Guest Speaker Conor O’Shea – What Businesses can Learn from Sports Management

Shay Dalton / May 2, 2012

Conor O Shea Lincoln Recruitment
Conor O’Shea attracts a crowd – even for a breakfast briefing at 7.30 in the morning. The ex-Leinster and London-Irish full back, now Director of Rugby at Harlequins RFC, was our keynote speaker at the booked-out Lincoln Insights Quarterly Breakfast Briefing in Chartered Accountants’ House last Friday, discussing what Businesses can learn from Sports Management – and vice versa.

O’Shea’s career wasn’t designed to be a professional rugby player – according to his parents; he was to get a real job. At 18, he was put in his parent’s front room with a solicitor and an accountant, and he was asked to speak to them to decide which one he’d like to become (coming from a family of high-achievers, his brothers are both doctors and his dad part of the Kerry Football team which won the All-Ireland championship in 1953, ‘55 and ‘59). In a way, O’Shea decided he’d be both, and went on to complete a B.COMM in UCD and Diploma in Legal Studies in Smurfit. In 1996, O’Shea graduated from the United States Sports Academy Alabama with a Masters in Sports Science & Sports Management – one of the most respected institutions for sports science in the world.

During this time, rugby was only in its infancy as a professional sport, but he began his representative career in Rugby as a fullback for Ireland (he was capped 35 times). The importance and relevance of his academics background came into play when, aged 29, an ankle injury severed his promising professional playing career during a match against Gloucester RFC as a London-Irish full-back.

Although he had little to no experience as a manager, London-Irish offered him the Director of Rugby position, “probably because I had my B.COMM” he says, and he was given a crash course in managing a team – not just the players, but the peripheral support teams that surround the players who are vital to the success of the team. O’Shea went on to become Managing Director of London Irish, before moving on to take up a “pensionable, comfortable government job with the English Institute of Sport” as the National Director. “Many people were astounded that I was offered the job – and more so when I left – because it’s a million miles away from Rugby“, said O’Shea. Encompassing all sports from tennis to horse-riding, football to all Olympic sports, the Institute was a role like no other. But, said O’Shea, it was an Institute that needed a culture change. It was a government institution heading towards the London 2012 Olympics and there was great development happening within the sports science fields, influencing how players trained and played. O’Shea set up the building blocks which would shift the culture of the Institute, before being headhunted by Harlequins to become their Director of Rugby.

So what can Sports Management teach businesses? 

Much the same as business can influence sport, once Conor joined Harlequins as Director of Rugby he introduced performance reviews, KPI’s, visions & goals. He had to turn around a team that was nearing bottom of the league, and had just suffered the infamous “Bloodgate” scandal over which his predecessor Dean Richards was handed a three year ban.

Businesses often focus on end-results, and can distract themselves by seeking out those who make mistakes. O’Shea took a different tack with his team, whose egos were already on egg-shells. They needed to gel better, they needed to define who they were, what their style would be, how they would become a better team and achieve their dreams of reaching the top of the League. “Every company has a history, and each club, particularly Harlequins as one of England’s oldest Rugby Clubs, has a history too. We had a bad season and needed to put it down to experience and move away.”

The team spent the summer devising a plan of action, and decided that their guiding principles would be Tempo, Respect, Excellence and Unpredictable – summarised in the acronym TRUE.

This motto kept the whole team focussed on their end goals – deciding upon realistic goals and KPI’s: it wasn’t to become the top team in the league overnight, winning accolades left, right and centre. It was to become the best at what they’re good at. Best tackles. Lowest in tries conceded. Highest in plays completed. These elements were within their control. They focussed on the “controllable factors” and ignored the “uncontrollable factors” (for example, referees!) The elements of their game – their highly strategic and thought-out tackles, formulaic in approach – are what, when they succeed at mastering them, will win them more games. Setting achievable goals, and making each member of the team accountable for their goals, turned the team around.

Getting the team to really gel was a challenge, and one tactic that O’Shea reluctantly implemented was fining the players to achieve a more unified team. If a player left a water bottle on the pitch, the team got fined. This taught the players that everyone needs to pull their weight – if the dressing room wasn’t cleared by all members of the team after a training session, the entire team took a financial hit. Eventually it managed to irritate the team to the extent where they turned on the lacking team-members to bring them into line and take accountability for their own effort and role in the team.

Conor O’Shea’s Management Style

Assigning accountability was the key to the team’s resurgence as a club to be reckoned with. “I don’t care about mistakes,” says O’Shea. “I care about effort. If they give everything they’ve got, then I can’t fault them for that.” In one match where the effort level just wasn’t there, O’Shea felt his temper reach boiling point, and his one and only “blow-up” at the team ensued. He was livid in the dressing room at half time and it left a sour taste in the mouths of the players. The following Monday, he pulled the team together to get them to talk to him. One player spoke up – his blow-up decimated their morale for the 2nd half of the match. “Thank God they said it to me,” he said. O’Shea had, however, all of the reasons behind his frustrations at his arsenal. He produced film clips displaying this lack of effort – real life evidence of where the team really went wrong. Seeing this fact-based evidence highlighted the rationale behind this “blow-up” and the team conceded that their performance on the pitch was far from full effort. They’d let themselves down as a team and paid for it with a heavy defeat. O’Shea assured them that should his temper ever spill over again, it would be for a real reason.

How do they continue to learn and grow?

Rugby is just one sport, but the team at Harlequins, from players to coaches and physiotherapists, spread themselves far and wide outside the rugby season to learn from great coaches in other sports. O’Shea himself is heavily influenced by tennis and the strategies the players enact to win their game – similar in style to how Harlequins are now playing, in a formulaic, structured and tight fashion. Other sports coaches, from football to Olympic Games, are set to receive visits from the Harlequins coaches this summer, as they seek to broaden their knowledge base and bring back a wealth of experience and new techniques that will further enhance the team’s performance.

How do Harlequins retain their talent, without the high salaries of competing clubs?

O’Shea is conscious that retaining top players is a tough job when you have scouts on the horizon. This is similarly experienced by many businesses whose budgets can’t accommodate competing salaries to keep their top talent. What do Harlequins’ do? They actively encourage their players to pursue other interests and further their education. From O’Shea’s own experience at having to retire prematurely aged 29, one injury can end your career. Each of the ‘Quins players are encouraged to pursue their interests, through professional internships, academic qualifications, college courses and more, and are supported with time off and opportunities through the Harlequins’ network to pursue such interests. Having that freedom and support has been a great motivation and reward for the players, which they wouldn’t get at another club.

O’Shea knows that it’s a tough challenge being a manager of a rugby club (“You can be fired within 6 games”), but he’s with the team for the long haul. He believes in what the team has challenged themselves to achieve, and at the moment the team is riding high after their Aviva Premiership victory over Leicester Tigers two weeks ago. True to form, the coaching team has split up to cover all four corners of the Earth to develop their skills over the summer. O’Shea runs his club like a business, and business can take great leaves from his management play book.

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