Joe Schmidt’s secret for success?

Kathryn Stevenson Blog

You don’t have to have an interest in sport to see that something very special has happened to the Irish senior men’s rugby team. In many respects, this Ireland team should be in transition. In the last few years, we have lost two of the greatest players and leaders Irish sport has ever seen, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. We also just won the Grand Slam without Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip (apologies to non-rugby fans, I’m stopping with the names and rugby-specifics very soon). And yet we’re not in transition, not even close. We are actually (for the first time ever) ranked number two in World Rugby behind the New Zealand All-Blacks. And in our last series of games against them, we beat them in one of the games too.

So, we lose some of our greatest players, and we ‘blood’ a range of new ones, including at least three guys who are barely into their 20s (Stockdale, Ringrose and Ryan) and we win the Grand Slam. How did we do it? Like anybody interested in how to build and grow a successful business, I am always fascinated by what might be learned from successful teams in sport. Sports teams can have great players and for instance in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray and the front row of the Irish scrum: Furlong, Healy and the 35 year-old captain, Rory Best (legend that he is), we have the best in the world but in Ireland’s case, we clearly have something else. It’s the magic potion which often makes good businesses become great and in sports, often the single most important ingredient for success, the coach.

After Sir Alex Ferguson retired as the most successful coach in the history of British soccer, he started a collaboration with the Harvard Business school- click here for case study. I read various articles at the time in the FT and elsewhere and it’s interesting stuff but I guess what strikes me more about Joe Schmidt, the Irish rugby coach, is the fact that Ireland are definitely performing well above where the skills and experience of their current crop of players would ‘naturally’ place them. In the case of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, he always had the resources and the great players, it was just that nobody brought them together before like him. Ferguson was also able to reinvent teams, even when the ‘greats’ had seemingly gone. Schmidt has done this too, following the loss of O’Connell and O’Driscoll. Though in my view, Schmidt is now also achieving something potentially greater than Ferguson. This will be proven, if, and potentially when, Ireland win the Rugby World Cup.

I was devouring the Sunday press coverage of the game yesterday and one of the often patronising English writers in one of the Sunday broadsheets said that this was a different Irish team. Now, as well as the plucky skills and ferocious spirt, there was a system, a discipline and a self assuredness that he hadn’t seen before. This was, he opined, a team that could win the World Cup. Coming from him, I’ve started to believe. And of course the difference he identified was down to Schmidt. Elsewhere in the papers though and more interesting from a business perspective was the revelation that Joe Schmidt’s management style is heavily influenced by a business book called Trust Rules, by Bob Lee. I’ve bought it this morning and have read a few chapters (office closed for St Patrick’s today), some of it is just good, simple, almost obvious advice but then you look at the incredible team work of the Irish boys in recent weeks and you maybe say, simple is good. I’ll review the book in a later post but in the meantime let’s savour a world class team led by a brilliant coach.

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