From the Rugby Pitch to the Boardroom with Stuart Lancaster

In this interview, I speak with former England Rugby coach Stuart Lancaster, now at Leinster, about his take on management, leadership and the differences between the Rugby field and the boardroom.

This interview contains the best bits of our talk and in some places has been shortened to allow for a clearer conversation.

We started the chat with me asking Stuart to provide some background on how he got the role as England head coach and how he felt when it happened. 

I was at a coaching conference at the time and I got a phone call to say that Martin Johnson had left the role. I remember thinking ‘I wonder what they’ll do next’ but I eventually went to present to the board and I said listen, why don’t I do the interim job for the Six Nations? 

I went and presented my vision about what I thought and maybe a day or two later they said, yes, and they arranged a press conference where I was announced as the interim England coach.” 

And the interview process for the full-time role

“The interview process for the full-time job took place during Six Nations, 2012. 

There was a lot going on and we managed to win four out of five. I guess on the back of those performances and some of the changes we made, I got the job full time and it was only then really that it does dawn on you, you know, I am the permanent England coach. 

It’s a big shift in mindset because you go from offering an opinion to making all the decisions. And that’s the difference between working for the leader and being the leader and being a leader of a national team. It’s everything from the national team all the way down to grassroots Rugby.”

Looking back, how prepared do you think you really were? 

“I was prepared as I could be at the time, given the fact I’ve never done it before. 

I felt that I’d done as much as I could, to be ready to go. 

When you’re in that number 2 position and you’re waiting to go to number 1 position, and you’ve not been there, I still think you can prepare for it. 

You can go on courses, study leadership, you can think about what you’re going to do. 

But the most important thing is you must have clarity of what you believe in and what you’re going to do if you get there.” 

Stuart began to expand on what this meant. 

“I think where leaders fall down when they go from a number two to a number one position is that they don’t have real clarity on their philosophy, i.e. the values and the behaviours they want in their organisation and also, the technical philosophy of how they’re going to drive the organisation forward. 

In Rugby, you need clarity in your on-field philosophy, the way you’re going to play the game, and clarity in your off-field philosophy, the behaviours and the values you want to see in your organization and I felt I was clear on both.”

 

How did you go about developing that philosophy and that set of values, whether it’s on the field or off the field? 

“You spend time thinking about it. You think about what really matters to you, the values and behaviours you want to build your organisation on. What are the traits you want to display during this period of uncertainty? 

It’s a bit like the England job, it was more managerial, more leadership, more of a director Rugby role and during all those times, I’m constantly reflecting on my behaviours, my values, my learning and clarifying. 

What do I actually believe in here? 

How do I improve my technical competence? 

How do I improve my managerial skills? 

How do I improve my leadership skills? 

And so then when the opportunity does come you’re ready.

One of the big key points for me, I went on a level five leadership course and it taught me self-awareness, relationship management, emotional intelligence, building relationships, all those softer skills that will guide you to your philosophy. 

There’s no right or wrong way, the way I would lead would be different to someone else.

So it’s not say that you have to have a particular philosophy that everyone will follow. 

What people want from their leaders is clarity in their philosophy. 

They want the leader to have a point of view. 

They want the leader to sell that vision to them. 

They want the leader to inspire them and they want to have a leader they can willingly follow, not because they’re paid to follow. 

That all comes from having clarity in what you believe in.” 

What advice do you have for somebody who says, I can’t get out of the operational mindset and make that shift towards that kind of thinking along the lines of emotional intelligence? What would you say is either a step towards it or even the value of doing that? 

“Delegate the managerial stuff, employ people who are good at taking those tasks off you and let them do it and entrust them to do it. 

Organising the weekly schedule, the monthly schedule, organising the next tour, managing the board, speaking to the media, dealing with the commercial team, Club Country relationships, I have people at Leinster that do the managerial stuff brilliantly, which frees me up to coach and use my time on leadership and coaching. I think it’s a better balance.” 

Stuart then acknowledged this didn’t happen when he was at England. 

“It’s not through anyone’s fault. It’s just through the nature of the England job and because I was reasonably organized and quite adept at the managerial stuff anyway. But in hindsight, I probably should’ve got someone who can take some managerial responsibility off me, to focus on the leadership and the coaching side of things. 

That’s a danger when you become the leader, that you still hold on to your managerial responsibilities. But actually, what people want from leaders is relationships. They want a connection. They want vision. They want decisions. They want high-level support. The micro detail can be done by someone else.” 

How do you align everyone to see the bigger picture with you, to believe in what you believe in? 

“The first thing is to have clarity, clarity in your mind about what you believe in and where you’re going to go, and you need to spend time thinking about what your vision for the future is. You’ve then got to be able to articulate that and pull people with you towards that vision. 

Once you’ve got that clear in your mind, the way I went about it, I jumped in into groups, so to speak. So if you imagine a circle and there’s me in the middle and then there’s the coaching teams, I go and meet them and I speak to them and I explain the vision of what I’m trying to achieve and how we’re going to try and build it. 

Then the next meeting I have is with the management team and I’ll get them aligned. 

Then we have the players and we sell them on the vision. 

Then I invite in the board members of the RFU and I try to involve them. I go to the Council of the RFU and the professional game board of the RFU and the clubs that support the players and I go and present to them and I sell that vision to them. 

So that circle is getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and then you’re ultimately trying to sell your vision to the nation that there is one team that’s connected. 

You connect the RFU, you speak to the RFU staff, you go to the RFU staff meeting you involve the grassroots people, by use of the media, get your message across to grassroots Rugby fans and then eventually you want England to take this one team mentality. 

So from this little acorn, if you like, of three coaches in a room, to a country, that’s the way I tried to do in my mind. And I think if I was in an organisation, I probably wouldn’t do it any differently. And I think you’ve got to describe what the future looks like, but in detail and you’ve got to tell a story and get people to feel it, if that makes sense.” 

It’s about how the players then see that bigger picture and feel like they’re working towards something bigger than themselves. 

“Everyone wants to win the next cup, the next trophy, at Leinster, we want to win the European Cup, but there’s also something beyond winning the next trophy. 

Is it about inspiring younger people in Leinster? Is it about getting the families down to support Leinster? Watching and creating that family atmosphere that we all look for? 

Is it about actually sitting in the changing room with a beer after the game with your mates? 

If you speak to players about what’s the best part about winning a trophy? it’s actually sat having a beer after the game.” 

I could personally relate to this from my own sporting experience and to players connected with something bigger than themselves rather than just the result. 

I asked Stuart if, as Rugby has becomes more professional, whether players lose that connection with their why? 

“Well, I think that’s the quality of the leader if that’s the case. So I don’t think they should. I mean, I’d like to say at Leinster, I think they very much understand the reason why. 

They think about the former Leinster players that played for the team. 

Think about the history of the province. 95 per cent of the team is Home-Grown from Dublin or from Ireland, Leinster, the province. 

They want to play for their family and friends who’ve supported them.

You do occasionally need to touch on it and just remind them of the reason why we’re all doing this, but that’s the art of leadership [knowing] when to intervene with those moments on when not to. And so no I don’t know if it has been lost in some teams, I would say perhaps we all need to look at the leader.” 

I asked Stuart if he thought it was the same in Football…

“I look at, say, Liverpool at the moment, there’s clearly a connection isn’t there? 

There’s a connection between the playing group, a connection between the playing group and the management team, there’s a connection between the management team, the playing group and the supporters. 

They are playing for cause and for team and for purpose. 

How powerful is that force? 

We’re not talking about eleven players on a pitch, we’re talking about a city playing against a team. 

And he expanded on how England tried to replicate it. 

I never forget we played Wales in 2013 and we were going for the Grand Slam and Wales beat us at the millennium and it felt like you weren’t just playing against 15 Welsh players you were genuinely playing against the nation. 

What we tried to do with England was flip that around and say, well, why can’t we do that with England? I think Twickenham did change. The games we played against the All Blacks and other games, France game sticks my mind in 2015. The energy behind the team, the people wearing the white shirt, the pride the supporters had in the team, the connection the team had with the supporters, It was such a powerful force at Twickenham. 

It makes England very difficult to beat and sometimes we didn’t always tap into that very well, being English.” 

We changed lanes here and I asked Stuart what his advice would be for leaders right now who are trying to bring about the balance of managing the crisis, but also trying to lead with some optimism and hope? 

“I think it’s very tough times. 

The worlds fighting a virus it can’t see, people have been locked down into isolation, the financial pressure, the social, the pressure of isolating and, you know, everything that goes with it will increase the financial pressure that people are feeling will increase. 

So I think it does require good leadership. 

Let me give you an example of how I’ve tried to do it in the last week. 

I did three short presentations, one was on the past, where we were this season, where we’ve come from, the lessons we learnt this season. The second was on the present, where we are now, and the third was on the future, this is what I think we can go to next. 

It was me trying to describe the future in graphic detail and I sent them a motivational video of us playing our best Rugby to some great music. 

I sent it on to them and I said to the players, I want you to come back to me with any observations you’ve got on what I’ve said, really go back to our performances and what was our best performance and why? Describe it to me and I’ll collate them all together and send them back out to the group.  

So, even though [I’m] not actually physically seeing players, I’m in Leeds, they’re in Dublin, I can still connect with them and paint a vision for the future.” 

Do you connect with your players once a month? Once a week? How does that work for you? 

“I’m far better at it now. I made a conscious decision to really try and connect as best I could at their level. By that I mean on the gym floor, so to speak. I’ll go down the gym floor [and ask] how are you getting on? How was the weekend? How’s the family. Thought you were brilliant at the weekend by the way. 

You’d be amazed how much that conversation will resonate with the person and how long it lasts. We get stuck behind our desks and we don’t do those conversations and the best way I can describe it is it’s like an invisible call between me and every individual in the team. 

The more you communicate with them, the more you get away from your email, the more you get down to the shop floor, you start sport speaking to them, the thicker that code becomes.

When you have problems in teams, you get this department’s working over here and this departments work over here and they’re not speaking to each other at all. 

But stop emailing. 

Why don’t you get off your laptop and go down and connect physically or even just say listen, I wouldn’t mind catching up this week, could you pop up for five minutes? 

I just want to check-in and see how you’re getting on. 

You’d be amazed, they come up and they speak to me, five minutes, nothing more than that.” 

It’s hard for people to get away from their desk

“It’s hard because it takes emotional energy. It doesn’t take physical energy it’s the emotional energy and it does burn you out a bit.  

So the next step then is how do I renew my emotional energy on a daily basis so that next day I can do the same again? 

You need to find those windows as well yourself because if you don’t, you do tend to burn yourself out. 

So that emotional energy, how you renew your emotional energy at the end of the day, at the end of a week or whatever is really important.” 

I think that emotional energy and coping with that and building time in for downtime, to think, to reflect is equally as important, whether it’s in sports or business. 

“I mean, the challenge of sports is, your games are every weekend, so you work all week and normally when you get some downtime, you’re at the most emotionally charged part of the week, which is the game. And then sometimes you lose and you’ve got to try and pick the team up from having lost, or the emotions of winning. And then before, you know, you’re on Monday again.” 

One of the things I talk about a lot is being able to balance business body relationships and mindset. How do you manage that? How do you manage those? Because you’re in Dublin, your families in Leeds and kind of managing all of that and being present. 

“Getting that balance right is absolutely key. 

Obviously, for me, it’s a challenge. There’s no doubt I’ll miss massive moments. 

I miss my time with my wife, I miss time with the kids who are 18 and 19 now, I miss the day they pick up the A-Level results or pass a driving test or things that you never get back. 

But I’m a lot more reflective now of making sure I create special moments. 

I’ll be proactive in my diary planning. So I’ll say to my wife, let’s go away for a meal here. Let’s go away for a night here or see the kids, I’m home this weekend, why don’t we do this together? 

So you diarise events that create memories. 

I think if you don’t do that when you’re travelling or commuting or working, then what happens is you don’t do them. You just come home. Function. You prepare for the next day at work and you go back to work. 

I’ve missed big moments and I don’t want to miss any more if I’m being honest.” 

Final thoughts

As the podcast drew to a close Stuart touched on his favourite podcasts and we also took some questions from the audience.

It was a truly informative and insightful interview and coming from a sporting background it was great to get the thoughts of someone who has managed at the top level and not only hear how he handled leadership and management but also discuss how those same principles can be applied to business. 

It was a great talk, one I certainly enjoyed and you can listen back to this fantastic episode in its entirety by clicking the link here 

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