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Jake White has lessons for South Africa's managers

… have a vision, get your team to believe in it too, get good advisers ↦ listen to them, ignore the critics - win*

24 October 2007

There are none as powerful as the victorious and few are as powerful at present as Jake White. In December 2005, the official rugby website, wrote: “Jake White pulled a hopelessly depressed Springbok team out of the depths of the Streauli era and launched them firmly on the road to success.”

In 2005, the Springboks had lost four key matches in 2004 and three in 2005, but White consistently praised his team pointing out every achievement. He sought the services of Eddie Jones, a brilliant tactician who coached Australia in 2003 and assisted White with South Africa’s victory.

How can South African managers and leaders learn from White and Jones?

Bev Riemer, an expert in management training and a facilitator for top South African corporate and public sector training organisation AstroTech says that business management has changed. No longer are managers expected to be functionaries, they are expected to be coaches.

“Jake White with his ability to empower and instil confidence was critical. Four years ago he told the team he believed in them. Four years ago he said he had a dream and it would become a reality, in interviews now all the players talk of that. He ignored criticism. White created a team and taught them to empower themselves. He created a team where each believed in the ability of the other, they support each other. White is a good coach but what makes him brilliant is his capacity to develop people and encourage them to seize opportunities.”

What makes a failing team in business and rugby? How do we learn from mistakes?

  • Clive Woodward former English team boss wrote in the London Times (October 23, 2007) that England failed because when he wanted to implement changes after their win in 2003, the British RFU ignored his suggestion. “We had just won the World Cup; we were the No 1 team. Why change?” Woodward suggests that it is when you’re on top that you need to examine if old tactics are enough to keep you there in a changing world.
  • Woodward says “strong leadership as well as high level coaching” is essential. He says a head coach must be left to do the job “without interference from any other person.” White, who has experienced endless interference, has shown that dogged commitment to an end goal and not getting distracted by sideline skirmishes pays dividends.
  • Don’t make emotional decisions. White said on his return to South Africa on Tuesday, “The one thing I learnt from Eddie Jones and Clive Woodward was not to make emotional decisions. The best thing is to take some time off and reflect.” There can be no sounder advice for anyone in sport or business.
  • “A no compromise approach to preparation is essential in an increasingly competitive game,” Woodward writes – this applies as much to business as rugby.
  • Playing it safe can lead to regrets - Woodward noted that the smaller nations had been “brilliant” and innovative, “I found the caution of the leading nations a real disappointment.” To advance in rugby and business, calculated risks are often essential.

Riemer says White displays the best of contemporary management thinking – a style SA manager’s often shy clear of. She says many come to AstroTech management courses, “exasperated and say there is no way I can get through to staff. I try and nudge them in the direction of consulting with staff. It is in taking the time that positive changes in the workplace begin.” She says many South African companies stick to the old belief that if they pay more they will get better performance from staff, when surveys keep showing that is not a primary motivator for talented people.

In the run up to the World Cup many executives bought rugby jerseys for managers and ignored those on the shop floor. “It was an opportunity lost,” Riemer says. “It drives the wedge deeper when management and workers are given different recognition. It is amazing how things of little value can have unbelievable positive payoffs.”

And in a skills poor nation like South Africa, the loss of talent can be disastrous for the economy. The Economist Intelligence Unit two weeks ago said that the scarcest resource in the world today was not oil but talent and that the world had no borders for the talented.

US management guru, Des Dearlove says that today’s new leader manages “in a consensus seeking manner. Instead of seeing leadership as synonymous with dictatorship, this view is of leadership as a more subtle and humane art.”

Riemer says that in the past ”managers organised, led, delegated and controlled and worked on functions. Today a good manager is a person committed to empowering people, watching them learn and develop. Managers need to lead and to coach. If you don’t believe in people they will never grow. In coaching you look at two dimensions: the person’s level of competence and the person’s level of confidence. The manager needs to have a clear direction and support people to reach that.

“Nowadays in the workforce we have Generation X, they have no loyalty and only stay in a company as long as they can learn and within two years if they are no longer learning, they move. Staff are demanding that managers coach, develop and empower. Once the manager stops doing that competent staff become vulnerable to head hunters.” Riemer said another challenge in the workplace was that often the most gifted staff are ignored by managers because they are performing so well, but if that person’s career is not being nurtured adequately by the company they work for they will move.

Riemer said that although mentoring was the buzz word until recently, it was an artificial construct. “Mentors and those they assist find each other, it is someone each can identify with. Mentor programmes were started in a lot of companies and fizzled out because it is a natural process that cannot be forced. Coaching works on specific skills and can be done in short spurts.”

To succeed Riemer says managers need to:

  • Know and understand the company they work for. Know its parameters and boundaries that can determine whether or not you can deliver on promises.
  • Understand workers, what makes them tick, get to know them.
  • Communicate, communicate, talk to staff, and discuss plans and opportunities. By keeping them involved you will have them more committed to you and the company.

“Hierarchy is disappearing, teams are more important. Each unit in an organisation should be self sufficient and growing.

Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech says, “I was impressed by Springbok coach Jake White who said when the team landed in Johannesburg, that Captain John Smit was one of the best captains in the world. He said: "You can be the best coach in the world - but if you don't have a good captain you cannot be a good coach." And that is what we have found in our business – your organisation is only as good as the talent you recruit and retain. Developing excellence in the workplace costs money in training bills, it takes time and patience, but the rewards are great. The Springboks and Jake White have given us an important model to emulate.”

* AstroTech is a major South African training organisation based in Johannesburg. It targets executives and managers in the public and private sector for training in management, people skills, information technology and project management. Each year close to 3 000 people take part in more than 60 courses in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Many more receive specialist in-house training.



LIZA VAN WYK, CEO AstroTech 011 453 5291 or

Issued by MediaOnLine

[1] Minister of Public Enterprises, Alec Erwin, as reported in Financial Mail, July 2007: “SA state-owned enterprises plan to invest R250bn over the next five years. Ramos's boss, Erwin, said recently, ‘by any account this is a massive and unprecedented programme for the public sector [and] is not the totality of public-sector investment, which over the next three years totals... R420bn.’"