Clive Woodward’s business-meets-sport success formula

The England rugby boss who created our most successful team

Clive Woodward pops his head round the door, quickly introduces himself, apologises that a meeting has slightly over-run and promises to be back in one minute, literally.

He is, and wasn’t obviously late in the first place.

This is a man who as most know, specialises in the minutiae. It’s an obsessive-compulsive desire to make England the best, most successful rugby playing nation in the world that motivates his every move, decision, thought and utterance. He happily admits that if he’d seen a list of questions prior to interview he’d “have thought about them too much”.

As an approach, it’s not far removed from the entrepreneur who goes to bed with ideas spinning round his or her head. You suspect Woodward keeps a notebook or its electronic equivalent on his bedside table, ensuring no idea, however small, is lost.

He is meticulous in everything he does. Even his composed, rhythmic and self-assured mannerisms and speech patterns seem prepared and practised. He is to coaching and management what England stand-off, Jonny Wilkinson, and his quest for kicking perfection, is to the No.10 shirt. Already, England have achieved top-slot in the Zurich world rankings and are joint favourites for the World Cup.

But even if, and when, the Webb Ellis trophy is securely locked away at RFU headquarters there’s no chance he’ll let up. The focus will already be on the next tournament, the next test match, the next training session, the next tweak or innovation that he can make to his set-up. It’s a mindset instilled in him from running his own business.

Woodward set up and ran a successful computer leasing company, which he eventually sold to his business partner three years into his England tenure. It almost seems to baffle him that sport holds such a fascination with business. When a sports team is successful people want to hear from the manager. Their motivational techniques, training approaches and strategies are lauded.

“I don’t think enough sports teams go and speak to chief execs in top businesses,” he says. “There’s a complete parallel with running a successful company as there is running a successful sports team. You need the same skills. I make no apology that I’ve brought my business background in to play. Although I played for England, coached and my degree was in sports science, the best experience I’ve had for this job is having to run my own company.”

The business philosophy 

His learnings from that experience and his fascination with what organisations do to eke an extra one per cent out of their workforce are with him in everything he does in his office beneath the towering structure of Twickenham.

“I’m in a unique position. There are not many coaching a national side in sport who were also in business,” he points out. “In business, every decision is your own and so is your money. You learn very quickly not to waste time as every second of the day is money.” He wants to see his side turn a more than healthy profit.

Eminent rugby commentator Eddie Butler recently referred to him as the ‘nutty professor’, toiling away in his lab with “everything boiling and bubbling strictly in accordance with his calculations”. It was an affectionate reference to the fact that he tries things other coaches wouldn’t, things some might view initially as gimmicks, inappropriate in the brutal, cynical world of rugby.

But entrepreneurs and small businesses in particular have never been afraid to take a risk on the off-chance of edging out a rival and Woodward stoutly defends his methods, adding that if the players suggested it was a gimmick he’d drop it immediately. He demands, but doesn’t force team buy-in and says this can only come through constant dialogue.

“Behind the scenes the input is huge, not just from Martin Johnson [England’s captain]. Various people take on leadership roles during a game, in training and everything else. And these guys don’t stand for bullshit.” A film crew recently shadowed the squad for a ‘fly on the wall’ look at how Woodward operates. They were shocked.

“They’d been to most sports and couldn’t believe the amount of dialogue we have about how we play and train.” But he confirms that as the game gets nearer the other voices must fade into the background, leaving him and his lieutenants, Johnson, and coach Andy Robinson with the final word. As with an owner-manager, the buck ultimately stops with Woodward, but he is a leader who expects constant input and feedback from his team.

This inclusive approach is certainly something any working environment needs and was no doubt picked up by Woodward the entrepreneur, where in a small team you have to rely on everybody pulling together, towards a common goal. Unfortunately, he’s unwilling to divulge any of the secrets behind the England squad’s incredible success in recent years, but some of the more obvious ‘critical non-essentials’ have become common knowledge, including changing into pristine new shirts at half-time – something others soon noted and adopted.

There is a strict diet plan, where bread, pasta and other starchy or sugary food consumption is advised against before midday, while porridge, egg-white omelettes and high protein shakes and sports drinks are positively encouraged. Ice baths too, were introduced some time ago, to speed recovery and boost circulation. Players also have special eye workouts to increase peripheral vision and reaction times. And England were the last to arrive in Australia, as physiologists recommended a short period of acclimatisation.

But that’s the physical side. He reveals that his business philosophy was inspired, in part at least, by an Australian dentist named Dr Paddi Lund, who he met during his time there in the mid-1980s working for another leasing company. Lund, at one point, was close to breaking point and decided to cut 95% of the clients at his surgery while retaining the 5% whose company he enjoyed. He asked the remainder to refer him to their friends. The upshot of this is that enjoyment is everything, but it is not necessarily what you might think it is.

Enjoyment comes through a happy combination of leadership, teamship and partnership. The crucial lifestyle adjustments he instigated have got the squad reading from the same hymn sheet, for want of a less worn bit of management speak. The players are presentable at all times, avoid swearing, have appointed representatives to liaise with management, are strictly punctual, congratulate rivals for their position when they miss out and consider dressing room privacy sacrosanct. The England ‘camp’ also happens to be a five star hotel – a bit of necessary pampering to help them manage their downtime effectively. And with England winning there’s little chance they’ll stop enjoying their working environment.

The team are effectively unbeaten in two years of international rugby, if you discount the result in France when Woodward fielded his second string. It has set new standards, with the grand slam in the Six Nations tournament and away wins in Australia and New Zealand in particular, giving England a sheen of invicibility.

Woodward is adamant, however, that England’s closest rivals have been created equal, so gaining the upperhand is down to the slightest detail. He says the media likes to perpetuate the myth that he has assembled an expensive and vast support staff offering the widest array of training methods in professional sport.

He argues that it is actually one of the smallest coaching teams in world rugby. Next to his core coaching team of Andy Robinson, defensive coach Phil Larder and kicking specialist Dave Alred there is a nutritionist, a video analyst, a fitness adviser and a sports vision trainer. These are people that he considers priceless.

“You have got to treat the players like the elite athletes they are. It’s the same in business. You want to be treated and looked after professionally.” He generously and somewhat carefully claims that eight teams are capable of winning the World Cup and says each one has players of the same ilk, great management, support staff, and funding.

“That’s the same as most businesses. Your competitors have all got the same start. We have hundreds of things that we work on. I’d never say one is key, but if you add all of them together that’s the reason we have been able to make this move forward.” Woodward adds quickly that England could still lose a pool game to South Africa or Samoa. There are no guarantees in a cut-throat world where you are judged entirely by what you do in the 80 minutes of a match.

“If I made a bad decision while running my company no-one knew about it apart from me and my team. But in this job, if you make a bad decision or have a bad day it’s major media news,” he says, although as he’d tell you, nobody can put more pressure on the team than the team itself, who expect to vanquish all before them.

One aspect of the business world Woodward feels firms have got badly wrong is the way in which they treat success and failure. The fact is if you make a wrong judgement you change it immediately, he argues, and if you make a mistake you put your hand up and admit it. But if you succeed you go into more detailed analysis.

“We pride ourselves on concentrating on success and why we’ve been winning. We’re always trying to move the benchmarks up. If you get the odd setback it’s not time to overreact. In business it’s the reverse, with a 7am post-mortem if you fail to win a big deal.” And Woodward has moved the benchmarks up for sponsors too.

Their direct involvement in the set-up has increased with every achievement. “It’s not rocket science. Put a name on a shirt and give us a big cheque. But what we’re trying to do is see if we can work with these companies in partnership so they can do something that really helps us do our jobs.”

Accelerate performance

To that end mobile firm O2 has cemented its position as an invaluable ally and technology now plays a big part. Each squad member carries a full mobile IT kit. In addition to the Elonex laptops, which the squad use heavily for viewing CDs of future opponents as well as tricks they can incorporate into their own games, are O2’s £255 XDAs.

The players can receive, edit and send documents wherever they are. England predominantly use the device for emails at present, but post-World Cup it will move up a notch with the XDA 2 and Woodward can barely conceal his delight. “We burn CDs and send them out, but the XDA 2 will have more capacity and memory and we will be able to send chunks of info and video straight to their device.

“It’s a massive step forward in dealing with a remote team. O2 has realised that it can actually really help us in the past 12 months. While technology will never create performance, it can accelerate performance. You’ll never say we won a test match because of this, but it’s another of those ingredients.”

This is something businesses are coming to realise and Woodward compares his situation to managing a mobile salesforce. Once the England squad have dispersed following a match, returned to their clubs and are left fulfilling their obligations to individual sponsors, he relies heavily on IT to prepare them for the next international.

And once again it’s clear he wants the national team spirit to endure in the interim. “There’s a tremendous amount of banter flying about on email and video,” he says proudly. It’s the kind of banter you hope will sustain their focus throughout the months ahead in Australia. Something about Woodward tells you that keeping focused won’t be a problem for his squad.

If England are in Sydney on November 22 then you know everything possible will have been done to ensure the team overcome the final hurdle. But he’s not even permitted himself such fanciful thoughts. “If you go with the right mindset, the World Cup will take care of itself. I haven’t got a clue if we’ll win it. I haven’t even thought about it. The moment you don’t focus on the next match you’ve lost the plot already.” And that’s not something he’s likely to do.

To follow the England Team Down Under this autumn visit


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