“In the business world, people try to cover their backs. They are afraid”

Simon Cohen, CEO of Leicester Tigers, explains how organisations can learn from sport’s relentless focus on winning…

Simon Cohen –­ CEO of Leicester Tigers Rugby Club – has a favourite piece of advice. Picked up from Tigers’ ex-director of rugby Richard Cockerill, it goes something like this: “If you listen to the fans too much, you’ll be sitting with them soon enough.” In a world where keyboard warriors fire out thousands of opinions on a daily basis, this is wise counsel which translates well to business, too. To paraphrase: those easily swayed by criticism risk waltzing into the flying tackle of a 20-stone flanker.

“To be successful at anything, you have to do what you believe to be right,” says Simon. “If you’re at the heart of an organisation, you’re the one who knows the parameters, the criteria, the facts. Those giving their opinions often do not. You must base your decisions on the evidence that you see rather than on what others think they see from afar.”

Simon comes from an entrepreneurial and legal background, putting him in a unique position at the top of a pyramid where sport meets professional services and business. After studying philosophy at university, he set up his own business organising rugby holidays for kids. Then, in his early 30s, he took a law degree “by mistake”. He explains: “My wife, a nurse, took a part-time law degree at Stafford University. She couldn’t drive at the time, so I drove her there, sat in the car and drove her back again. By October, it was getting cold in the car park, so I joined her for the lectures and ended up getting a law degree myself!”

In 1995, when the game went professional, Simon became one of the country’s first rugby agents, later taking a job with law firm James Chapman & Co., who looked after Manchester United; a big name amongst other big clients. In 2005, Leicester Tigers approached him to be head of rugby operations, and six years later he became chief executive.

Over his career, Simon has gained a valuable insight into what the boardroom can learn from the stadium. “In sport, you focus on winning one game at a time,” he says. “You go from Saturday to Saturday, moving on quickly and positively. The aim is to build momentum, intensity and a winning mentality. That means no recriminations. In sport, people take responsibility for their mistakes, draw a line in the sand and focus on the next challenge. Conversely, in business, people often try to cover their own backs; they are afraid to take decisions in case they make mistakes. That’s not the way to create a winning momentum.”

For Simon, robust forward momentum has always been his aim, both in business and in sport. “Momentum is so important and it goes both ways,” he says. “If you lose momentum it’s really hard to regain it, and if you’ve got it, then it can just carry you forward. What our friends up the road at Leicester City Football Club had when they amazed the world to win the Premier League title was momentum by the bucket load.”

But how do you build such winning momentum? According to Simon, apart from creating a culture of looking forward without dwelling on past mistakes, you must also instil efficiency, quality and confidence in all areas. “In rugby,” he says, “a team needs to be great in every department to win trophies. If you have good players but poor coaching, you’ll fail. If you have good players, good coaching but poor strength and conditioning, you’ll fail. You have to get everything spot on – that’s the only way to win. In the business world, I regularly come across organisations that say: ‘We’re good here, but we’re not so good there’. That negative, complacent attitude will never lead to outstanding success.

“Self-belief – a genuine confidence you’re going to win – is critical, too,” continues Simon. “Here at Welford Road, in the years we’ve won trophies, there’s been huge belief throughout the whole organisation that we’re going to win, whatever happens. The players might play badly for half an hour, but everyone still always thinks that we’re going to win. That positive self-belief feeds momentum and vice versa.”

And beneath any successful organisation sits a strong culture – the foundation on which winning momentum is built: “Leicester Tigers are a down-to-earth club. That’s our culture: hard-working and humble. But to build any culture you need leaders who buy into it, embody it and ensure that it spreads; people who lead by example, work hard and drive everybody else on.”

Simon’s insight makes fascinating reading for any business leader. His unique perspective means that he knows exactly what it takes to achieve phenomenal success in both the sporting arena and the business world, and he clearly understands how the former can inspire the latter.

We conclude our interview by asking him to share his golden nugget. Unhesitatingly, he says: “Delegate to the point where it’s uncomfortable. Hire good people who are better than you in their individual disciplines and be prepared to loosen the reins by delegating more than feels natural. You’ll probably see things you don’t agree with but let them run with it. Let them make mistakes. Be inclusive, be transparent, and your trust really will empower people.”

This ties in nicely with Simon’s central point and links well to the title of this article. Don’t try to cover your own back, and never be afraid of taking a decision in case it’s the wrong one. Never create a culture where the finger of blame is regularly raised. Neither is it conducive to success on the field of play, or in the office. Strong forward momentum on the pitch and in the workplace stems from an intense focus on the positive rather than the negative, ensuring brilliance in all departments, powerful self-belief, and the presence of strong leaders who can spread and embed the right culture.

And leaders must not allow themselves to follow the ball all over the pitch by acting upon every piece of advice and criticism they hear, however well meant. Otherwise they will be sitting with the fans on the terraces soon enough…