Jim Mallinder hints at England’s rugby future … and its past

November 19, 2011

Jim Mallinder is currently front-runner to replace Martin Johnson as England’s chief coach of Rugby. His Northampton Saints team yesterday displayed the strengths and weaknesses of England’s recent international performances

The Saints began their Heineken Cup campaign with their coach Jim Mallinder tipped as a replacement for Martin Johnson. It was inevitable that closer comparisons are being made between the style of Northampton under Mallinder and England under Johnson.

Sean Edwards backs Mallinder

I watched Northampton play the Scarlets yesterday [18th Nov 2011]. Before the [Sky] transmission, Sean Edwards offered positive views on Mallinder. Edwards had several qualifications for offering his opinions. He is an important part of the coaching squad which helped produce the currently successful Welsh national team.

The match

The match was an interesting one if deeply flawed with technical errors. I was struck by the similarities in style of the Northants team and England’s teams since before their glorious World Cup victory led by Martin Johnson and coached by Clive Woodward, nearly two decades ago.

Plan A

Plan A for The Saints (and England) is establishing dominance through powerful forwards. When it works it is very effective.

Not ‘one side playing, the other clapping’

But Rugby like other sports is not case of one side playing and the other clapping. As in game theory, any strategy interacts with that of the opponents. The Dragons arrived with leading members of the Welsh squad including Rhys Priestland and George North.

Plan A for the Scarlets is to rely on a young, strong and talented back division which can overcome limited possession against the strongest forward s of opposing teams. Much the same can be said of the Welsh international team at present.

When Plan A doesn’t work…

When Plan A doesn’t work, (often in hindsight) a different plan is called for. Plan A was expected to work for Northampton partly because they rarely lose at home. Their track record internationally is better than the Scarlets over a period of years.

Plan A seemed to be working for the Saints, as The Scarlets struggled to win ball from the scrums. But Northampton could not execute the plan. It could be said that the plan was fine, and it was its execution that failed. Much the same is said by disappointed strategists in business. In any event, there is always a need for a plan that can be implemented…

After the match, the inquests

After the match, the inquests:

Northampton Saints rugby director Jim Mallinder: “I think we were well beaten. I’m very disappointed with the way that we played. Scarlets came here and kicked very well and we didn’t handle that. We turned over too much ball and didn’t play the conditions as well as they did.”

Scarlets coach Nigel Davies: “We had to play a very good game of rugby to get a result here and that is what we did. This is pretty big against a side of Northampton’s quality. I don’t think they have lost a European encounter at home since 2007 so it is a big scalp for us. We have to build the momentum. The big thing has been belief, believing we can come to places like this.”

Like country like club?

Am I reading too much into the evidence of one game? As a student of management rather than rugby I guess so. But Northampton Plan A could be at least a metaphor for England Plan A. Even in losing, the Saints showed considerable muscular talent. The game last night at least goes some way to explain why Jim Mallinder is tipped as a future England coach. It may even explain why so often we get the leaders we deserve.


Martin Johnson resigns. Another example of weak sporting governance?

November 17, 2011

Martin Johnson resigned as a scapegoat for England’s recent World Cup performances both on and off the field. But the Governance of the English Rugby Union leaves much to be desired

It is partly the culture within Rugby Union that appointments are made with more attention paid to heroic on-field exploits than to any job description of a manager or head coach. This partly explains the appointment of the Captain of England’s only successful World Cup campaign

At the time of his arrival as head coach, [April 2008] the English Press were largely enthusiastic about the appointment. The main criticism was that the incumbent, Brian Ashton, had been fired in unseemly haste to pave the way for Johnson.

An ill-judged appointment?

In a LWD post I was less convinced, noting that the appointment might be ill-judged. Johnson had no coaching experience, a fact glossed over in the reports of his appointment.

Charisma

Martin Johnson was believed to bring the charisma and leadership on the field to a completely different type of leadership job as England manager.
Distributed leadership.

The Board wanted Clive Woodward back

It became clear that the Rugby authorities recognised the need for distributed leadership, hankering after Johnson’s own World Cup manager Clive Woodward. However, Woodwood had never been able to negotiate adequate powers to make he post a success, and remains a leader in waiting.

Rob Andrews

The chief executive role is held by Rob Andrews. Johnson departed with considerable dignity. Sharing a platform when Johnson announced his retirement, Andrews rejected enquiries whether he too should resign. Johnson departed with considerable dignity. Andrews has come under criticism for his role and his unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for shortcomings.


The Search for a New leader: Now its BA and Willie Walsh

May 15, 2008

Update: The post below [May 15th, 2008] was updated [December 16th, 2009] as British Airways faced a highly damaging strike of Cabin Crew over the Christmas holiday period. Original post follows:

When a company starts looking for a new leader, rumours about the incumbent are bound to arise. The most recent case is that of British Airways and its CEO Willie Walsh. Students of leadership succession should keep a close eye on unfolding events.

The duty of a corporate board is to safeguard a company’s future viability, and that must include monitoring of its leadership. While secrecy is desirable, it may suit pressure groups to bring matters to public attention. For example, shareholder activists seek advantage for their narrower interests, which would include getting the best short-term deals on investments, but might also include the possibility of becoming king-makers for a change of leadership.

The Independent reports that

[British Airways] has appointed the recruitment consultants Whitehead Mann to find a new chief operating officer and possible successor for its embattled chief executive Willie Walsh.

The successful candidate will fill a newly created role, devised after the recent Heathrow Terminal 5 fiasco. Both BA’s director of operations, Gareth Kirkwood, and head of customer service, David Noyes, parted company with the group last month [April 2008] . The two roles will now be combined to create the position of chief operating officer.

The airline, which will publish its full-year results on Monday, is believed to have instructed Whitehead Mann to find a senior level candidate who could be considered for a position on the board within two years, and could also be a potential replacement for Mr Walsh within five years.

Opening Sacrifices?

For ‘parted company’ read sacked. Gareth makes an opening sacrifice in BA’s attempts to allay criticisms for a wave of customer service reactions. David will do for the time-being for operational failings, as Terminal 5 lumbers into action.

Later, [May 13th 2008] BAA, Heathrow’s operating organization announced the departure of Mike Bullock, its Managing Director at Heathrow, another victim of the Terminal 5 opening (or non-opening, if you prefer). At least the BBC announced it, beating the BAA web-site to the news.

The departures at British Airways seem more in the nature of opening gambits, if we want to puruse the theme of chess as a metaphor for corporate strategy.

The Times has reported that public sentiment strongly in favour of BA finding a replacement for Willie Walsh.

However, Richard Northedge argues that

Walsh ..is directly culpable too [for the recent Terminal 5 opening fiasco]. Unfortunately, BA cannot afford to lose him. It has other problems that require solutions – from its pension deficit to its industrial relations – and Walsh is the best man it has. But stakeholders require some recognition that Walsh’s acceptance of responsibility is not just hollow words: it would be appropriate if, when the remuneration committee considers bonuses, it acknowledged the need to punish Walsh.

The Walsh Legend

Mr Walsh arrived at British Airways in 2005 already as something of a celebrity. His reputation had been secured as a former pilot who aspired to leadership. He had risen through the ranks at Aer Lingus to be acknowledged as a transformational figures for the fortunes of that company.

Stories accumulated about his hands-on style, and were used to sketch his operating methods.

He was known for negotiating toughness. Successfully reinventing Aer Lingus as a profitable no-frills airline, while other established European flag carriers went to the wall, he slashed costs by 30% and shed more than a third of staff. [saying]”we make no apologies for focusing on profit” … [and that] “a reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations”.
He is renowned for not driving an expensive car and choosing not to take on a secretary, instead writing all his own letters and answering his own phone.

Mr Walsh’s obvious toughness and eye for increased profitability no doubt caught the attention of BA’s board. After the UK airline’s long history of staff disputes, most recently the wildcat walkouts in August 2005 in support of sacked workers at the airline’s main caterer, he must have seemed ideal.

Be careful of what you want…

‘Be careful of what you want. You might get it’ runs an office-wall summary, capturing the myth of the Faustian pact. Maybe that is another version of getting the leaders we deserve. The appeal of a tough leader for BA was obviously appealing, not just to the Board, but to its major shareholders.

Students of leadership succession should keep an eye on events at British Airlines. We will continue to watch Willie, at Leaders We Deserve.

To go more deeply into succession planning

We touched on British Airways in the context of Mandrill Management .

Travolution is a useful site for wider issues of the industry

The Post Office/Royal Mail leadership succession activities were noted including attempts to have a fall-back plan if Allen Leighton were to leave.

Times Warner’s appointment of Jeff Bewkes also makes an interesting succession story.

EADS strategic issues under Louis Gallois
and also its leadership challenges have been covered.

There have stories of the rise and fall of varous sporting leaders. When Liverpool owners approached Jurgen Klinsmann, the story blew-up as a scheme to get rid of the popular Rafa Benitez.

England’s Rugby Football Union eventually appointed Martin Johnson and relegated Bryan Ashton to the bench.

Numerous posts covered the stories the longest leadership succession saga of modern times.

The transition from President Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev is offering further insights into succession issues in internationally important arenas.

Overall, the events covered in these posts indicate recurring themes within recent leadership succession stories. A thorough examination might produce a valuable contribution to understanding of the dynamics of leadership succession. They may also hint at the likely outome to the story of Willie Walsh at British Airways.


Martin Johnson: Bigger, Stronger, Braver, Better?

April 17, 2008

The much-rumoured appointment duly occurred. Martin Johnson replaces Brian Ashton as England Rugby Coach. But is his unrivalled credentials as winning captain on the field adequate for the wider leadership role he now assumes?

The issue has been simplified to a mantra. Martin Johnson was England’s most successful Rugby captain of modern times. This seems enough for some commentators who argue that England Rugby needs a winner like Johnson to rescue it from under-achievement.

Two inter-related issues. The selection process has involved a group of administrators which as had its fair share of criticisms for lack of grip of essentials of sporting management and leadership. The most famous criticism by former Captain Will Carling likened them to a bunch of boring old farts.

The second issue faced was what to do about current head coach Brian Ashton.

On the eve of the World Cup final last June [2007] I shared the wider doubts among rugby fans about Ashton’s future as England coach.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell [who had resigned before he could be fired by the Lib Dems] The performances of Ashton’s teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is Paris from Agincourt?

Which was a bit high-falutin’, but the drift was right. England had turned around a dreadful run of results under Brian Ashton. As ultimate success against South Africa was unlikely, the case for firing Ashton was a strong one. Rumours that the turnaround came from player power subsequently added to the ‘Sack Ashton’ campaign. This week’s sacking has been generally acknowledged as bungled, but not necessarily a bad decision.

Martin Johnson, Superhero

As a one report put it

Martin Johnson has been appointed England team manager from 1 July to the end of 2011 in a shake-up that sees Brian Ashton removed as head coach. The World Cup-winning captain, 38, will have full control of team selection and the appointment of the coaching team.
Johnson will report to [Rob] Andrew, but have “full managerial control” of the England team.

He remains a sort of Chief Operating Officer to CEO Rob Andrews. (I translate the roles into Business Speak).

Experience

That an under-performing England team have been crying out for leadership — and that Martin Johnson is the ideal man to provide it — ought to be beyond question, even if his detractors decry his lack of coaching experience.

Or according to The Telegraph

Is Martin Johnson the right man?
Yes, he is. We all know he’s straight-talking and hard-nosed. But his greatest qualities are his intelligence, his perception and his sensitivity. A growl and a stare don’t frighten anyone these days. Not on a rugby field, nor off it. Johnson has integrity, shrewdness and decisiveness.
Does it matter that Johnson hasn’t managed before?
No. If you’re good enough, you can learn on the job.

Discussion wages around whether the exceptional on-field performances are an adequate rationale for making Johnson such a nailed-on candiate for the wider managerial role.

Beyond LCD

These are not accounts from Lowest Common Denominator media sources. But the arguments are little better than LCD opinions, taking us no further than pub talk. They illustrate how difficult it is to construct analysis in a theory-free zone.

Over the last decades, studies of leaders have become regarded as less fruitful than studies of leadership processes (‘Situated leadership’ as one of my colleagues calls it).

We have a long way to go, even in this little corner of social science. But there are a few emerging principles which may be worth introducing in this specific case.

Leadership involves several inter-related components. Building a great organization or a Rugby team involves a distribution of leadership responsibilities. The responsibilities are shared among a ‘top echelon’ of individuals including Martin Johnson, but also including Rob Andrews, and key figures from within the governance system so graphically described by Will Carling.

From there, we can better see the roles and responsibilities for those involved, and their inter-relationships.

This process of concept-building permits us to test assumptions and beliefs (formally propositions and hypotheses). We can introduce evidence from other cases.

To make such analysis requires a lot of hard thinking, creativity and judgement. For example, can we draw on examples of leaders in other sports, or even in business or politics to inform our new model of leadership of England’s rugby team?

Theorizing Martin Johnson

What’s the point of theorizing Martin Johnson? Partly because we can adjust our expectations about what difference he might make in his new leadership role, and how.

It is almost certainly reveal uncertainties more than specific predictions regarding his success or failure. Less enthralling than the dreams and visions in the headlines at present, but maybe more grounded in reasoned evidence.