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Opinion Page

Leadership lessons from the playing field

Posted by on Mar 7 14:17. | Edit

Having worked in the recruitment industry for many years now – 17 years at Michael Page and counting – I am often asked about the ‘right way’ to attract, manage and reward talent in order to deliver business success.

Whilst there is certainly no ‘magic bullet’ for getting it right every time, the England rugby team’s recent form demonstrates a common mistake: assuming your ‘star players’ have what it takes to be managers.

Martin Johnson enjoyed phenomenal levels of success prior to taking on the England manager’s position – think World Cup winner, the only man to captain the British and Irish Lions on two tours.  He was undoubtedly many peoples’ sporting hero (me included) and his results say everything we need to know about his pedigree as a player.

On the face of things his promotion to head coach was the logical choice, and yet, under his leadership England endured one of its worst ever World Cup campaigns. More surprising still was that the high performance, disciplined environment that one would have expected under Johnson fell apart in a barrage of negative headlines and lack-lustre performances.

So what lessons should we learn from this?

1. Star performers don’t always make star managers

The critical mistake the RFU made in appointing Johnson was failing to give him the right backing. It’s a mistake we see all too often in the business world. Talented, ambitious people from all professions are often promoted to leadership positions on the strength of their individual performances without enough guidance and support from their own managers to make them effective.

2. Everybody needs somebody to lean on

When it comes to the crunch, effective management is a team sport. What the RFUshould have done is support Johnson by surrounding him with the appropriate talent above, alongside and most importantly below him. This management team of experienced, professional middle managers could then have worked with Johnson to mentor him in the early stages.

Newly promoted people will have to rely more heavily on their direct reports in the initial months after taking on a role. If the person being brought in is also expected to make changes to their team, or those reporting into them aren’t up to the job, even the most talented people will quickly find themselves with a mountain to climb.

3. The obvious choice is not always the best one

When it comes to choosing future leaders, the key is to look for those individuals who create a culture of success around them. In the interim, Stuart Lancaster may not have been the most glamorous choice to manage England, but his credentials as a coachrather than a player are already starting to pay dividends; successfully motivating a relatively inexperienced team to hard-fought away wins in Edinburgh and Rome as well as a narrow defeat to an excellent Welsh team.

4. When it comes to management, there’s no substitute for doing the hard yards

It was true for Martin Johnson and Andre Villas-Boas’ recent example backs this up; sometimes raw talent isn’t enough. By common consent, most experts believe Stuart Lancaster has made very sound and sensible choices in terms of his coaching team; appointing individuals who are proven winners with coaching experience. Their focus has been on building an honest, disciplined team who trust one another, introducing fresh and fun coaching methods and backing talent and potential. He has enthusiasm for the role and the confidence to omit players whose actions have suggested that they are taking their position in the squad for granted. All marks of an experienced leader with the right knowledge of management tools and techniques to fall back on.

5. Always make new hires accountable for their performance

As an interim appointment taking on his first really high profile role, Lancaster, unlike Johnson has everything to play for. Talented people are risk takers and are motivated by pressure and rewards. By making Lancaster’s appointment contingent on his performance, rather than offering a fixed term contract straight away, the RFU has given the interim England manager every incentive to succeed.

So in summary, whomever you choose to promote, it’s important to never lose sight of what made them great or motivated them to want that role in the first place. Martin Johnson could have been a great manager had he been given the right support structures and team around him. Stuart Lancaster has passed his first test, which was to improve the attitude and behaviour of his team both on and off the pitch. He will now be judged on his results.

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