Ireland rugby coach and BCO conference speaker Eddie O'Sullivan is no expert on the UK property market. But he does know all about building a team and turning that team into winners. George Hay finds out what he can teach you.
The next time you find yourself weighed down by the pressures of the property world, spare a thought for what Eddie O'Sullivan went through at 2.45pm on Saturday 22 February this year. The Irish rugby coach had just watched a rampant French team wipe the floor with Ireland, leaving them reeling at 43-3 - and it was only half-time. The French bands were playing La Marseillaise, there were still 40 minutes to go and defeat by 100 points - almost a sackable offence for the coach of a top team - was not inconceivable.
In charge of such a shambles, most people would have marched back to the dressing room and thrown tea cups around, à la Sir Alex Ferguson. O'Sullivan, though, did what he always does: put faith in his system. "In a situation like that," he recalls, "you have to focus on what you can control. You have to identify the problems with a clear head. And you have to trust in your system. The only way you can ever tell whether a system really operates properly is when it's under pressure. That's the real test."
In one of the more bizarre turnarounds in Six Nations folklore, the Irish went out for the second half, scored four tries without reply and would have won the game if it had gone on any longer. Anyone who can turn such a desperate mess into a slender 43-31 defeat has to be on to something.
And this is the reason O'Sullivan, who is speaking at the BCO conference this year, is always worth listening to, rather than because he is a property expert (he's not). At first glance, there are few parallels to be drawn between the world of yields, net asset values and speculative development and a game in which 30 oversized men run after an egg-shaped ball. What O'Sullivan knows about, which is relevant to anyone who's ever been in charge of a group of people, is building a team.
Since he took over as Ireland coach in October 2001, O'Sullivan has presided over an unprecedented period of rude health for the national team. Under his command, the Irish have won two Triple Crowns (beating the other three home nations) and have beaten England in every match since the latter were crowned world champions in late 2003. The most recent victory, achieved away from home in the Six Nations last month, confirmed that Ireland would be a force at next year's Rugby World Cup.
The significance of O'Sullivan's achievement is that he has created an environment in which the team expects to win. Despite having world-class players, the Irish team in the past developed a reputation for tearing into the opposition for 60 minutes, then running out of puff and getting thrashed in the remaining quarter. Now the team is far more disciplined, playing tight games that tend to end in victories.
The only way you can ever tell whether a system really operates properly is when it’s under pressure. That’s the real test
Hence O'Sullivan is in quite a lot of demand. He'll do about 15 motivational talks this year, including a recent invitation to address the annual conference of Fianna Fail, the political party of the Irish premier Bertie Ahern. "I talk about a number of organisational areas," he says in his Munster brogue. "The key areas are planning, communication, motivation, evaluation, reassessment and leadership."
"I'm not a businessman," he concedes. "But what I have to do is prepare a high-performance unit to go out and perform every week. When it comes down to the salient issues of building a team, then I strongly suspect you are talking about the same issues."
O'Sullivan is in many ways Ireland's Sir Clive Woodward, the England boss who revolutionised rugby coaching and bought home the World Cup in 2003. Woodward's approach was based on meticulous planning and a professional, almost businesslike attitude to sport. O'Sullivan arrived at the same conclusions via a different approach, which took him to the USA to work as technical director of the American team from 1997 to 1999.
"The thing about the coaching for the main sports like American football is that it's very professional," he says. "Even at high school level, the coaches are professional. When I was there, I had a real insight into how US sport is managed."
He also acknowledges Woodward's role in breaking the mould. "Clive was really the first rugby coach who brought in specialist coaches in particular aspects such as defence and kicking, and used video analysis of the players," he says. "He was more like an American coach."
I’m not a businessman, but what I have to do is prepare a high-performance unit to go out and perform every week.
Despite his indications to the contrary, O'Sullivan does have a construction background. His father and two brothers all trained as electricians and the young Eddie could have followed suit, but he "never really enjoyed it". Instead, he took a degree in Maths, Science and Physical Education at the University of Limerick and made his name at the famous Garryowen club, where he carved out a reputation as a nippy fly-half alongside a career as a PE teacher. Honours followed with Munster and Ireland A, although he never broke through to the full team.
But O'Sullivan quickly saw he had potential as a coach. He studied sports psychology and began to see the importance of communication and motivation in being successful. "What you've always to do is make it entirely clear how and why something is happening," he says. "As team leader, you've always got to have a format in which you retain respect. People might not agree with you but as long as you create autonomy in each department and at the same time maintain multi-channel communications, then you can keep control. The key to good leadership is delegation - to your other coaches and to your senior players once you're on the field."
Given that rugby is an at times infuriatingly random game - the unpredictable bounce of the ball can mean the difference between loss and victory - the emphasis has to be on controlling what you can control and trusting in the system. "If you can set goals to enhance your performance in sport, surely you can set goals for areas that can be a bit more predictable, such as business."
Establishing a strong system to deal with the pressures of 80 minutes of international rugby is not very easy, as England's Andy Robinson is finding out. Eddie O'Sullivan, however, seems to have cracked it. If you fancy discerning more about how to deal with rarefied heights of management, or just want to shake the hand of the man who tells Brian O'Driscoll what to do, get yourself along to one of his talks.
O’Sullivan’s rugby picks
Favourite player played with: Tony Ward, Munster and British Lions fly-half.
Favourite player played against: Mark Ella, former Australia fly-half: “A great experience.”
Tip for the 2007 World Cup: “The All Blacks, if they can sustain their form. They’re certainly the best team in the world at the moment, no one can argue with that.”
Skyline May 2006
- Currently reading
On the ball