It’s not often you get to write the title “World Champion” and if ever anyone deserved that title, it is Josh Lewsey.
He was a member of the 2003 World Rugby Union Championship winning English squad and also the Six Nations Championship Grand Slam winning team of the same year, but his Rugby achievements are just one side of a fascinating story.
Throughout his time as a pro sportsman and beyond, his off-field achievements have delivered equaly impressive results and he has become a specialist in Organisational Performance.
Josh, thanks for taking the time for us. The Pocket Progress Coach Interviews are all about sharing success stories and inspiring people. I remember being so proud of my first school certificates at the age of 16, but you are a Grand-Slam 6-Nations winner and a World Champion. How great does that feel?
JOSH: That’s a few years ago now.
I once heard a quote from somebody. “People push themselves to the precipice of their dreams and, once they are there, they step-off to the next dream”.
So yes, of course I am massively proud of what we achieved together, but also, maybe even more proud of the bond which we created between some very special individuals and I feel privileged to have been part of that team.
Reading your great autobiography, I realised that being part of a winning sports team does not reduce the pressure to perform as an individual.
You wrote of the World Cup final “We knew that what happened on that day would stay with us for the rest of our lives”. How does one deal with that kind of expectation?
JOSH: Well, it’s all about individual accountability and that doesn’t just apply to sports teams. That is always the challenge every team faces, to nurture that kind of environment.
Some people use the analogy of a family and as you would with your siblings, you are brutal to each other and don’t hold back. You criticise if it is due, but at the same time, you are there for each other. Like your siblings, you put an arm around them when they need it.
Very, very few teams do achieve that level, but once you have that true bond, you get shared ownership, a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.
So that’s very rare in the corporate environment because it is very hard to nurture that bond in a corporate setting and its interesting to see that many FTSE 100 CEOs have played team sports at a young age.
They understand how to get the best out of that environment.
One thing, which I have never quite understood is how two sportsmen can play against each other in the national games and then become comrades as part of the same international squad. This seems so far away from the rivalry seen between companies in industry?
JOSH: I think this is all about different loyalties.
These days, in the pro game, players have started to move around more and more, being very cognisant to the duration of their careers. I guess I am a bit out of date now but I wanted to win things, be respected and part of a team that defined an era. As such, you tended to stay at one club and make it work.
When you are picked to play for England, you get picked to play your sport at the highest possible level. You were selected to do that and it is a lot about your loyalty to your country, not just about the bond to your team.
When I look back to the international teams I played in, I agree; you do work best together when you have played the longest together, like at the end of a World Cup tour.
On a club level, it is more tribal. It’s your day-in, day-out job and, in the end, it’s the club rugby which pays the mortgage.
So I guess what you say is true. It’s about different kinds of bonds, a different dynamic, not just one or the other.
You have spoken about the need to match talent with determination, training hard and sacrifice things in support of the long-term goal. Does that level of self-discipline all come from the vision or do you have techniques to help you knuckle down?
JOSH: Becoming a top performer in any industry usually requires a strange cocktail of emotions, ability and drive.
Of course to truly get to top level of any sport, you have to have the basic genetic requirements. For example I would never have become the top high jumper– I’m simply not tall enough.
After that, I guess you have to truly love what you do and care about it passionately. To deliver top performance and stay there for a duration of time, regardless whether in sport, music, trading or anything, you have to be a little obsessional by the pursuit of performance. That means that it isn’t the fame, the money, the job title, attention or even the trophies that motivate you, it’s the pursuit of being as good as you can be.
You never quite get there, you never play a perfect game. A guitarist can play a great concert, but will always get one or two notes wrong. You and I might not notice, but they will and you have to enjoy that pursuit.
The environment around therefore needs to be facilitatory to that goal whether it is playing your guitar around a campfire, bonus systems at work or whether it’s your parents taking you to sport on Saturday mornings. Ultimately to get to the top and stay there, that performer will have had to gone through many, many knock-backs. Those people will have to get up after a knock-back again and again and again saying I can do this, I’ll prove I can do this!
So the coaches around you can only give you so much, it ultimately needs to come from within. Therefore for a coach, boss or leader to get the best from the people they manage, it is both more realistic and powerful to choose the right type of characters in the first place and then focus on tapping and aligning intrinsic motivations rather than attempting to create them by extrinsic methods.
Being accepted for Sandhurst is a very significant achievement and you faced a difficult decision at a young age: to follow your career as a British Army Officer or to leave to focus more thoroughly on just professional rugby.
Were you aware of your full potential as a rugby player back then, or did you feel you were taking a big risk?
JOSH: I was very focussed on my military career and I have mentioned in the past, that if I had my time again, I might even have retired considerably earlier from professional rugby and gone back to the army to fulfil my duty of representing my country both on the sports field and battle field.
In fact, one of the reasons I finally took up my position at Sandhurst was because I felt my face was never going to fit in the England set up. I was probably a little challenging for certain people albeit no one could ever question my professionalism or my motivations to make both myself and the team as successful as possible. Yet despite that attitude and performances that I’d like to think backed those up, still nobody was calling me.
I had explored why time and time again but got no input or feedback. So that was very disheartening for me at a young age.
Then Clive [Woodward OBE] called me up in 2003 and told me I had my one and only chance to prove myself [in the upcoming Six Nations rugby match against Italy]. So if you ever talk about putting yourself under pressure that was my defining moment. Either you deliver or you don’t.
It all coincided well for me in the end as was fortunate to come into a good team having been on the periphery for so many years.
Of course lady luck played a big role and I could have been injured or whatever, so yes, to leave a more solid career in the army was a big, big step.
Returning to your own book, you described how Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards’ coaching approach improved your game, for instance by reducing the training match duration to 60, 40 and eventually just 20 minutes. What impact did this have?
JOSH: It’s about increasing the intensity of what you do. You only get one chance to kick the ball at the end of the game, so don’t practice for 3 hours in training.
It’s an approach which has meanwhile been widely adopted across lots of pro sports, not just rugby. It’s about being more intense when doing something, but doing less of it.
You still see a lot of the old fashioned more and longer is better approach, and if you are training for the Iron Man or a similar event, I dare say that that’s the right approach.
But if you are training for a power endurance and anaerobic sport like rugby, you clearly don’t need to be doing that.
You need to focus on doing what you are doing at a higher lever and to be more intense.
Is it true that your old school teacher sent you a good luck message before each big match?
JOSH: That’s right. John Williams got into the habit of sending a little letter. A lot of the international players have a routine involving people close to them. I collected all the letters and though I didn’t always agree with the technical nuisances of the advice, the sentiment was lovely and I consider him a friend.
You have been an Ambassador for charity access sports and were a very active Head of Rugby for the Welsh Rugby Union until January this year. You are passionate about grassroots sports, but how significant is grassroots rugby in this meanwhile professional sport?
JOSH: Unions tend to be quite traditional environments and for a country as small as Wales with a small population, the only real chance you have of succeeding consistently comes from being dynamic and nimble. That requires a system where all efforts are connected and symbiotic to each other.
So we took a methodical approach to the entire strategy and, amongst many other changes, built a system of development for which all elements –school, club and representative rugby could co-exist and hopefully support each other.
It was a tough environment to drive change, particularly being English and living by myself but I have an affinity for Wales, owing to my Family background and felt the need to attempt to put something back. Some of the poorest areas in Europe are in Wales and I was passionate about our work, the effect sport can have within communities and I’m very proud of what the organisation has now done.
Thanks a lot for this interview!
Passionate about organisational performance
Some words about Josh Lewsey:
By the time he retired from professional Rugby Union, Owen Joshua “Josh” Lewsey MBE had been a key player in the London Wasps legendary success story, held 55 international caps and scored 22 tries whilst representing his country.
He was a member of the 2003 World Championship winning squad and also the Six Nations Championship Grand Slam winning team of the same year.
Were that not impressive enough, he spent a large proportion of his professional rugby career balancing his time on the field with an equally impressive off-field career.
Alongside being a former British Army Officer and Multi trophy winning Professional Rugby Player he always worked outside this career being passionate about organisational performance.
As a consequence he now has over 12 years business experience leading strategic transformation and organisational performance improvement programs across various sectors. Most notably with PwC, Citigroup and as Head of Rugby for Wales.
He is currently finishing his Executive MBA conducting research on what changes are now required within the Banking sector to make Global Markets more successful.