The day after England’s tumultuous exit from the 2011 World Cup, Stuart Lancaster went to a library in Leeds and wrote down a list of what he felt had gone wrong. His list comprised 159 points.
At this time Lancaster was coach of England Saxons – the young, emerging talent - and also the head of elite player development, overseeing all national age-group sides. He thus had responsibility and a line of sight over the next generation of English talent, and a long-term perspective. This continued when appointed England head coach, with a contract to 2019.
He had guided the Saxons to nine wins in ten matches. He believed that a future First XV could include George Ford and Owen Farrell from his squad. He made his statement about building for the long-term when announcing on 11 January 2012, his first 32-man England squad containing thirteen changes from the 2011 World Cup squad - nine hadn’t played test rugby.
To conclude his first week training, Lancaster took his squad to an Italian restaurant. He wanted them to have more pride for the shirt. He wanted them to know just what it meant to those close to them to see them wear the white England shirt. When the players had finished eating he announced he had a gift for each of them.
He had written to the parents of every player and asked them to write down what it meant for them to see their son play for England. He had asked them to get similar comments from five of the most influential figures on their son’s rugby journey. Each player was given an envelope with the comments, and read the comments out to the group. Most of the players were in tears.
Lancaster had thus established his coaching philosophy about developing talent with a long-term perspective. His ethos was about focusing on performance not just the result, creating a working environment that was challenging to create mentally strong individuals and a collective team. Importantly, his focus embraced a key principle to develop individual players for the greater good of the team rather than just the individual, and to empower the players to take responsibility for their own development.
However, most of Lancaster’s nightmares about his inexperienced young team came true on Saturday evening as a Wales team ravaged by second-half injuries beat England. After the predictably unforgiving collisions between two teams built for bashing took a heavy toll, penalties exchanged by Biggar and Farrell took the scoreboard from 22-12 and 25-18 in England’s favour. Then a Welsh try and a conversion by Biggar tied the scores with ten minutes left.
George North’s burst down the wing sucked Brown into not releasing. Biggar’s penalty from 45m showed a kicking talent resembling the absent talisman Leigh Halfpenny nudged Wales ahead, to set up the nerve-shredding finish which ultimately ended in 25-28 defeat for England - primarily due to 23 points from Biggar's boot.
Lancaster now has to focus on a must-win game versus Australia to secure short-term success, but his long-term philosophy on talent development shouldn’t be undermined by one costly defeat. Indeed, the enduring success of Sir Alex Ferguson clearly shows the impact of taking a long-term view in building and executing a talent development strategy with the contribution of the ‘Class of 92’ to his success.
Ferguson’s length of his tenure is the learning point and provides lessons with relevance way beyond the football pitch. It’s a reminder than we have all become too focused and frenzied on short-term success as a metric, and making rapid changes if it’s not forthcoming. The value of the long hard slog to achieve a vision is overlooked where often knee-jerk reactions dominate.
Ferguson won nothing in the first three years in his tenure, and was under pressure. Fans wanted him out, but the board stuck with him. Are we building a team for this season, or a talent strategy for the long-term? A CEO needs to plan for the long-term and get the big decisions right, look towards the horizon rather than just the next game. Ferguson’s focus in terms of youth and ‘grow your own talent’ as a long-term vision was instilled and embedded. Lancaster is following this model.
In UK business, the average tenure of a plc CEO is four years, in America it is six months longer. Marks & Spencers have been changing CEOs with the same frequency as a new collection of womenswear is introduced, Morrisons supermarket faster than fresh vegetables passing their sell-by dates, whilst HP have had more leaders in the last five years than most of us have changed printers.
A board focused on stability and the long-term in its decision-making as opposed to trigger-fingers in the boardroom enables a long-term talent strategy to be implemented and sustainable. The board backed Ferguson and trusted him to get on with it. The emergence of Manchester City with Dubai backing achieved a notable triumph in 2012, but three years on, despite mega-investment in individual players, their blueprint lacks any conviction for long-term talent development and the team is still a work-in-progress. Red faces in Manchester, literally.
Ferguson’s tenure developed a very solid organisation focused on developing their own talent, and the resulting continuity and stability was a point of difference. Recall to that he didn’t just build one successful title-winning team, he was able to regenerate that team over and over again, from the underpinning of a long-term focus.
My observation is that Lancaster is creating what he believes is the right training and learning environment for elite England rugby performance now, and in the future. I don’t disagree with the ambition and my feeling is England is heading in the right direction with their young, new talent, despite a potentially calamitous defeat to Wales.
My thoughts are that a talent strategy needs four phases to design, build enact and deliver:
- Phase 1: you’re deciding which employees are close to the same page as you and have what it takes to deliver, while also bringing in and sourcing new folks, developing a talent pipeline
- Phase 2: by the end of the second phase, the cohort should be shaping up, bedding in and building momentum
- Phase 3: at the end of this phase, you should be pretty close to accomplishing what you set out to achieve from a talent pool perspective
- Phase 4: you should be absolutely flying in terms of performance
I suspect Lancaster is close to the team he wants, but maybe close isn’t quite there. After the Welsh defeat, maybe this world cup has come a little too soon for this current England cohort. The ‘winner takes all’ game versus Australia couldn’t be more dramatic, and puts pressure and the spotlight back on the demand for short-term success.
That’s not being pessimistic about England’s chances because I’m not saying they cannot still win this world cup. Ultimately, giving Lancaster a contract to Japan 2019 showed foresight, and maybe that tournament will show the benefits of a long-term talent strategy.
To respond to the criticism of the Welsh defeat, Lancaster needs to show he is creating a meeting point where long and short-term needs connect, ‘long-term thinking in a short-sighted world’ perhaps best sums up Lancaster’s talent strategy philosophy, yet you can't grow long-term if you can't eat short-term.