Culture7 min read

In Conversation: Sir Clive Woodward and Charles Mindenhall on the mindsets leaders need to take their organisations into the new world of work

We recently brought together World Cup-winning Coach, Sir Clive Woodward, and Charles Mindenhall, Co-founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder, in a webinar where they reflected on their experiences of leading teams through turbulent times, building businesses that have thrived even in recession eras, and their insights curated from their networks of CEO peers.

We’re publishing parts of the discussion as part of a mini-series so you can access their insights in bitesize bursts of actionable learning. You can head back to Part 1 here if you’d like to start at the beginning.

Part 4: Teachability, thinking correctly under pressure, and adaptability are the most important mindsets needed in the current crisis

Charles Mindenhall:

There’s a suggestion that leaders need to change their mindsets and to change the way that they think about running and organizing and managing their businesses. Now, you’ve worked, obviously, with some of the most successful athletes, not just the rugby teams, but also more broadly across the Olympics, particularly in 2012, some of the most successful athletes in the world in their disciplines. What sort of mindsets do you see them adopting, and the people around them?

Sir Clive Woodward:

The biggest thing that I found was … I use this word teachable. In other words, I coach, but what I mean by teachable is this: They were totally passionate about what they actually do. What I’ve found with top athletes, and the same applies, Charles, to top business leaders, there’s no difference, they’re really passionate about their subjects. They may not have gone to Oxford or Cambridge and got university degrees, but they’re passionate about their sport.

So they’re totally teachable, you know? They’ll question what coaches do. They really understand. They won’t just do what a coach says or what a fitness trainer says or nutritionist says. They want to know why. I call this being teachable, and I call this being a sponge, not a rock. In other words, they’ve got a sponge between their ears, not a rock between their ears. They have a thirst for knowledge. It’s so obvious when you see them that they’re not just yes-people. They don’t just do what the coaches say. They’re totally engaged. And sometimes they’re pushing. The coach has got to say, “No, no, we’re not doing that.” They’re pushing too hard. I think they’ve got this ability just to learn.

And that was really one of the bases of Hive Learning, that we’ve just got to digitize this whole process. I think I did that with the rugby team. They really questioned all the time what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and we took it to a whole new level. But then, can we put that into a way where you can capture it on your laptops or your computers, on your phones? I think the first thing is, you got to be coachable.

The second big thing I’ve seen with athletes who are successful and people who are successful is how you handle pressure. I think pressure is actually a great, great word. I think pressure sets people apart. Anyone could do it when there’s no strife or hassle. At the moment, we’ll never, ever see tougher conditions for any business or sport. Anyone can do it when it’s all successful and everything’s going well. You’ll see people handle things really well when the pressure is at is greatest.

But again, I think pressure is something you can teach people. I pride myself on how I teach people how to coach under pressure. I’ll just share one little thing that I did with the rugby team, which you can relate to in any business. With the rugby team, Charles, when I was meeting either one-on-one with a player or with the whole team, I’d always have three things either on the board or on the wall or next to me. I’d always have a clock, a scoreboard, and a whiteboard.

In any meeting … If I was in a one-on-one meeting with you, Charles, say you’re Jason Robinson or Jonny Wilkinson, I’d just stop the meeting and I’d just set up a situation, and I would also do this for the whole team … I’ll just use a team situation. So, I’ve got the whole team, and I’d just stop the meeting. The players got used to this. Like, “Okay, clock, there’s five minutes to go in this game, and scoreboard, we’re four points down. England 12, Australia 16.” Then on the whiteboard, I set up a situation, and I just bring a player out. So, Matt Dawson, out you come. Dawson.

So, Dawson would come out, and I’d say, “Here’s the situation. Timer’s going, four points down, boom.” That player’s got to answer me immediately. What would you do? What would you do? He’s also already under a lot of pressure, because the whole team is watching him, also, laughing and giggling. He’s got to make an immediate decision. Quite simply, we would not leave the room until we’d all decided, that is what we’d do in that situation. We used to do that time and time, and every meeting do two or three more. We’d have a whole book then of pressure situations.

The data on this is quite straightforward. I think I got this from the readings. If you come across something you’ve never experienced before, but more importantly you’ve not thought through clearly what you would do in that situation, the chances of thinking correctly under pressure are very much limited. All these horrendous words kick in. Choke, freeze, bottle, rabbits in headlights. That’s what happens. Conversely, if you come across things that you’ve thought about what you’d do before, and if they then happen in the real world, there’s a very high chance you’ll make the right decisions and that the rest is going to be history.

It never applies more today than what’s happening with COVID and the pandemic. It’s a pressure situation, but how do we handle it? Have we thought through clearly what happens when things are going badly? May not be a disease. Could be anything that could happen. But how is your business placed when things are not going well, and you’ve got pressure situations?

The last thing under athletes is just attitude. I think attitude’s a great world. When I look at any athlete in any sport, rugby, Olympics, teachability, pressure, and attitude. I have 10 definitions of attitude, but I think attitude’s a great word. It sets people apart. There’s all sorts of ways that I coach those 10 areas, but that’s how I do it. There’s a real commonality. Every athlete I’ve worked with, Olympics or rugby, has always scored very high in those three areas, and that’s how I think you can measure all three. You can measure all three in business. There’s no difference. A top businessman will score very highly in all those three areas. But they’re very independent. They’re sometimes tough. They’re not the easiest people to coach or manage. It’s not easy at times with these kinds of high achievers, but that’s how I measure people and look at people.

Charles Mindenhall:

Thanks, Clive. While we’re venture building with our entrepreneurs, we talk quite a lot about the skills required that we look for, and we talk a lot about resilience and curiosity, which picks up on a couple of the themes you just mentioned. With resilience, we often see it when we’re at school with our children, right? People talk about developing a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. How do you keep going at things? But one thing this crisis has certainly taught me is how to be more resilient, how to deal with some of the unexpected challenges that are thrown at you. We see that when we’re building our businesses. You need to keep going at them. You need to think on your feet. You need to be agile. You can talk about it all you want, and you can try and plan for it, but there’s nothing quite like living through it to help get through it.

Sir Clive Woodward:

Yeah. There’s a commonality, Charles, when people are pitching to you to get involved in your ventures. There’s a commonality with these businesspeople. Outside of resilience, are there any other features you look for when you’re talking to people?

Charles Mindenhall:

Well, the other thing we look for is curiosity. Your word attitude and teachability, I think, combines those two, which is, are they curious about the world? Do they want to learn more? Do they want to find a different way of being able to do something? Are they willing to go and look that up, research it, ask other people? You talked about getting information and data from lots of different places in an organisation. How do you filter that out? Our entrepreneurial leaders, we ask them to go and find things out from those people, from those people on the front line, learn that data, and then adjust as a result. That sort of curiosity, that’s certainly a big thing for us, and that’s a commonality that we see across our people, which is good.

I’d contrast that a little bit sometimes with very big businesses. This isn’t to suggest that people aren’t resilient and curious. But if you’re in a big business, you’re often honing and refining an existing business model. You’re trying to make very incremental improvements to that model. So perhaps there’s not as much emphasis on finding a different or new way to do something. It’s very much about exploiting and administering what you have today. In the world of entrepreneurs and earlier-stage businesses, as you know from working with us, you need to be a bit more open to external ideas, be willing to discover more, to learn more.

And there’s more cost involved in that, as well, actually. It’s not as refined or efficient as a big organisation. There’s more cost involved if you’re searching around for an idea and searching around for a new way of doing something as opposed to honing something. So they are different mindsets, that discoverability mindset in the entrepreneurial world, versus the exploitation and refined delivery in the bigger world.

Sir Clive Woodward:

I’m often asked about the definition of management v. leadership. I think management’s that you’re there to manage what’s already in place and hope to improve it, but leadership is I think what you guys look for, where you’re looking for real leaders, people who are curious, and people who are prepared to really disrupt whatever business they’re actually in. That’s what I look for. I look for people who are very capable of disrupting and not being scared of disrupting and thinking of new ideas, or being curious. But I guess the word I use is passion. I just want people who are passionate about what they’re doing. I want people studying, going on the internet, looking … These are athletes, really finding out new ways of doing things.

It’s a two-way process. I’m coaching you. I’ve just got a two-way thing. I’m going to do my best to come up with some thoughts, but I need you to really come up with some thoughts. If that happens, it’s usually a really healthy relationship.

Key takeaways:

Teachability isn’t about having a great intellect, it’s about having a real passion for your subject and wanting to learn. Learning in itself is a talent. It’s more than absorbing information, it’s about understanding why you are absorbing it. This is what sets the top performers apart.

If you want to be an elite performer, in any profession, you must be a sponge and absorb new knowledge and new learning. The more you study aspects of your performance, the better you’ll do them.

You need your leaders to be able to Think Correctly Under Pressure (T-CUP). This doesn’t come naturally to everyone but it is something you can teach. One practical way to get your people in the mindset of solving problems quickly is to get your people thinking about multiple pressured scenarios you might encounter and thinking about how they would respond.

The more you do this over time, the more comfortable your team will get responding to pressured situations. We are likely in this current crisis for a while yet, so make sure you dedicate time each week to scenario planning to get your team comfortable with responding to and pivoting with change.

If you’d like to listen to the full recording, you can do so here.

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