Building Successful Businesses podcast: Martyn Phillips MBE, EP2

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Welcome back to Series 3 of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses. In the second part of our series chatting to Martyn Phillips MBE, we ask him about what the transition was like going from CEO of B&Q to CEO of Welsh Rugby Union, what it’s like when everyone you meet has an opinion on how well you’re doing your job, and who has a harder role: a CEO or a Head Coach?

Listen to Episode 1.2: 

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Fiona: I’ve been chatting with Martyn Phillips, a business leader who after 12 years at B&Q, including a number of years as CEO, moved into the world of rugby, becoming group CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union. In our latest episode of “Building Successful Businesses,” I asked Martyn what was the transition like from the world of DIY, to the world of sport?


On the one hand, it was really straightforward. Commercially, it was 200-odd people. B&Q would turn over more in four days than Welsh Rugby would in a year. The numbers were obviously much smaller, but then different commercial challenges, so things like cash flow and debt become much more of a challenge than they do in a big group company that I was part of. But the bits that, frankly, shocked me the most – one was the scrutiny. As you know, with the big corporates you do your quarterly reporting, you get a bit of attention for a day or two, and then people move on, and you don’t hear another peep for three months. Whereas in sport, you’re in the paper every single day, the decisions you make are raked over. It becomes quite personal, so you get quite a lot of personal attacks in the media, and in social media. The level of scrutiny, and the emotion that people bring to sport.

In B&Q, you’re spending tens of millions of pounds a year to get people to notice you. And in the Welsh Rugby job, I’d have spent tens of millions just to be a bit anonymous for a day or two. It is very, very different, and people really care. It’s very emotive. That rational leadership you can bring in a corporate doesn’t really cut it in sport, so you have to adapt quite quickly.

Fiona: And is there quite a lot where because people care so much, and caring a lot about sport can be rational, but it can also be quite irrational in terms of people’s responses. Did you find you had to almost build a resilience to it, and start ignoring what the media was saying, what social media was saying, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get on with the day job?

Martyn: I knew the theory of ignoring it, but I never quite cracked that. And by that I mean I could have ignored it. Clearly, I’m in control of what I read, and what I look at and listen to. But I quickly realized that you do have to immerse yourself in the diversity of views and perspectives because, particularly with the media, I found it easier to read the narrative, even if it was unpleasant, because I knew then when I was in the media side, I would get asked, and to be oblivious to it, or to not understand the sort of richness of the different perspectives, puts you at a disadvantage. So it plays out today, in the role I’m in today on the rugby side, I’ve built an ability to do that. The bit I didn’t crack was the ‘no escape thing’. It could be Christmas dinner with my parents, or playing golf with my friends, or sitting on a train. Everywhere you go, people would say, “Oh, you’re the guy that works for the Welsh Rugby Union,” and then they think they know how to do your job. I found it all-consuming in that sense.

Fiona: But despite that sort of scrutiny or maybe because of it, you were hugely successful in that role, and Wales went to number one in the world rankings, the team had an unbeaten run of 14 games, and this resulted in you being honored with an MBE. What was your reaction when you found out that that was coming?

Martyn: I really, genuinely thought it was a spoof. I thought, “which of my mates would be the architect of this?” I was looking for, “how do you get letterheaded paper from Buckingham Palace?” But literally over a period of a few days, I just thought maybe this is true. Then a second letter arrived, and you’re thinking, “right, okay, this is beyond somebody now trying to spoof me”. So, it was a shock. I don’t really think about it, if I’m honest. It’s not a big deal for me. It was very nice, but I haven’t thought about it for days and weeks, and then occasionally somebody will mention it to me. The bit I’m more proud of is how the business performed. We did well commercially. I’m certainly not sitting here claiming the credit for Wales becoming number one in the world. We’d never done it before, and it might be some time before we do it again.

But the bit I am proud of is the coach clearly is the main person who does that – Warren Gatland, who some people would know. When you get a role where, in effect, he reports to you is quite a big, back to that imposter syndrome. You start thinking, “blimey, I’ve got this pretty earthy, belligerent, tough, experienced coach that I’m now supposed to be leading, and the things he does or doesn’t do has quite a big impact on our organisation”. The bit I’m most proud of is we built a very strong relationship. It was two-way, I didn’t just let him get on with it. There are certain things he wasn’t able to do because I wasn’t supportive, which I don’t think he’d necessarily had before. But I think we both have a real trust and respect over time, and we remain good friends. So that was a big challenge to get that relationship to work.

Fiona: And you’re now also chair in Premiership Rugby. I suppose that experience from the Welsh Rugby Union, then Premiership Rugby – what has sport generally taught you about business, that you can apply whether it’s within the sport world or outside of it?

Martyn: It’s taught me a lot. It’s a bit like the Wild West – it doesn’t follow normal business approaches or rhythms, so you learn to deal with something that’s relatively alien, I would say, to most business leaders. I wouldn’t go into too much more detail on that, but it can get really lively. I’ve learned over time hopefully to be better at that, but I still make lots of mistakes.

If there was one thing that I think sport has got that business could really learn from is back to that performance piece and really around feedback. I have very low tolerance now for annual appraisals and all that form-filling rigmarole that goes on in business. When you see in sport and my sort of brief story on this is; if a game happens on a Saturday, on a Sunday the player will get a 20-minute video that’s been put together about their involvement in that game. They analyse it themselves and they need to come in on Monday morning and say, “This is what I saw. This is where I performed. These are the areas I need to get better”. They call them ‘work-ons’. The coach then will give them their view, they’ve got two or three days to make progress, and if they don’t, they don’t get picked on Thursday. Getting dropped is a very public thing so I would say that these sports people probably get more feedback in a week than the rest of us get in a year. It’s good quality feedback. It’s constructive, it’s straight, it makes people better. I just think in business, we’re far too accommodating and sloppy really around performance, feedback and accountability.

Fiona: And it’s something you hear a lot of businesses talk about, in terms of creating that feedback culture, giving instant feedback, not shying away from giving negative feedback, because actually it’s what people often want. If they’re doing something wrong, they want to be told about it. But the practicalities of actually making it happen seem to be ‘the jump’ that often is much trickier. Have you seen, especially post having that lesson from the sporting world, have you seen somewhere where that’s kind of successfully applied? Or how would you advise businesses to bring that feedback culture to life in a more corporate setting?

Martyn: This is oversimplifying it, but if you’re saying it’s skill and will, I don’t think it’s a skill issue in corporate. There are more than enough good people around who know how to do it. They either individually choose not to, or the culture doesn’t require it of them. It’s just a matter of saying we are serious about this, and we’re going to get really good at it, and we’re going to do it. And the reality is, it’s never as bad as people think. The organisation does build a tolerance for being very good at it. There are ways clearly to do it. So for me, it’s always about being constructive. It’s always about what support you put around people. It’s always about follow up. But it’s very, very doable. Organisations have just got to get serious about doing it.

Have I seen it? Yes, of course, in pockets. But nowhere near what it is in sport, or could be. And clearly, I’ve got to say this, haven’t I? I’ve got my fingers in a few pies in the organisations I’m involved in and it’s a really big thing for me. I work hard at bringing that but in a way that’s right for that culture, and right for the individuals. Some people have got a tolerance for these sorts of conversations, and you can move quite quickly with them. Others, you need to be more nurturing and more sophisticated about how you do it, but you still have to do it.

Fiona: My last question around sport, and obviously you’ve mentioned you have built a really good relationship with Warren Gatland, so I hope this doesn’t ruin it because it’s a more controversial question. Who do you think has a tougher job – a CEO, or a rugby Head Coach?

Martyn: Definitely the Head Coach. Just for a start, people know who the coach is, and they don’t know who the CEO is typically. If I said to you, who’s the coach of Man United, you may or may not know, but it’d be very unlikely you know who the CEO was. I think the nature of their contracts are different in that, the CEO tends to be on a recurring contract, the coach is only ever on a two or three-year contract. So the sort of Sword of Damocles is always hanging over them. They live in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, somebody sticks a microphone under your nose immediately after a game and you have to be able to front up and talk coherently about what may or may not have gone well, which is lightyears away from what a CEO has to deal with. I found the CEO job tough, but how on earth the head coach… They say you’ve got to have skin like a rhino to do that job, and I really believe you have.

Fiona: You mentioned no escape earlier, and sort of that increasing scrutiny, it sounds like, for a Head Coach, so there is absolutely no escape.

Martyn: I mean if you tried to find a parallel to corporate life, take your quarterly reporting, you know when it is, you know who’s going to be there, you can probably predict the questions, you’ll have an army of people supplying you with the answers and the data. I found those quarterly reporting sessions enormously challenging, but you have certain advantages, particularly around preparedness for them. You imagine somebody says to you, we’re not going to show you the numbers, we’re going to put them in front of your nose and then 10 minutes later we’re going to put you in front of a roomful of people who are going to ask you a bunch of questions, and you’ve got no time to prepare. That’s sort of the equivalent. It’s tough.

Fiona: And everyone cares, like you say, a lot.

Martyn: Yes, Yes.

Fiona: Martyn there, providing fantastic insight into the realities of working in the sport sector, and what business leaders can learn from the rigorous feedback culture that coaches manage to create with their teams. In our next episode, I chat to Martyn about the next stage of his career, how he became a private equity chair, and what he believes makes for a successful Non-Exec.

Listen to the next episode here:

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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