INSIDE BUSINESS: Carling plays a running game

Management: the links between business and sport are stronger than most people realise, says the England rugby captain
Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM "players" to "level playing fields" and "ballpark figures" to "goals", the business lexicon is littered with terms borrowed from sports. But prevalent though the language is, apart from the in-vogue practice of "working in teams", there seems to have been little effort to make much of the link.

That is the contention of England rugby captain Will Carling and management writer Robert Heller in their just-published book The Way to Win. As Heller points out, Mark McCormack, author of What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, went some way down this road. But, while his work contains plenty of sporting anecdotes, there is no attempt to draw parallels between Arnold Palmer's golf career and business.

Carling, though, is no stranger to linking sport and business. Indeed, it is his job outside rugby largely to draw analogies between the two. In conjunction with such colleagues from the world of sport as Adrian Moorhouse, Gary Lineker, Tracey Edwards and Mike Brearley, he runs seminars and other training events through his Insights company. And the book was born out of the fact that he and Heller shared the platform at one such occasion organised by Ernst & Young, the accountants and management consultants.

But even sceptics acknowledge that there is more to the stage act than a few homilies about great victories and defeats on the greensward, and how they can help you sell more widgets. The highly successful rugby captain is passionately interested in the "art of management" - in particular, of people. Insisting that he learns as much from business folk as he imparts to them, he says: "There are different businesses, but the people problems are the same. Business has changed so much you've got to have the ability to focus teams and motivate people."

At various points in the book, Carling relates his attempts to find fresh ways of motivating the players under him. He accepts that not all were well received and not all work. But it is all part of the attempt to discover what will enable each player to achieve his full potential. And he quotes approvingly the view of former England cricket captain Brearley that all the problems of captaincy are related to people.

Business audiences hearing such thoughts apparently very quickly appreciate the relevance to their own lives. But to hammer the ideas home, Heller plunders his great store of management tales to relate how, for instance, the constant rise of Hewlett-Packard is analogous to Seb Coe's athletics ambition.

Sport is not just about one-off successes, but about sustained achievement - being the team or competitor to beat, he adds. "In corporate terms, the boring old companies like Marks & Spencer that go on turning out profits are the successes."

The England team's failure to progress beyond the semi-finals of the recent World Cup, combined with inconsistent performances against southern hemi- sphere sides, has convinced Carling of the need for a group of super clubs to play the best in Europe, Australasia and South Africa, rather like the "national champions" that Michael Heseltine, former President of the Board of Trade, envisaged in the business arena.

Without that, Carling feels the domestic game will fall irretrievably behind that in the southern half of the globe. The object of such games would, of course, be to keep tabs on what the opposition is doing. In other words, says Heller, benchmarking. He adds that not playing these teams would be like the British car industry paying no attention to its counterparts in Japan.

The South African experience had other lessons, and not just for England. New Zealand also found themselves all-conquering heroes one week and down- and-outs the next. Carling believes that the same factors were behind each situation.

In his view, the All Blacks saw the England match as their "big game" in much the same way as England viewed the Australia contest. Each having achieved that goal, they found it difficult to repeat that focus.

The way out of this is to reach the stage of "consistently achieving so that every game has the same level of importance". That way you avoid over-emphasising key games and running the risk of suffering the downside next time out.

What this leads to is fierce introspection - concentrating on deficiencies even when succeeding. As Heller points out, the business world has seen many companies reach a peak and then fall back through complacency. Far better to do as British Steel, for example, is doing and concentrate on defects rather than achievements.

o The Way to Win, Will Carling and Robert Heller, Little Brown, pounds 16.99.