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The stands and executive suites at some of Europe’s most prestigious rugby stadia will be packed with business bigwigs this weekend as the 2006 Six Nations championship gets under way.
But is success in sport – in particular rugby – a good grounding for success in business? Priory Group, the mental healthcare provider, must think so. This week, it appointed Sean Fitzpatrick, the former All Black rugby captain, to its management.
The outstanding business career of Sir Anthony O’Reilly, chairman of Waterford Wedgwood, the tableware group, provides hard evidence of a link.
Sir Anthony, who made his business name at Heinz, was a brilliant wing three- quarter for Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Sir Anthony’s personal qualities, by all accounts, are such that he would probably have succeeded in business even if he had never picked up a rugby ball.
Are there ways in which sport can help shape an individual to make subsequent success in the boardroom more likely?
Conversations with some who have succeeded in both fields suggest there are at least six areas in which sport might help.
Competitiveness: This is perhaps the most fundamental trait that athletes and business executives tend to have in common.
Says Michael Kirkwood, UK country officer for Citigroup: “If you engage in sport, especially at a high level, you are a competitive person. That translates itself into drive in a business sense.” As a former club, county and Scottish schoolboy international lock forward, Mr Kirkwood is a good authority.
Mark Evans, chief executive of Harlequins, a rugby club based in south-west London, draws a distinction between solo athletes, such as runners and swimmers, whose mental toughness, focus and self-belief, he feels, are qualities “a little bit more akin” to the entrepreneurial spirit, and team players with whom parallels can more readily be drawn with companies and large departments. “I think the team thing is why an awful lot of corporate people like listening to sports people.”
Teamwork: Sometimes described as the ultimate team game, rugby probably provides the best environment outside the military for teaching team spirit that can make or break a company.
Hugo MacNeill, a former Ireland full-back, now a managing director in charge of Goldman Sachs’ business in Ireland, talks of the pressure of international rugby, where you are “absolutely dependent on people near you in a challenging and sometimes terrifying atmosphere . . . That sets a standard for teamwork afterwards”.
Another Goldman employee in New York, Carlos Arena, who represented Mexico in the 100m and 200m backstroke in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, believes one quality that sets former athletes apart from other workers is the understanding they have of long-term goals. “You train and train and take care of yourself not for this weekend’s meet, or next month’s or next year’s,” he says. “You train for many years for a much longer term goal. I see so many people at work who get frustrated much more easily and faster because they did not get a promotion or bonus. And they change jobs, [so] losing their long-term potential in a specific company.”
Networking: Bonds forged through sport are often for life. Rugby union players, moreover, are often better educated than those in other sports such as football and will frequently have attended the same colleges as less accomplished players who go on to run businesses.
“Sport gives you a very durable network; there is mutual and consistent and constant respect between people who have played the game,” according to Mr Kirkwood. He tells of returning from 25 years of living abroad and meeting David Reid, the Tesco chairman, whom he used to socialise with at Richmond: “It is as if 25 years have not passed.”
Mr MacNeill believes his rugby past helps with networking on two levels. First, “getting friendly with people in the atmosphere of rugby is going to provide a network you can call in certain situations”. But, second, the sport can act as “a kind of door-opener” to individuals who might be intrigued to meet a former international player. “That gets you the meeting, but it won’t get you beyond that,” he warns.
Conviviality: Players of team sports, particularly rugby, are generally relaxed in the company of others and, as one executive put it, “comfortable in their own skin”. Such an attitude is clearly an asset in many business situations.
Mr MacNeill also highlights that top-level sport, with its frequent trans-continental travel, can engender an international perspective.
Endurance: Beyond competitiveness, Mr MacNeill believes sport teaches you that there is little to be gained from brooding over defeat. This, too, can be an important lesson for business: if a potential customer does not give you a mandate, there is “no point sitting around and moping”.
Humour: In business, in Mr Kirkwood’s words, “humour is an enormously useful tool, properly used, in the right circumstances”. In team sports, players often develop humour as a way of bonding.
Rugby is a sport that has been transformed by the advent of professionalism. Has this changed its relationship with business?
One self-evident point is that top rugby players no longer need day jobs during their sporting careers.
The celebrated England team of 1980, for example, was full of schoolmasters and employees of family businesses. Sir Clive Woodward, the centre three-quarter and future coach, was, a match programme notes, “an extremely successful salesman”. Maurice Colclough, the powerful lock who died last month, worked as a builder after university.
Nowadays, top rugby players are more likely to enter the broader labour market in their early- to mid-30s rather than their early 20s.
Mr Evans, however, points out that many of the players retiring today will at least have had some job experience, since the early days of their rugby careers would often have pre-dated professionalism. “In another five years, people who were 18 in 1995-96 will be retiring,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how that works. I don’t think anyone really knows yet. I think it will be a shock for some.”
His view is reinforced by Mr Arena. “Many positions require certain experience and education minimums, which are sometimes tough to meet for athletes, as their ‘second job’ for the past 15 years has been their sport.”
Food for thought as rugby lovers brace for this weekend’s big kick-off.