The coach's advice for the business scrum

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READERS OF this newspaper will notice that Business andSports appear back-to-back in the same section. It is no accident that they are adjacent. Increasingly, professionals in both occupations believe the way to optimise a team's performance on field or pitch is also the way to run a business.

"Business is becoming more team-oriented and less hierarchical," says Jane Stephenson, a marketing executive. "There's much more emphasis on sharing and team building. You can see it in titles. Everyone is a vice president and nobody is a secretary. That's similar to what you bring into sports. Sport is becoming more business-like. The two worlds are merging."

Stephenson organises a series of early morning talks, "Breakfast Briefings", for PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Irish Independent. Recently, her guest speaker was Warren Gatland, formerly of New Zealand's All Blacks and now coach of the Irish national rugby team.

"There is now a huge parallel between sport and business," he says. "I don't see any difference in what I am doing with the thirty people I am involved with in the Irish rugby team and managing a business, which means providing the environment structure, training, support and discipline needed to optimise performance."

Limerick, the venue for Gatland's talk, boasts three rugby football clubs. No surprise, then, that 450 business executives were happy to turn up at a hotel at 8am, fresh and ready to give him their undivided attention over breakfast.

He began by recalling how on his first Irish assignment - a four- year tenure as coach to the Galway club, the Galwegians - he found that starting from scratch was better then taking on something partly formed. The Galwegians were, in the national vernacular, in "rag order", said Gatland.

"They were in a desperate state. That first week we were going to a match in Sligo, two hours away on the bus. We set a meeting time of 11.00 and at 11.00 I was there with two other players. At 11.15 we had about eight players. At 11.30 I said that's it, we're going. We had 12 players as we drove out the gate, and picked up two others who were late.

"From then on, one of the rules that we established was that if they were going to be late for training, or couldn't make the session, they had to ring me beforehand to let me know so I could make arrangements. That was just one of the things, a bit of discipline, that I brought into the team. The fact that those players were late that time was probably more of a help than a hindrance to me."

A term with the Connaught team followed before he was installed as national team coach. One of the things he learned throughout that time, was that if knowing when to put your foot down is one aspect of management, sharing responsibility is another.

"When I arrived back here for my last year, I was told by the committee of the club that we now had a selection panel of five. Part of the success of being with a team that had come from nowhere and was now progressing was that people wanted to have a say. After three or four games I said either they go or I go. I didn't have any problem with people being involved, but if they wanted to be a selector in the team they had to attend every training session, every meeting, and every game, and some people weren't quite prepared to invest that level of commitment."

Gatland introduced the policy of assigning additional responsibilities to team members on one of the national team's overseas tours, and he believes it has paid dividends. "One of the things we did was to set up committees within the team. Everyone on that tour was in a committee. There was the social committee and the entertainments committee. We had a banker and a laundry committee. I wanted to take the responsibility away from management and get players to say 'this is the aspect of the tour that I am on, that I am responsible for.' "

Gatland also thinks constructive criticism has a role in employee development. But the effective manager will seek as well as offer it. "I ask the players at the end of each season to evaluate me, and the rest of the management team, anonymously. I find that beneficial in two ways. Firstly to get back some of the positive things that we are working towards as a team. Secondly, I am getting back information that will help me develop further as a coach. It's one of the things I ask business people - would you be prepared to ask your staff to evaluate you, and what sort of honest responses would you get back? If they were negative, what would you do about rectifying the problems identified?"

Asked for an appraisal of Gatland's talk, executives and their guests seemed impressed and said the it had given them something useful to take back to their businesses. In one case, at least, it seemed that Gatland was preaching to the converted. Tom Kerin, proprietor of Kerin Project Management, has been inviting annual assessments of management from employees for the past 10 years.

"The talk reinforced the values that most managers exhibit," Kerin said. "It's nice to hear someone at that level dealing with individuals, or rather, individualists, which these athletes very much are. It's good to see how he handles them - which I think is very similar to the way managements should handle top performers in business, both in their own organisation and at client level."