Ex-Rugby International Rory Underwood Talks Business

Rory Underwood is best known for his record breaking rugby career, playing Rugby Union for Leicester Tigers and England.

Having served in the RAF for 18 years, flying high speed jets, he left to set up a team building company with a couple of colleagues from the military before setting up his own business, Wingman, in 2009.

Wingman is a performance consultancy, drawing on the extensive and varied experiences of Rory to help all manner of businesses and their employees reach their full potential. He also sits on the board of Leicester Tigers Rugby Club and Prescient Power Ltd. as a Non- Executive Director.

You have had successful careers in the military and sport – what made you decide to go into business?

I left the RAF in 2001 when my commission ended and, in fact, I had already obtained my commercial licence to fly in the airlines, but an opportunity to do a team workshop for a senior management team came up. We ran the session, really enjoyed it, and received great feedback, so the germ of an idea for a business started to form. I knew that there were risks involved, as there are for all start-up businesses, but with my experience and training in the sector and a great business plan it was a risk worth taking. I also kept my options open; I knew within a year that I could fall back on the commercial pilot career, so there was nothing holding me back from giving it a go.

What are the parallels between sporting and business success?

There are many connections between the two, and in one sense they are one and the same thing. In sport you are trying to win, in business you are trying to be successful, but you also have people’s livelihood at stake. The team is integral to both situations, even in an individual sport the player is only one of a vast group of people working towards achieving the goal. Whether it be the caddy in golf or the psychologists and physios within Tennis, the team has to work together to achieve success and each person is an important a factor.

It’s not about taking one particular episode or example and saying that this is what you do to be successful. I am lucky to have had many experiences in a variety of different businesses, as well as the military and sport, and they all form a rich tapestry through which I can draw upon to make good decisions and to help my clients.

How have your sports and military careers helped your business?

The military in particular taught me a lot about organisation, structure and self-discipline. You make sure that you follow through on your actions, and this is hugely important in business and in gaining trust. It would have been easy for me to leave the RAF thinking ‘I’m a pilot, I can only fly’, but there is a lot more to the role than that. There are so many skills learnt, and the RAF delivers a huge amount of responsibility. You are empowered to make tough decisions and this sets you in good stead for the future.

When was your business established and what is it all about?

Wingman was established in 2009. We are a performance consultancy and work with organisations from the individual level through to teams and departments. It is all about relationship dynamics and helping the individuals within a company to work together much more effectively.

The nature of what we do is bespoke to the client and can range from 30 minute speeches to small groups, to cultural change programmes that can last months. My role is a facilitator and I use my skills to help teams express their frustrations and move to a place where they can make the business work better.

What made you want to work in team development?

It wasn’t really a definitive decision or something that I was planning to do. Starting a career as a commercial pilot was firmly there as a plan for when I left the RAF, although the job never really seemed that exciting and the thought of being away from home for a third of the year was not an appealing thought. My head was turned when I had an opportunity to do some motivational speaking during my time in the RAF, the idea of being able to take this speaking to the next level and turn it into a two way model that would help businesses to grow was a much more interesting alternative. I had the skills and the experience, so it was a logical decision, and one that I am really pleased I made.

What other business ventures are you involved in?

I am currently a Non-Executive Director for Leicester Tigers and also Prescient Power, which is a renewable energy company based in the Midlands.

What criteria do you look for in a business that will persuade you to get involved?

Speaking with my Wingman hat on, I love to work with businesses that I can fully engage with and who truly understand the importance of people and teamwork as a springboard to success. I’ve been invited into companies who have stifled employees that have had raw passion waiting to be unleashed. To not enable your team to realise their potential is a crime in my book. It is so rewarding to develop a relationship with a team over a few years and watch as the work you have initiated helps that business to succeed.

In terms of my Non-Executive Director roles, I think you have to trust your gut feeling for a business. I want to work with businesses that have a real passion for their products and services and the people that they employ. If I didn’t feel that, or feel that I could help them change that behaviour, then I wouldn’t get involved. My role within Leicester Tigers is a clear match and my skillset fills a gap in the board; it’s great to bring the rugby and SME knowledge together in this arena.

You are currently a non-executive director at Prescient Power, why did you get involved with this company and what sparked your interest in the renewables sector?

The renewables sector is an honourable cause to be involved in – we all need to work out how to use our resources in the most sustainable and efficient way, but the main drive for me was the enthusiasm that I felt from the team when I met them. I was introduced to Carl Benfield (the Managing Director of Prescient Power) and his wife through a mutual contact. I immediately saw common ground with them, here was another ex-military colleague who had decided to take the business route, and that combined with a young family and an overwhelming passion for his chosen sector. They ticked all of the people boxes for me; they have an incredible workforce full of potential and a genuine drive for nurturing that potential in order to succeed. I saw immediate synergy with my experience, and saw a place where I could help.

What’s the most interesting thing about being involved in a small growing business?

It’s agile, flexible, adaptable and, above all, it’s enjoyable. Working in a small team is where I feel most comfortable. We are constantly involved in new endeavours and I learn new things all the time. I could be in an international food manufacturers one week and in an online sales company or IT business the next – there aren’t many corporate roles that offer that same degree of freedom and variety.

What role does a non-executive director play in a small business?

I had some great advice from Peter Tom, the Chairman of Leicester Tigers, who said that as non-executive director we are temporary guardians of the club and that we should endeavour to make sure that the club is in a better place when we hand it over to our successors than when we took it on. That advice has stuck with me and is something that I live by in this role. In Prescient Power my role expands to offering thoughts and ideas that can only come from someone more removed from the day to day work; and I ask the difficult questions. I am a sounding board for the MD and the rest of the board, and I hold them to account and make them challenge themselves. The balance comes from being able to do this in a helpful and constructive way.

If you had to share your secrets of success for SMEs, what would they be?

The solution to everything as I see it is effective communication, saying the right thing at the right time, in the right place, and in the right way. If you realise that people are your most important resources then you need to spend time making sure that they can all talk to each other in the most effective way, so that they can work together in the most effective way.