Sale Sharks rugby union team had problems to tackle both on and off thepitch. On the business side, the club had to contend with a great dealof change when the chief executive announced his departure midwaythrough the last season. This resulted in a search for a new one, whichcould take up to six months. At the same time, the players themselveswere suffering from turbulent times. Having finished the 2004/2005season first and winning the Guinness Cup, they reached the end of thefollowing season in 10th place, largely due to a number of severeinjuries, as well as not coping well with the club's internalpolitics.
In order to move forward, the club decided to send both sides -the'suits' and the coaches - on training courses, facilitated by trainingprovider SFL. The objective was to empower; to make people realise thatit is their business; to have faith in the new structure; and to have aclear focus. On the business side, finance and corporate directors, themedia manager and heads of hospitality and ticket sales were allpresent. The day-and-a-half-long course set out a strong vision formoving forward. The coaching staff went on a similar programme, withdoctors and physiotherapists all attending. Both programmes consisted ofteam-building, motivational and alignment exercises, with a view tocommunicating the learning to all employees afterwards. Then the twosides of the business converged, so a focused objective could bedetermined. The Sharks realised that everybody was working towards thesame goal and a clear leadership message was born out of thisrealisation - to be champions.
Both sides of the club have found a better way of working together, withincreased understanding of the issues facing all departments. Theleadership message has helped inform recruitment practices, acting ascriteria for making decisions about the suitability of candidates. Atthe time of going to press, the Sharks were fifth in the table with areal chance of winning the Euro Challenge Cup. The club is also oncourse to qualify for the Heineken Cup. The training has had otherbenefits too, with the business side of the club saying it is planningsix months further ahead than it used to.
THE DIRECTOR'S VIEW
Nathan Bombrys, commercial director says getting buy-in from the top washard at first. "Rugby clubs have huge overheads, especially with ourexpensive players, so we don't often spend money on the business itself.This made it difficult to justify at first, as we'd never done anythinglike this before." Indeed, Bombrys admits there were some sceptics. "Alot of us secretly thought it would not bring us together. We thought asports club was too different from other businesses, but the trainerspointed out the many similarities we have with retail companies. Noweveryone is wondering why we didn't do it sooner." With a much betterstanding in the league since the training, the results are clear to see.And this is not just down to better scrum or line out tactics on thepitch, but the improvements on the business side too. "We are doingthings so differently now. When we have crucial decisions to make werefer to our leadership message. It has helped us to define our goalsmore clearly. It was definitely good value for money and has certainlyhelped the bottom line."
THE EMPLOYEE'S VIEW
Sponsorship account manager Julie Loynd attended the training. At firstsome staff were nervous, she says. "We'd never done anything like thisbefore. We were worried about how honest we could be." But that soonvanished. "Everyone began to thrash out the issues and it helped us towork as a team. We started to realise we all had a common goal." Loyndfound the painting exercise - where team members had to paint an imageusing only the descriptions from the team leader as guidance -particularly enlightening. "It taught us how things can seemcomplicated, but there's usually a simple solution." The second day,when the commercial side met the coaching staff, was particularlyvaluable. "We're based in separate sites so I wasn't aware of theirissues, but communication is much better now," she says. "And I feel asense of worth that the company has invested in us like this. It makesit clear that the management is interested in the future of the club.It's a brave business that can say: 'We're not perfect. How can we makethis better for everyone?'"