Forget products and markets - success comes with how we manage our people

Inspirational Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt’s rules are simple - keep your promises, listen, make your expectations clear, involve people in the decisions that affect them, be fair, do what you are paid to do - and have fun together

IN the late 80s and early 90s, I played on a brilliant St Paul's Gaelic football team. We had a big problem though - we had never won an Antrim Senior Championship, and having lost semi-finals and finals on a regular basis, we were beginning to get a reputation for being chokers. It hurt.

We had won a load of division one titles in the Antrim leagues, we had beaten all of the best clubs sides in Ulster in challenges and the then All-Ireland club champions, Lavey, in two tournament finals. On our day, we could beat anybody but on the days that it really counted, we couldn't seem to win our own county championship.

Then Peter Finn arrived on the scene. I had known Peter as the co-manager of St Mary's when it won its first Sigerson Cup in 1989 knocking my team, Queen's University, out in the semi-final on our home pitch. That hurt too.

Thankfully, we got them back, winning our own Sigerson title the following year in Trinity. Honours were even between that great group of players from both sides, with a number of them going on to win All-Irelands with Down, Derry and latterly Tyrone after those Sigerson wins.

Back to Peter, who of course has led St Mary's University College so capably over many years to become one of the best run and most successful third level institutions on this island. It's hard to boil down what he did, but one thing became very clear to me after our first Championship win in 1994, Peter had melded a bunch of individuals, most of whom were super footballers, into a coherent unit.

In our case it was about getting the best out of a group who had never before reached their collective potential. On the other hand, the team which has fascinated me recently who have played, as far as I can see, beyond their potential, is the Irish men's rugby team.

You don't have to have an interest in sport to see that something special has happened to this Irish team. In many respects, they should be in transition since in the last few years two of the greatest players and leaders Irish sport has ever had, Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, have retired. Ireland also just won the Grand Slam without Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, two Lions starters.

So, Ireland loses some of its greatest players and a range of new ones get ‘blooded', including at least three guys who are barely into their 20s (Stockdale, Ringrose and Ryan) and we win the Grand Slam.

So how did they do it? In Ireland's case we have some of the world's best players in Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and the front row of Furlong, Healy and 35 year-old captain Rory Best (legend that he is), but we clearly have something else too. It's the magic potion which often makes good businesses become great and in team sports, often the single most important ingredient for success, the coach.

After Alex Ferguson retired as the most successful coach in the history of British soccer, he started a collaboration with the Harvard Business School. I read various articles at the time in the FT and elsewhere and it's interesting stuff (there is a Harvard Business Review case study also) but I guess what strikes me more about Joe Schmidt, the Irish rugby coach, is the fact that Ireland are definitely performing above where the skills and experience of their current crop of players would ‘naturally' place them.

After the Grand Slam, I devoured the press coverage of Ireland's win and found an interesting profile of Joe Schmidt which analysed his management style. In the article came the revelation that his approach is heavily influenced by a business book called ‘Trust Rules' by Bob Lee.

Needless to say, I bought it and read it. Many business books bore me to death and they are often too long. This one is short, clear and full of common sense advice. Divided into 16 Trust Rules, the book itself is a culmination of over 30 years of research on both sides of the Atlantic analysing why the world's best companies perform so well.

This book basically boils it down to a single premise: “Trust alone defines the quality of the workplace. Find low trust and you've found a bad workplace; find high trust and you've found a great one. And where you find high trust you will always find a great manager and a great place to work.”

Of course, in the case of teams you need talent and you need resources and in the case of companies, you need products, markets etc. But Joe Schmidt's rules are simple - keep your promises; really listen; make your expectations clear; involve people in the decisions that affect them; be fair; do what you are paid to do; have fun together. Those are some of the rules in the book and traits I have found in great coaches that I have played for, like Peter Finn.

At a time when there seems to be a fair amount of doubt and fear in business via Brexit, political instability, weakening markets and any amount of other things which are outside of the control of most companies, the one thing we can control and influence is how we manage our people.

And in Joe Schmidt we have an inspirational leader on our doorstep to learn some really valuable lessons from. Go get the book.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations Ltd.

:: Next week: Conor Lambe

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