosophy is coming up with these big ideas. I don’t believe in that. I believe if you’ve got your business and it’s going well, you’ve got to understand the detail has to be right. You have to study it and every single person has to be involved.”

Sporting greats case studyTeamwork makes it work

Of course, for all this to work, everyone involved has to be pulling in the same direction. Managing people – attracting and retaining talent, managing their expectations, egos and their sensitivities – is pivotal to a functional, high quality team.

“I always try and have the most talented people,” he says. “I don’t go too big into their personalities, their egos. As a manager, it’s my job to work with them. Everyone’s different – you can have mavericks, egos. There’s no simple way of doing it. If you can employ the most talented people, sometimes they’re not the easiest people. The only way to do that is the one-on-one basis again, explaining to them the philosophy and we need them to be totally part of that process and that we’re trying to make them better at what they do if they’re going to contribute. I’ve not met anyone who’s very talented who doesn’t want to get better. They’re only going to get better if they’re part of this team and engage with everybody else.”

Conversely, of course, incredibly important to earn the respect of those in your team – something that Sir Clive says should be done through actions rather than words.

“You don’t get respect because you’re the boss, you get it because of what you do through the quality of your actions,” he says. “Just because I’m the head coach or the chief executive doesn’t mean people are going to respect me. They’ll respect you based on the quality of what you do, and if you’re this really talented person and I’m your boss, and I’m trying to make you even better and we do that – then they’ll respect you. Respect comes from what you do, not your position.”

CFO Agenda 2016Sir Clive will be a keynote speaker at the CFO Agenda on 28 June 2016 at the Waldorf Hilton in London. He will provide rare insight into people management and driving culture, while setting out your own path to success. He will also share his experiences on the front-line in the upper echelons of both sport and business.

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