By no coincidence, several of the answers he received were the same. "Yes," the common answer ran. "You could tell us how we can earn as much money as you do."
Will Carling has a day job which can bring him more in a month than some of his policemen, army officer, and RAF pilot team-mates earn in a year. It is a unique job, a job he invented for himself. While the lads in the pack plod the beat or pound the parade ground, he spends his days telling would-be captains of industry what it's like to be captain of the England rugby team; suggesting that they might find some of his man-management techniques of use in their business, even if it is undertaking the end- of-year audit rather than winning the Grand Slam. And he is rather good at it; so good, in fact, that the queue to hire the services of his company, Insight, could stretch round Twickenham.
This Tuesday, the first working day after a weekend spent tangling with the forces of flatulence, the newly reinstated captain of England was in Harrogate, engaged by the accountancy group KPMG, a company so enamoured of his methods it has sent him all over the country to help train its management. At a starting fee of £7,500 a day for the most basic Insight package, they must be getting something out of it.
"I mustn't use a phrase like old farts," said Colin Sharman, senior partner of KPMG, "but Carling and his team are much closer in age to the people they are training than those who usually teach leadership skills. So our people find they can identify much more easily with Carling's team and get much more out of it. It's been so successful for us, we'd like to use them far more often than we do. We could use them almost full time. But it is a question of availability."
Damned nuisance, all that rugby getting in the way.
There are plenty of sportsmen who earn a crust telling awestruck businessmen how to motivate themselves: Jack Charlton, Jack Nicklaus, Brian Clough ("I want you to sell more, young man") are all at it. But most of them stand behind a podium, deliver a lecture and then disappear. What they don't do is bring along props.
In the ballroom of the stately home that KPMG had hired for its "Leadership Training Programme" on Tuesday, Will Carling had laid out six planks of wood with pieces of rope attached. Given that most of the 15 people in the room were graduates with extensive professional qualifications, it seemed unlikely that he could persuade them to climb aboard these and spend an hour and a half racing up and down the carpet in ridiculous crocodiles. But he managed it, striding alongside them with a stop-watch, telling them to race in silence, then blindfold, recording each team's personal best times. Afterwards, at a post-mortem chaired by Carling, the exhausted participants sat down to discuss what conclusions they could draw from the exercise about solving problems at speed, about communications, about teamwork.
"What plans did you discuss before setting off?" he began.
"Well," said one of the plankers. "We spent quite a lot of time debating the relative merits of amateurism and professionalism in plank-walking."
"Yes," smiled Carling. "I can understand that."
The idea of Insight came to Carling about three years ago during one of his regular musings about captaincy.
"I was sitting with my agent one day and he asked what did I really want to do," said Carling, during the break after the plank-walking. "And I said, 'I find this leadership stuff fascinating, I think there's got to be something in it.' "
The plan the pair conceived was to provide more than the standard if- I-can-win-the-Grand-Slam-you-can-reach-that-sales-target motivational chat, but to devise a course in which some of the theories of leadership could be given practical demonstration. Importantly, as well as being good at this himself, Carling proved adept at recruiting sportsmen and women to help him. For the KPMG event, he brought along Adrian Moorhouse, the swimmer, and Tracy Edwards, the yachtswoman. The threesome spent the day mixing with their clients as they undertook their plank-style exercises with an enthusiasm it would be hard to fake.
"People say, 'Oh, it's a boys' day out'," said Carling. "Sure, of course, have fun. But they'll go home today with two or three ideas of real use and that's better than most management consultants can offer.
"To do that, it's no good just telling a few anecdotes. You could get some sportsmen in, they'd give a smashing 20- minute laugh-in about their life and times, everyone would love it, but could they actually give you something to take away?
"Some of our greatest competitors are naturals, they don't think about what they do, they just do it. No good to us. You need a particular kind of sportsman to do this.
"Like Moorhouse - he's lost two Olympics, and he's thought about why. So when he tells you how he won his gold, you can see there's a real process behind it, which you might be able to use."
Two qualities that Carling is particularly keen on engendering in his clients are calmness and clarity of communication. Both assets are much in evidence in his own performance in the seminar, as he moves around the room offering succinct words of advice, totally aware of the frisson of excitement his clients enjoy as he deals with them one to one, but never letting on.
"In business as in sport you must never panic," he explained, sipping calmly at his coffee, despite the weekend he had just endured. "Because if you do, you lose sight of the basics.
"It's not always a message that is easy to convey in a rugby international. I remember once we were losing badly to South Africa, and in the half- time team talk I said something like, 'Keep doing the basics right, there's plenty of time left, the important thing is not to panic.' And Mike Teague looks up and says [adopting excited West Country tones], 'Don't panic? Don't panic? We're being fucking murdered and he tells us not to fucking panic.' "
Back in the ballroom, after lunch, panic was breaking out all over the place as another group of accountants started falling off planks. It made you wonder, as Carling oozed alongside them, whether he ever used such exercises to promote team spirit in the England squad.
"Rugby's a, er, macho game," he said, giving a look that made it clear he knew what would happen if he suggested that Dean Richards and Tim Rodber spent the afternoon circumnavigating a ballroom aboard two planks. "But there are plenty of things I've taken from these sessions and used with the team."
He had used his day job to become a better captain, then?
"Well, I could hardly be a worse one," he said, with the sort of self- effacement which is born of supreme self-confidence. "I'll definitely have picked up one or two things today I'll take along to a squad training session and make out they were my idea.
"There was actually one really important thing I picked up at a recent event we did. I'd always encouraged people to say what they thought in team meetings. But it was always the same three or four faces who spoke. I thought, these other guys must have something to contribute, but I could never get them to. Then I heard from a client that there was a Japanese management technique of telling everyone they had to bring along something to say to a meeting, but not allowing comment until after everyone had spoken. So I tried it in squad meetings and it worked.
"But if you ask people for their opinions, you have toaccept the fact that they might say something about you you don't want to hear."
This is not, presumably, a management technique much in favour at the headquarters of the Rugby Football Union.Reuse content