You only sing when you’re winning! Sing when you’re winning! You only sing when you’re winning!

The chant often reverberates around sports stadia when a team goes behind. Supporters of the losing team – full of joie de vivremoments ago – are suddenly morose, and fans of the newly winning team swoop to smack them when they’re down. Ha! Not so loud now are you?! Take that, losers! 

The line of attack reveals three universal truths: 1) Winning makes you sing; 2) Losing sucks the air out of your lungs; 3) The vigour of your rivals’ celebrations is proportionate to the scale of your defeat. What’s more, if losses keep coming, the brooding silence that follows fuels a vicious circle. Confidence drains away, supporters get angry, players lose form and the team drifts.

The same dynamics apply to business. When you’re growing, everyone’s happy. Everything flows. But when the numbers start falling, the singing stops. Questions are raised. Critical voices get louder. A negative feedback loop may take hold. That’s the moment when leaders must step forward to halt the decline – just as top players do on the field. Therefore, during tough patches in both sport and business, the key question quickly becomes: who has the guts and gumption to get the team singing again?   

At Leicester Tigers Rugby Club, that person – one of them, anyway – is Andrea Pinchen. In May 2020 she became CEO and began to lead a momentum change. The club had, by its own high standards, fallen off a cliff. Tigers are arguably the biggest rugby union club in England and have won the Premiership ten times. But their last title win came in 2013 and there’d been a marked decline since then. Indeed, during the 2018/19 season they faced relegation – narrowly avoided – after losing 16 of their last 19 games. The first part of the 2019/20 season was also dismal, with one win in five. The famous Welford Road roar had turned into a meow.

Andrea, who arrived at the club as ticket office manager in 2004, says: “When I first joined Tigers you’d book the staff coach to Twickenham every pre-season without question. Success was a given. But then it stopped. Suddenly everything was hard work. You’d go from match to match doing your best, but the results were not happening. As the commercial director [she was promoted to that role in 2012] I wasn’t involved with the playing side but felt extremely emotional because this great club was slipping badly.”

She recalls this period with sadness: “Everyone was trying, everyone was working crazy hours. But I looked around and thought: ‘Are we working smart or just working long hours?’ Everything felt negative. You’d go out every weekend, gear up and lose again. It was an awful feeling.”

A turning point came when Andrea – then commercial director – felt compelled to initiate the change she wanted to see. “One day I went to the training ground with a sponsor and chatted with the coaches. I told the guys I was working on a three-year commercial plan and asked them what their KPIs were. They looked at me as if I’d got two heads. The look said it all: ‘Who is this woman from sales coming to our place asking questions?’ I thought: ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’, so I stuck around, had a few chats and compiled a report for my line manager. The report focused on the playing side – not from a performance perspective – but from a leadership and management perspective. The report outlined how to address some issues.”

It was a big moment for both Andrea and the club. She had no idea how her report would go down. She says: “I thought, if you sack me for sticking my beak in and saying things you don’t want to hear, so be it, because the club is too precious. I know that sounds twee. But I couldn’t just sit there and see Tigers fail. I just couldn’t.”

Andrea sent the report to her line manager, former CEO Simon Cohen, who forwarded it to the chairman, Peter Tom. “My report started a conversation,” says Andrea. “I was determined to either say it how it is or walk away. I was happy to leave if I couldn’t bring about change, because change was needed.”

So why was the club in such a spin? It’s complicated, but Andrea believes one problem was cultural. Tigers have historically attached importance to family values, hard graft, humility and equality – the idea of ‘one for all and all for one’ whether you’re the club captain, a fan, or a sales agent answering phones in the ticket office. The CEO believes these company values had – for various reasons – gone AWOL.

She says: “When I first worked in the ticket office in 2004, I got all the staff to lock up just before kick-off so they could see the lads run out. When the team sprinted onto the pitch I said: ‘Look at those 17,500 fans. Listen to the noise, passion and excitement. You’ve made that happen!’” 

By saying that to her ticket sales team, Andrea was highlighting the connection between the fans, staff and players. She was demonstrating that everyone at the club is important – all working together to win. That feeling of togetherness had somehow been lost.

She offers another example: “In my ticket office days, the players would sometimes answer the phones if we were busy. I remember shouting: ‘Answer the bloody phone! People want to come and see you guys! Don’t just sit there!’ So Martin Johnson [former England and Tigers captain] grabbed a phone and said: ‘Leicester Tigers ticket office, Martin Johnson speaking’. And the caller hung up because they couldn’t believe it!’ 

Once again, Andrea’s story shows how feelings of unity, equality and fun dominated Tigers back in the day – feelings that had disappeared or had reduced significantly.

Andrea’s report sent an electric jolt through the club that accelerated change. From there, things moved quickly. She says: “It was very much a case of no one person is to blame but rather the system and structure are at fault. 

In May 2020, mid-pandemic, Tigers promoted Andrea to CEO – a powerful endorsement of her passionate decision to file her vital report. Since then, she and the club have continued to drive through the changes needed to improve while simultaneously negotiating the significant challenges of Covid.

It’s early days but Tigers do seem to have turned a corner. At the time of writing they are sixth in the Premiership, having won eight out of 15 games in 2021. The negative spiral appears to have stopped; signs of a positive new chapter are growing. What does Andrea put this down to?

She says: “We’ve rediscovered the idea of the Tigers’ family. Ultimately we’re all in it together. Whether you work in the car park or you’re George Ford, we are all contributing to this emotional, passionate thing that happens at weekends. And without supporters – as we’ve experienced over the past year – there’s little point. The fans, players, wider Tigers team – one doesn’t work without the other.”

Second, Andrea puts the change down to a renewed culture of transparency and equality: “When Covid hit, we were forced to reassess everything and 31 people lost their jobs. That’s never to be forgotten. It was hard. The players and staff took a 25% salary reduction too, which unfortunately led to the departure of five including Manu Tuilagi. It’s sad and it became a big media story, but from the moment I wrote my report, I’ve always believed that everyone should be treated equally and fairly. Could we quietly exclude anyone from the 25% salary deduction? No. I’m not happy to operate the club like that. Honesty and transparency are vital.”

The third reason for Tigers’ resurgence, says Andrea, is the arrival of a new culture among the players brought about by new head coach Steve Borthwick. “I give the players huge credit for the turnaround,” she says. “The guys wanted to turn this around as much as everyone else. They’ve worked hard but we needed to give them the tools to work smarter. It’s not just a case of let’s train, let’s hit the gym. We need to be much cleverer than that. So the whole environment has become one of learning and improvement. What have I done today that’s pushed us on by 1% or 2% every day? That’s the question everyone has to ask themselves. And whoever you are, you need to show respect for the person next to you and everyone around you. We all want to learn and get better.”

It was Andrea’s heart – and her beloved club’s place in it – that caused her to write her influential report. That courageous act was the equivalent of singing alone on the terrace as her team sunk to yet another defeat. However, as often happens when one takes the lead, another follows-her voice was met by another voice, then by another, and soon the whole terrace was joining in, not haranguing their team but urging it forward to change, adapt, improve and win. 

You only sing when you’re winning.

It’s undoubtedly true for most fans but clearly not for all. Genuine leaders – game-changers we sometimes call them – save their best, boldest and loudest songs for when their team is losing. And when others listen and join in, it’s possible – as Andrea’s story shows – to halt the cycle of failure, find a new source of energy, and get back on the winning trail again.