Developing Your Initiative

Smiled at the recent article in The Times by Matthew Syed (which I have included below) as it recalled the late 1990’s when I was running a Training Company and went to the Professional Football Association, the Professional Cricket Association, and the Professional Rugby Association with a proposal to provide training for their members including basic computer skills, media skills and job search related skills.

Like to think we had some success as we trained Gareth Southgate, Michael Vaughan, Robbie Earle and Andrew Flintoff to name a few of the most recognisable names.

Of course the aim of the service we offered was really to help those sportsmen and women (although to be fair not many of them at the time) who didn’t make it to the higher levels, or retired early through injury – Damien Hopley the new head of the Professional Rugby Association had recently retired through a knee injury and you may recall David Busst who absolutely shattered his leg playing for Coventry. Both took advantage of the courses.

From the article it appears that for many it has changed, but talking to a semi professional lady cricketer at the T20 Finals Day last year it is obvious there is still much to do, so added to the list of things we will be looking at is developing some skills training for professional sports players.

The Times Article

A couple of months ago, I spoke to Will Greenwood. I was participating in his rugby podcast and couldn’t help noticing how well he had transitioned out of professional sport.

He writes a column for The Telegraph, analyses rugby for Sky, founded a travel company and sits on the board of a charity. I also noticed a shoulder bag containing what looked like homework. “Oh, I am interested in education so I’ve started to teach maths part-time,” the 47-year-old said. “It is so rewarding.”

The longer I chatted to the former England centre, the more I could glean his entrepreneurialism. I don’t mean this in the sense of wanting to start a business and make a ton of money, but in terms of his agency and initiative. He knows how to make things happen, to change his circumstances. He doesn’t see the status quo as immutable; he seeks to shape it.

He is not alone. Yesterday, I found an article looking at the England Rugby World Cup winners from 2003 entitled “Where are they now?” Josh Lewsey works for the professional services company Ernst & Young, Neil Back is a retail and nutrition entrepreneur, while Lawrence Dallaglio started a foundation that has raised more than £20 million. Many of the others had made successful transitions too.

I don’t think this is coincidence. Sir Clive Woodward, the England head coach in 2003, who had such a big impact on their sporting careers, was also interested in their human development. He encouraged them to use their brains, to study, to contribute ideas to the coaching staff. Above all, he prized initiative. He recognised that players with the mental agility to adapt to changing circumstances would be more effective. “Initiative is an asset in sport, but also in life,” he once told me.

The older I get, the more I have come to realise how precious this perspective is. The world is changing ever faster. Jobs are being created and destroyed at a clip that would have astonished not merely our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but our forebears of a generation ago. Education is not just about equipping young people with knowledge, but that array of softer skills that enable us to thrive in a world of semi-permanent disruption.

Yesterday, I read a beautiful interview on these pages with Sam Jones, the former Wasps flanker who was forced to end his career two years ago at 26. His problem was not a technological disruption but a more prosaic one: his leg was injured while engaging in a “warm-up” judo contest with Maro Itoje at an England training camp. I have always felt that this episode should have been investigated further — why on earth were they doing judo exercises in the first place? — but I was fascinated by the way he responded to adversity.

This is a young man who had trained for years, had yearned to play for England and then, on the verge of making it into the team, found that it would never happen. He was candid enough to admit that this was difficult. He had dark moments. But he also had something else: a desire to make something of his life beyond the white lines of a rugby pitch.

Jones is interested in food so he tried some pop-up restaurant nights. He was “winging it” — an essential aspect of reinvention — but he was also learning. He met Dom Fernando, a man with an idea for a restaurant based on his family heritage. They went to Sri Lanka, learning about the food and restauranteering. They eventually opened Paradise, a restaurant in Soho, with Jones central to the interior design, the menu, the staff.

Jones’s initiative infused the interview. He embraces the team aspect of the restaurant: “It relies on everyone doing their job at the right time together.” He likes the preparation: “Before opening, you walk through service, like you are on a team run.” He likes the instant feedback on TripAdvisor: “It’s like getting your arse handed to you in training after a bad performance.”

I mentioned Woodward earlier, but my sense is that rugby, more generally, does a fine job in developing the human qualities of its participants. This is a tribute, above all else, to its coaches, from grass roots upwards.

In my post-sporting career, I keep bumping into former players doing marvellous things, from Michael Lynagh, the former Australia fly half, now a managing director of Dow Jones, to Jamie Heaslip, the former Ireland No 8, who runs a management company.

There are lessons, here, for other sports, not least football. Traditionally, the game conceptualised players as kids who kick footballs. There was insufficient recognition that developing their leadership skills is not just important for how they eventually transition out of the game, but how they develop as players. One Premier League manager told me: “Why would I care about anything that happens off the pitch?”

This is changing, with many clubs pushing a more progressive agenda, and it is worth noting that many footballers have made successful transitions, not least Gary Neville, who has developed a vaired portfolio, and Mathieu Flamini, who has co-founded a biochemical company. Yet the overall pattern is less encouraging. According to 2013 research by Xpro, the football charity, three out of five Premier League players declare bankruptcy within five years of retirement and many more are in financial trouble. These figures are difficult to verify, but they are troubling if even close to the truth.

Some will retort that a key advantage for rugby players over footballers is that, on average, they attend more prestigious schools and have access to more extensive social networks. While undoubtedly true, this shouldn’t obscure crucial differences in philosophy. Rugby has historically taken a more holistic approach, with clubs offering opportunities in creative thinking and business development. There are pockets within football that have some catching up to do.

Perhaps the key point is that initiative is not something you are born with; it is something that grows with use, somewhat like a muscle. When people are stripped of the opportunity to exercise this muscle, it atrophies. Consider what happened after the Berlin Wall fell. West German companies were excited, looking forward to tapping into a large pool of industrious workers. What happened in practice? East Germans, denuded of initiative for so long in their compliance-orientated communist homeland, had become almost helpless.

As the psychologist Michael Frese put it: “Secretaries may fail to do a task because they have the wrong telephone number, even though they could obtain the number from another person. Blue-collar workers wait next to broken machines until a supervisor comes by, instead of looking for a technician who could fix the machines.” In an interview with The New York Times in April 1990, an executive from a German bank said: “People in East Germany aren’t used to showing individual initiative and creativity.”

This is why, to my mind, Jones should be held up as a role model, not just in rugby, but in schools, universities and beyond. Far more than reality TV stars, and perhaps even more than some members of the royal family, he demonstrates the attributes that matter more than ever. Restaurants are notoriously fragile businesses, but whatever happens at Paradise, I suspect Jones will thrive. I shall be eating there soon. I hope you do too.