Sir Clive Woodward is best known for leading the England rugby team to World Cup glory in 2003 and as Director of Sport for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics, where the team won 65 medals. His own international rugby achievements (21 England caps in the 1980s) coincided with a successful career at Xerox and setting up his own business, until the game turned professional in the 1990s.

With such a varied career in both business and sport, what would you ultimately like to be remembered for?

I’d just like to think the teams I’ve worked with would say, “he was somebody who absolutely threw everything at each challenge and gave his all.” If any of us thought something would have made a difference to winning a deal, a rugby game, or a Gold medal, we got it done. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for. It’s as simple as that really.

Do you concern yourself with the detail? Or do you look more at the macro picture? 

The word “obsession” is often perceived as a negative trait but I would consider myself as obsessive. Whether in business or sport, it’s about focusing on the details. Nothing would infuriate me more than waking up one day and finding out the competition had thought of something we hadn’t. It all comes down to ideas, I may not come up with them all but I think I’m good at listening to people and bringing in people around me who are good at ideas. I think I excel at bringing those ideas to life and making them happen. As a leader it’s my job to make them happen, whether they turn out to be wrong or right, what’s inexcusable is not trying. It’s so easy to say, “We haven’t got the budget”, or “We haven’t got this or that”. Well tough! You’ve got to try and find ways of doing things if it’s going to give you a better chance of winning.

Do you keep the same team with you, or do you bring in new people to introduce the new ideas you’ve just mentioned?

I’m very committed to the people I work with as long as they are open minded and willing to try new processes or strategies. I have this saying that people are either a sponge or a rock. I want to work with people who are sponges, continuously on the lookout for new thoughts, ideas, and ways of doing things. It’s not about being loyal for loyalty’s sake but once you’ve got a good team and you can see everybody, not just management, is on board and trying out those new ideas, you should be able to see the progression towards your shared goal. It’s not just from top down either, as a leader you have to be open to listening to those new ideas and making sure your team is confident they can bring suggestions to you.

What do you think has made you successful in your careers across different industries?

Honestly? I think I’ve got lucky! If you look back at my career most of it has happened by chance, or opportunity. When I left university I was playing rugby but it was an amateur game, so you had to have a career. I was playing on a Saturday afternoon in front of five thousand people. Then on a Monday morning I’d be in the office at Xerox giving them a forecast for the week. I had eight wonderful years there including working in their office in Sydney. Then I came back and set up my own small finance company. Then I became the first, full-time, professional coach of England and unlike many others in the sporting world, I had a successful business background to draw on. Professional sport is a business so it stood me in really good stead and probably was more important to running the England squad than having played for England. Looking back there was no career plan, I never expected rugby to turn professional and the impact that would have on my life.

How do you motivate people who have become, in your words, ‘a rock’? Do you get rid of them or work with them?

No, I never get rid of people, I never do that. Nor have I ever gone into any job or any meeting thinking, “I’m going to motivate you today!” I think some people love leading high performance teams like I do and some love being part of one. It boils down to everyone putting in the hard work and making sure they’re not letting anyone else down. I’m not sure it’s motivation exactly but it’s about people working really, really hard and enjoying going to work.

If you’re leading teams, you’re there to create an environment that’s so good and so challenging that everybody wants to be a part of it. It’s not easy to achieve, where people think, “I’ve really enjoyed working with him”. Enjoyment isn’t going down the pub having a few beers; it’s about hard work and trying to beat the opposition. If you get people in your team like that, motivation takes care of itself. You as a leader have to set that example and set that culture.

You’ve mentioned how you didn’t have a career plan, have you consciously always been looking for the next opportunity?

I’ve said to my kids especially, I’ve never planned my career, it’s just happened. I never thought rugby would go professional, I never thought I would be the full-time England coach. If London hadn’t won the Olympic bid, I wouldn’t have joined Team GB. I think opportunities come and you take them or you don’t. Sometimes you look back on decisions and think either that was the right or wrong thing to do.

It’s about seeing the opportunity; most are quite risky and involve change. Certainly taking on England was a risk, as I was leaving a successful business and I was the first ever, professional coach of England. That’s definitely not the normal way to do things. Normally you want to come in when other people have had a go. If an opportunity comes, you’ve got to weigh it up and think ok, I’m going to go with this, throw everything at it and hope you’ve made the right decision.

Are there any decisions you’ve made and thought afterwards they were a mistake?

There are hundreds of bad decisions I’ve made but I’d never share them with anybody! [Laughs]. No, it never goes in a straight line and things happen and you kind of look back and think, “Oh God I was crazy to do that” but at the time you obviously thought it was the right thing to do.

No one’s perfect, no one’s made 100 per cent the right decisions all the time. I can’t honestly look back and think “oh that was a bad call and a real turning point.” They’re all just experiences I draw on. You learn a lot about yourself when things aren’t going well. I’ve had set backs and have not been pleased with an outcome but that’s part of it. You’ve got to get up in the morning and move on, you can’t start over thinking every decision. I can genuinely say I haven’t had a day where I’ve got up and thought, “I don’t want to go to work today”. I love and enjoy what I do and I’ve been dead lucky to do so. Going back to your first question, I look back and hope that everyone who worked with me at a particular time, looks back at that point with the same enjoyment.