Patriotic Pitman Training MD Clare Lister is not a happy bunny about England Rugby’s World Cup performance but she has taken away something from the tournament – a reflection that business can learn a lot from sport…and a realisation that she’d rather be in the boardroom than on the rugby pitch anyday!

So, we hit a real low with our performance in the rugby world cup after a lot of blood sweat and tears and as someone hugely patriotic it makes me very sad. Sad for our country that we don’t go on to experience the joy of success as a nation and sad for the coach and team members that they have disappointment, not joy to deal with, and that their job now is to address their failures, rather than their triumphs.

As an MD with a team to lead I often feel a little like a sports coach and the similarities of the world cup run up and our own preparation for a big event, or significant business milestone, have not passed me by, so I thought I’d share my musings with you.

  1. I’ll kick off with a bit of a controversial one – it’s been commented (by the rugby legend Will Carling) that perhaps the England team weren’t confident enough in their abilities. He felt that as a team they had been ‘treated like schoolchildren’rrather than as a team capable of leading themselves. This has been fought back against and who are we to know what goes on in the training camps and dressing rooms but what we saw in the final minutes was an unrest and lack of direction, so he might have something? If this was part of the problem, then I can only sympathise with their coach who, as a leader I’m sure was working to offer direction and guide the players. However, as someone at the helm, I know, people do look up for clear direction. Whether it’s in daily tasks, longer strategic plans, or thoughts on something going on in the industry, it is my responsibility to offer clarity. This I try to do, but I also want to note that I am very lucky with my team – I have intelligent, passionate strong willed team members, and I hope I provide an environment where they too can flourish. So, yes I try to direct where needed but I am a fan of letting people get on with their job, and indeed take ownership of that job. This, for me, is when you see true talent, and when you really shine as a team. In an Exec Sec role particularly you need the freedom to make things happen, knowing that your boss has confidence in you that you’ll make the right decisions, but also knowing that your boss is there for guidance if need be. Being armed with the right skills to do this is essential. We’ve seen many people take on training because they have had their confidence knocked by an employer who hasn’t given them room to develop, and they’ve ended up feeling a bit lost.
  2. Making the tackle – one of the most exciting parts of the game is the tackling for me – it’s the adrenaline of that split second decision, players needing to make a decisive action that will influence the following play – if you miss or don’t commit you’ve set a chain of events in motion very different to those if you take that player down and stop them in their tracks. If you’re the player trying to drive things forward sometimes you’ve got to run into that tackle for the sake of the team. When this is done right what does it show in the player? Commitment, and balls. Yes, proper guts and strength of mind (as well as body!). In business if you’re the one who’s job it is to make that tackle – and you miss – blimey there’s trouble ahead. If you’d prefer to dodge an issue than address it head on, and would rather waste time going around the houses rather than dealing with an issue invariably you will waste time and resource and potentially miss opportunities – timing in business is key. This is true whatever role you’re in and whatever position in the business you hold. I know there will be business coaches out there who believe in treading carefully, assessing the situation 10 times before making a decision, but that’s not my style and I’ve found in business that dealing with things straight is by far a better approach.
  3. Dealing with pressure – this is related to the above, but I wanted to address this point separately. Captain Chris Robshaw had been quoted to say “There is no second chance – everything is on the line”h- how heartbreaking is that in many ways? You could say it’s motivational and inspiring but you could say this approach will just put the fear of God into the team and any cracks will clearly grow under the immense pressure. The thought of something being so final that you can never undo what has been done is quite hard to grasp – as in business we are very rarely in this situation. Yes we might win and lose business, but we play the long game and can usually come back quickly enough to not cause total carnage. The thought of a high pressure 90 minutes being a make or break situation for my business and team’s future is horrifying. I guess this is why we love the drama of watching it but good grief, I don’t envy them this. On some level I guess the role of an Exec Sec can feel like this- you often have to act in the spur of the moment, make judgement calls, and deal with high pressure deadlines – you are also undoubtedly juggling more than one ball – I take my England cap off to you.
  4. Recognising the team – individuals have skills that might be able to get you through – but you should never to totally dependent on any one player. We’ve seen the World Cup glory days of Jonny Wilkinson saving the bacon of the squad after they were put in difficult situation after difficult situation – but without that iconic hero player, the game is a different altogether. Yes the team had some strong outstanding talent, but at the end of the day the collective effort needed to be stronger, more uniform and more cohesive. We know that Exec Secs are relied on hugely by employers and often expected to be a one trick pony, handling hugely diverse task lists which merge a massive skill set. We also know that many thrive on this way of working and wouldn’t have it any other way – but – it’s worth taking a moment to just consider, if as an employer you rely too much on one person, and if as an employee you do too much as one person. It’s quite possible we all need to get the sense of team back, rather than ploughing in manically in our own little worlds. I love working with others but do often find I take myself off when I want to be ‘productive’r- my lesson here is to make a conscious effort to involve others more at this point, and make the most of my fantastic team that I have around me.  As a leader, it’s also essential to know your team’s strengths and attributes.  Very much like a sports team selection, I aim to select my best and most appropriate people for the varying challenges within the business.
  5. Being ready – there has been much talk in the aftermath of the World Cup disaster that the issue was the team was too young, too inexperienced, and just not ready. Not ready to deal with the magnitude of the challenge that lay ahead of them. Not ready and armed with all the skills, experience and qualities they collectively needed to make success a reality. And when a team’s not ready, you just can’t force this. Sure you can force it in terms of hoping, praying, and pretending they are ready, but you can’t ultimately make them ready in the split second that they need to be, if they just aren’t there. The England team had trained and trained but many had not played together, or played on the scale where they were now being asked to perform. It was time to sink or swim, and they sank. In situations like this you might get lucky – everything might go your way and you’ll come out victorious, but don’t be fooled this is luck. In business this situation may be if you go for a pitch, job, or project that you’re not ready for – you know you could be ready, in the future, but the opportunity is now. You go for it anyway – then turn out to be totally stumped and ‘found’ out because you just didn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw ready. I am guilty of this as I’d rather just go for it and see what happens if given half a chance, but that’s where business colleagues, team members and advisors come into play. We all need that judgement call sometimes, that’s too hard to make ourselves, and this is where valued team members really come into their own. As an Exec Sec I would encourage you to follow your instincts and if you find yourself or your boss in a situation you see ending in tears, don’t be afraid to speak up – you could well be averting a future disaster.

This blog was adapted from an article written for Executive Secretary: