Leadership lessons from Eddie Jones and England rugby

Back in November of 2015 I wrote a post about the first press conference of England Rugby’s new coach, Eddie Jones. England had just crashed out of their home World Cup, and were ranked a lowly 8th in the world. At the time I said “I believe, and hope, that Jones’ leadership will produce better results.” My optimism was based on “A healthy and long over-due refocusing on performance … in contrast with the disastrous approach of previous head coach, Stuart Lancaster, who was on an ultimately fruitless mission to create the ‘right culture’.”

Fast forward seven months, and what has happened? For non-rugby fans, England have won all eight of their matches in 2016, sealing a first “Grand Slam” since 2003 (where they beat Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy) and claiming a first series win in Australia. They have jumped from eighth to second in the rankings.

This is one of the biggest turnarounds seen in rugby and maybe even in any sport. How has Eddie Jones pulled this off, given that with a couple of notable exceptions, the team was largely unchanged from the one managed by Lancaster?

1. Focus on a winning playing model

In my post of last year I talked about the “playing model” Eddie Jones talked about introducing: “He promises to have a very different approach, and one I believe will be more successful”. And Eddie (surely soon to be Sir Eddie) has stuck to his guns and implemented the strategy, as follows:

  • Identify what will be the strengths of the team, where we can have a competitive edge
  • Making sure we improve these strengths
  • Selecting the right players (to deliver against these strengths)
  • Learning how to adapt this style to different conditions

He went back to the traditional strengths of English ruby, which is a dominant pack of forwards (the big beefy blokes who push, shove and tackle to win the ball). And he then selected the players who could deliver against these strengths. Many of these players were part of the old regime. But he also brought back bad boy Dylan Hartley, and even named him captain. And he also picked a brilliant young forward called Mario Itoje, overlooked by Lancaster, who has proved to be a revelation.

Eddie also worked with the team to prepare for different scenarios, so the team would be able to respond when the inevitable problems occur.

2. Surround yourself with the best support team

With a clear playing model established, Eddie set out to get the very best support team in place. He poached Steve Borthwick from Bristol before Borthwick had even worked a day for his new club, pissing off plenty of people. He recruited from English and European champions Saracens the best defence coach in the business, Paul Gustard. And he got a new scrum coach, Neil Hatley.

The result of this new approach and new support structure was that the England pack outmuscled an Australian team who only nine months earlier had humiliated them at the world cup.

3. Keep it simple

Many companies suffer not from a lack of strategy or creativity, but from complexity and lack of clarity. And this was a problem affecting the old England regime. As this BBC article explains, “England arguably had a more attractive attacking game under Lancaster, but in the final year of his reign confusion over selection and tactics crept in.” Eddie Jones has cut through the complexity and made things simpler for the players, bringing clarity to the gamelan. “Jones has kept it simple, playing a territory-based game by combining a solid set-piece and a strong kicking game,” as the BBC article goes on to say.

4. Use communication as a weapon

Eddie Jones has proven to be a master of communication, as the BBC article reveals: “While Lancaster went to lengths not to engage in media mind games or to have his players come across as arrogant, England have now been talking the talk before walking the walk, with Jones and Hartley both bullishly stating England “expected” to win the series in Australia.” As with everything else he does, Jones’ sole focus is on giving his team an edge to help them win. And it seems to have been working. “So clever has Jones been with his use of the media, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen says it has affected the outcome of the series,” suggest this article.

5. Motivate your team with the “carrot and stick”

Eddie Jones’ man management seems to be a good old fashioned combination of “carrot and stick”. He talks up players big time and tells them that he believes in their potential. But at the same time, he sets the quality bar very high, and doesn’t hesitate to drop players if he feels they are not performing. This approach seems to have paid, off, with several players being “given a new lease of life with England this year”, including James Haskell, Billy Vunipola, George Ford and Chris Robshaw. The latter is perhaps Jones’ biggest management achievement. Robshaw was relieved of the captaincy after the disastrous World Cup, and many people predicted that Jones would cut him from the squad. However, Jones retained Robshaw, changed his position slightly, and “Robshaw has since been in the form of his life in a white shirt, marking his 50th cap with a man-of-the-match display at AAMI Park.”

6. Work your nuts (or equivalent) off

England’ results are not just a function of smart strategy and planning. Eddie Jones also has a legendary work ethic that has  won him as many critics as fans. For example, on arriving in his new England job he is reported as watching on video every single English premiership game (6 per week) from the six months prior to his arrival. I calculate that to be roughly 192 hours of rugby, or the equivalent of 16 full 12 hours days! He clearly leads by example when it comes to working hard to get results.

In conclusion, Eddie Jones has shown just what a difference a clear strategy and the right personnel can make to a team’s performance. Perhaps its time to look at the playing model used by your business and do the Eddie test on it:

  • Identify what will be the strengths of YOUR team, where YOU can have a competitive edge
  • Making sure YOU improve these strengths
  • Selecting the right players (to deliver against these strengths)
  • Learning how to adapt this style to different conditions