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A leadership learnt from rugby

What has rugby got to do with running global operations? To Eamonn Whelan it’s a lot. Whether on a rugby field or in daily business operations, when the target is clear, the best performance is achieved by leveraging the special competence in every team member.

While a rugby team consists of 15 people working together towards a common goal, the teams Eamonn Whelan leads involve more than 200 people. The head of global operations of Sandvik Rock Processing Solutions (SRP) Mobiles is based in Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, the global industry hub for manufacturing mobile applications for crushing and screening systems. Less than 10 percent of the machines produced in Northern Ireland remain in the UK. This means that his production teams support international activities with logistics and aftermarket fulfilments all over the world.

Teamwork is just as much about respecting the ability of individuals

Eamonn sees many common elements between a global operation and a game played on a field of grass: Regardless of size, any good team consists of a number of people with different skills. While the forwards in the scrum need to be big and strong to take the tackling and rucking, the backs usually are better kickers and speedier runners.

“Everyone has a different mission,” he says. “Acting like a team at SRP is also about letting the specialists do their job. As a team you work for a common goal, but you do not want to get in the way of the scrum half or slow down the backs. Teamwork is just as much about respecting the ability of individuals.”

A source of inspiration

Rugby has always been a source of inspiration for Eamonn. These days his player's shirt has been replaced by a referee’s shirt and he is on the European Rugby League’s Emerging Match Officials Panel.

“Being a referee is a real stress-reliver that helps me switch off at weekends, but besides that it strengthens my ability to quickly assess a situation, make a decision, act on it and believe in it,” he says.

The weather may be awful. Players, coaches or spectators may behave badly. I still have to stay in control.

External events can’t always be controlled. Neither in business nor on the rugby pitch. “As referee I am there to facilitate the game. The weather may be awful. Players, coaches or spectators may behave badly. I still have to stay in control. When the market shifts and conditions are bad, a good leader must not let outside factors influence their judgment. Focus has to remain on what you can actually influence,” Eamonn says.

The love for rugby is shared by his co-worker Tom Roberts, although Tom enjoys the game from the comfort of the grandstand. Tom first met and worked for Eamonn back in 2001. His present role, Project Manager for global manufacturing projects, is a new position and the two recently started working together again.

“There are a lot of traits that make up a good leader and I think Eamonn exemplifies a lot of those,” says Tom. “The strength I appreciate most though, is his desire to develop others in his team by stretching them and giving them opportunities to grow.”

Decisive and clear

Tom believes his own career was thanks to the trust he was once given by Eamonn.

“Years ago, in a different organization, he gave me my first management role. That later allowed me to gain a business degree and opened the door to a great career,” Tom says, adding that he values Eamonn’s interpersonal skills and his ability to listen and reflect.

“Eamonn is data and process driven and very clear about goals and strategy. He gives decisive and clear direction but is also very open and keen to get input from the rest of the team. That builds trust, and with a high level of trust comes commitment and high performing teams who go the extra mile for each other,” says Tom.

Trust is something Eamonn strives to achieve on many levels. In his view, the days of the “leader-follower” model are long gone. His aim is to work in a “leader-leader” model – a method he picked up from the book Turn the ship around by American submarine captain David Marquet.

My job is to bring the right resources and help them implement the fix they have identified

Everyone reporting to Eamonn leads groups of people. His goal is to have them act like leaders and make their own decisions. “When there is a real ‘leader-leader’ structure, they show me what they intend to do to address a certain problem. My job is to bring the right resources and help them implement the fix they have identified,” he says.

The upside, Eamonn adds, is that he doesn’t have to have all the answers. His job is to create a sense of purpose and make sure that everyone is heading in the same direction.

Start, Stop or Keep?

Daily Pulse meetings are an important part of Eamonn’s leadership. The meetings can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes every morning, and give him and his department heads the opportunity to re-prioritize, allocate resources and communicate status to others.

“This works really well for my team. It is also a great forum for new suggestions. We just have to make sure we hold on to good ideas.”

To get feedback on his own performance, Eamonn has introduced an informal model using the words Start, Stop and Keep. “Nice, simple and actionable,” he says.

What do his team members have to say about him?

“What to Keep is the easy one. People say that I challenge them and they like that. What to Start? The team has asked me to bring a more personal touch,” he says and adds: “I suppose that touches on the Sandvik leadership dimension to be more self-aware – to always think about how you come across, as how you act in public has a personal impact on others.”

People say that I challenge them and they like that.

What should he Stop doing? He should stop driving so hard towards conclusions and give the team even more time to talk things over before a decision is finalized. The way he is trying to fix that is to go around the table and make sure that the quiet person also speaks up before reaching a decision.

“It’s important to ask for feedback to develop your skills, in business as well as on the rugby field, where I get feedback with video clips after every International that I referee. To be taken seriously by your team – in sports or at work – you need to act on that input,” he concludes.

Eamonn Whelan

Role: Global Operations Director SRP Mobiles
Location: Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, UK
Tenure: 8 years with Sandvik
Family: Wife who represents Ireland in archery, a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son
Favorite hobby: Rugby (formerly a player, currently a referee)
Secret superpower: “I never stop learning.” For example, he has changed industries, gotten a pilot certificate, become a referee, taken up bass guitar, and joined the GIA (Group Internal Audit) as a guest auditor.

Three quick questions¨

How does your team deliver on top? 
By knowing where we are going and the importance of achieving that particular goal.

What are the key leadership skills?
The ability to energize and keep people aligned. 

What is your most important contribution to the teams? 
Clarity of purpose, plans and ownership to help everyone understand what decisions to make.