Organisation structure, leadership and accountability

In this article I reflect on an insightful interview with Sir Clive Woodward that reinforced for me the significance of well-defined lines of accountability in businesses.

In the interview he contrasted the rugby model, where the coach reigns supreme, with cricket's structure, where the selectors appoint both the coach and the captain, potentially leading to clashes.

In the article I reinforce the need for clear hierarchies and delegation, recognising that micromanagement from above erodes accountability and performance expectations whilst also recognising the value of subtle and overt influence, understanding that compromise and collaboration are crucial for success.

Once I heard a revealing interview with Sir Clive Woodward, the legendary rugby coach who guided England to World Cup triumph. He was analyzing the issues plaguing England Cricket at the time, and his remarks resonated with me, illuminating the importance of clear organizational structures for business success.

At the heart of England Cricket's turmoil lay a feud between the coach and the captain, leading to their resignations. Woodward astutely observed that the fundamental problem stemmed from the organization's structure.

In rugby, the coach holds absolute authority, overseeing the team's operations, including captain selection. The captain, in turn, is tasked with leading the team on the field, adhering to the coach's overall strategy. This straightforward approach often yields positive outcomes.

Cricket, however, employs a different structure. The selectors appoint both the coach and the captain, who are then expected to collaborate seamlessly. This arrangement works well when they harmonize, but when they clash, as in the recent instance, the consequences are disastrous. Public criticism from the captain towards the coach rendered the latter's position untenable, ultimately costing the team two valuable individuals.

While it's easy to criticize the individuals involved for failing to resolve their differences amicably, Woodward emphasized that the underlying issue was structural, not personal. Sadly, the structure remains unchanged, and the appointment of both the coach and the captain is left to the selectors, leaving everyone hoping for harmonious collaboration.

Businesses can draw valuable lessons from this scenario. Clear lines of accountability, as seen in rugby, are crucial for organizational effectiveness. The team follows the captain's lead on the field, the captain and team defer to the coach's overall guidance, and the board holds the authority to hire or dismiss the coach.

While legally, a company's board has the power to make all decisions, there are only two effective ways to exercise that power: supporting the chief executive's decisions or dismissing them. Attempts to impose decisions on the chief executive against their will only render their position untenable.

This principle applies throughout the organizational hierarchy. Delegating responsibility for a section of the operation to someone, akin to the captain leading on the field, necessitates granting them autonomy to execute their duties. Interfering with their decisions undermines their accountability and shifts the responsibility for that area's performance back to oneself.

In conclusion, while I strongly advocate for the fundamental principle outlined above, I also recognize that experienced managers implement it with a blend of subtle and overt influence. This too is an essential aspect of effective management. Opinions can be swayed, and concessions can be made on certain matters to secure support on others. The black-and-white model presented above serves as the underlying principle that should inform organizational structure and be sparingly invoked when critical and fundamental disagreements arise.