Organisation structure, leadership and accountability

I once heard an interesting interview with Sir Clive Woodward, the rugby coach that took England to World Cup Victory. He was commenting on the problems with England Cricket.  It struck me that his comments highlighted some clear lessons for business leaders.

For those of you who don’t follow such things, there has been a battle between the England Cricket Coach and the England Cricket Captain which has resulted in them both leaving their jobs.  The interesting point that Clive Woodward made was that the problem was very simply down to organisation structure.

In rugby, the coach is appointed and has full operational control of the team, including the selection of the captain. The captain is delegated the responsibility for running the team on the pitch in accordance with the overall strategy of the coach. Simple and it (sometimes) works!

In cricket, the selectors appoint the team, including the captain and the coach, and they then ‘have’ to work together. Fine if they get on, but what if they don’t? In the recent case it degenerated into public criticism of the coach by the captain, making the coach’s posiiton untenable. The end result – the team loses two very able people.

Whilst it may be fair to criticise the individuals involved for not being able to resolve their differences in a better way, the point Sir Clive was making was that the fundamental problem was not the people, but the structure.  And sadly, as he pointed out, the structure has not been changed. We heard over the next few days of the appointment by the selectors of the coach, and then the captain… and everyone is just left hoping they will work well together.

Image of a board meeting for MD2MDs post on types of Directors

The parallels for business are, I think, clear. We need structures in which the line of accountability is clear as in Rugby. The team follow the lead of the captain on the pitch, the captain and team follow the overall lead of the coach and the board hire or fire the coach.

Legally, the board of a business has all the power to decide everything, but in practice there are only two basic ways that power can be used. The board can support the chief executive’s decisions, or it can dismiss them. It cannot impose on the chief executive decisions that the chief executive disagrees with. To do so leaves the chief executive’s position untenable.

And this principle largely extends downwards. If you delegate the job of running part of the operation to someone (like the captain running the show on the field), then you have to allow them to get on with it. If you overrule them from above, then you take the accountability for the performance of that area back to yourself.

Before finishing, let me just add one more thing. Whilst I am passionate that the above principle is fundamental, I also believe that mature managers operate the above in practice with the addition of a lot of subtle, and sometimes less subtle, influence. This too is part of good management. Opinions can be changed and we can be prepared to concede to others on some things in order to gain their support on others. The black and white model above is simply the underlying principle that has to be reflected in the structure, and that should be used very sparingly when there are fundamental and critical differences in view.

Written by Bob Bradley, founder of MD2MD.