Every year, dozens of world-class athletes retire from their chosen sports and enter the mainstream jobs market. The fans’ loss could be your gain, says Josh Lewsey, former England international and head of rugby at the Welsh Rugby Union.
Lewsey’s well placed to understand the parallels between the sporting and business worlds, having held down outside jobs throughout his playing career, before post-retirement positions as a management consultant at PwC and trader at Citigroup.
Fresh from Wales’ sadly ill-fated quarter-final appearance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he shares his thoughts on what to bear in mind if a CV with ‘international caps: 55’ listed in the employment history section drops onto your desk.
Elite athletes are by definition high achievers. You don’t get to be among the best in the world at anything without having a formidable work ethic and appetite for self-improvement. But success on the pitch doesn’t automatically translate into the boardroom: being able to lift three times your own body weight, for instance, is hardly a qualification for overseeing a multibillion pound merger, is it?
While there are clearly areas such as team work where sport has something to teach business, and which elite sports people are likely to bring with them, it’s important to remember its possible limitations as a training ground.
‘The lessons business can take from a sporting context are very much on the tactical level, in getting stuff done,’ Lewsey says. ‘At the strategic level it’s the other way round – by and large the motivation behind sports organisations is less clearly articulated than at most large businesses, where decisions are made on a far more rational basis.’
One of the reasons good rugby teams are so strong tactically is that they’re constantly looking for faults in themselves. The players are therefore used to rapid, clear feedback, but this isn’t always the case in business, outside of manufacturing or sales at least. This means managers working with ex-athletes should try to think of other ways of providing it.
One way could be ditching the softly softly approach. ‘When you go from the sports field to this environment where everyone’s being nice to you, you’re desperate for someone to start the banter and abuse,’ Lewsey reflects. ‘It’s something a lot of guys who leave sport or the military struggle with.’
Get ready for a challenge
Before you start practising your shouting skills, remember that while you’ll need to challenge your new hire, you should expect to be challenged back. Questioning the way things are done is what winners do in any field, says Lewsey.
You are getting a highly motivated person, but this can create difficulties adjusting, especially if you have any jobsworths lurking in the back office. ‘They put their heart and soul into what they do, but some people aren’t like that - so long as they get paid at the end of the month, they’re okay. [Athletes] can really struggle to understand that.’
Hiring an ex-rugby champ might not be straightforward and they may not be right for you in the end, but Lewsey believes anyone who’s reached the top of their field deserves at least a second look. ‘Pigeon hole them at your peril.’
Welsh Rugby Union's Head of Rugby Josh Lewsey is currently working as a brand representative for Toshiba, official sponsor of Rugby World Cup 2015, as is supports the event across its business domains.