‘The cost of getting it wrong is far greater than mitigating risk’

WHAT do Andy Flower and Stuart Lancaster have in common? You probably know that they are two of this country’s most promising young sports coaches, and that they both manage England’s national teams, in cricket and rugby union respectively. But what you may not realise is that both were recruited using headhunters, and what’s more by the same firm: Odgers Berndtson.

Odgers have long been well established in the realm of executive searching, and have led the way in taking some of the brightest lights in business into global sports administration roles. The firm, which has 54 offices worldwide, recruited London 2012 head Paul Deighton and the organising committee, as well as the top executives of bodies such as UK Athletics, the Rugby Football Union and the England and Wales Cricket Board. Other clients include Manchester United, the Lawn Tennis Association, the Football Association, the Rio 2014 Olympics and the International Rugby Board.

So successful has the sports practice been that it has recently begun to branch out into hiring coaches as well as chief executives, people like Flower and Lancaster – and with great success. Flower has led England to No1 in the world Test rankings while the choice of Lancaster, though only recently appointed and previously well known to the RFU, has been widely acclaimed. Odgers say they have also worked on unnamed football management appointments.

“It’s interesting that it seems to be a growing part of our business that we’re being asked to help with the performance of on-field staff,” says Simon Cummins, who established the sports practice seven years ago and now runs a five-man team in London, with 10 others around the world. “Of course organisations could do it themselves, and some are very adept at strategic succession planning. What we can do is bring an objective view, and add thoroughness and transparency, openness, rigour to a selection process.”

The involvement of headhunters in recruiting Lancaster caused a ripple of controversy earlier this year. Cummins, a former PE teacher who crossed into educational recruitment, attributes the scepticism to a lack of awareness of the extent to which he and his colleagues were already operating in such arenas, although he admits the criticism was no shock.

“I wasn’t surprised because it’s new, isn’t it? It’s not something with massive history or tradition. But I think anyone who has used an executive search firm to put a robust process around selecting its people understands that,” he says.

“There is no reason why people shouldn’t put as much attention and due diligence around selecting the high performance team as they would the off-field team. I’m not an expert rugby, athletics or football coach, but what we do is mitigate the risk of failure by making sure we put in front of the RFU or the FA the very best people from around the world who are interested in the role.”

Flower and Lancaster were both internal candidates, leading to claims that hiring headhunters constituted an unnecessary expense. Cummins, a childhood Chelsea and London Welsh fan who has since shelved more partisan urges, explains why their role was still justified.

“Lots of organisations come to us with an internal candidate who they think might be right, but smart organisations don’t just take the easy option and put them into the role – they benchmark them against external candidates to make sure they stack up,” he says.

“Andy Flower’s a great example of that. We went to the world, we assessed everyone who was interested alongside Andy, and he came through that process as the best person for the job. And he has proven that was the right decision.”

The recruitment process starts with a briefing from the client to establish the criteria, then Odgers fill the candidate pool by a combination of four methods: advertising, checking their database, asking other departments for intelligence and asking their network of industry contacts for recommendations.

Three lists are then presented to the client – nos, maybes and the so-called A-list – before agreement is reached on who to interview, with Odgers undertaking and reporting back. Cummins says they offer a “full suite of assessment tools”, such as psychometric testing from their own in-house psychologists, business scenarios and media assessment, followed by a rigorous referencing process that includes “Googling them to within an inch of their life” to check for skeletons in the closet. Final interviews follow, with Odgers often sitting in, helping with negotiations and even “onboarding”, shadowing the new recruit to help them bed into their new role.

With boardroom and bootroom conquered, Cummins has his sights on the dressing room, and helping teams find the rights players. It sounds audacious, in a world of agents and scouts, but he believes all three can co-exist and notes: “We are independent, objective and there is no conflict of interest, and that is a very critical point.”

He says they are talking to football, rugby and cricket teams about what he calls “a natural evolution” to his thriving department. “Organisations absolutely get the value of us working on the executive team and the on-field performance team, so the natural evolution is: why shouldn’t a club put as much due diligence, process and robust assessment around a player as they do their chief operating officer? The players are probably the biggest financial asset that sits on their books. The cost of getting it wrong is far, far greater than investing in us to help mitigate the risk.”