Rugby legend David Sole captained Scotland to the memorable 1990 Grand Slam win against England. Now, he runs the School for CEOs, which trains the next generation of business leaders, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
Being born and bred in Scotland during the 1980s, it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security about our nation’s sporting prowess. In football, qualification for five World Cups on the trot culminated in an appearance at Italia ’90, leading onto Euro ’92 in Sweden and Euro ’96 doon south.
And in rugby, a Five Nations Grand Slam in 1984 was followed by a sharing of the championship with France in 1986 and then the legendary campaign of 1990, when Scotland beat England at Murrayfield during the final match of the tournament to take the Calcutta Cup and the Grand Slam.
At the heart of that glorious day in Edinburgh was David Sole, the captain who marched his team out onto the pitch at the start of the game and who gained the crucial psychological advantage over the ‘auld enemy’ in the process. He captained Scotland 25 times – a record held until Greig Laidlaw beat this tally this season – and he won 44 caps in total for his country, along with a further three during the 1989 British & Irish Lions tour of Australia.
Some of those caps are hanging behind glass along with team photographs and match-day programmes in the boardroom of School for CEOs, the Edinburgh-based executive coaching business that Sole founded with partner Patrick Macdonald.
With such a well-known sporting pedigree, has Sole’s reputation led to any embarrassing incidences of hero worship when students come face-to-face with the former Scotland captain? “It was all a long time ago now, so no, that doesn’t happen as much as it might have done in the past,” he replies modestly. “I’m an old has-been now. I’m conscious of my age – it’s 24 years since I finished playing rugby, which is a long time.
“It’s something I’ve parked mentally myself, so I’m far less aware of it than others are. People come on our courses because they’re interested in listening to our members of the faculty and not listening to me.”
The route from rugby into business is a well-trodden path for former Scottish internationalists: Sir Bill Gammell founded London-listed oil and gas explorer and producer Cairn Energy; Jim Aitken is chairman of East Lothian-based grain merchant Alexander Inglis & Son; and Willie Watt is chief executive at Edinburgh-based investment manager Martin Currie.
Indeed, the list of former sports stars who go on to become business coaches or motivational speakers seems to grow longer each week, but Sole thinks the comparisons between the two worlds can only go so far. “There are a lot of similarities when you think about the traits of leadership and teamwork, mobilising people behind a vision and a plan,” he admits. “And there are lots of lessons that you can draw from sport and bring into business.
“But I think it also stops at a certain point. A lot of sport is about preparing for a certain event or competition. But business is relentless. You can’t just peak for an event and then say ‘We’ll all just relax’. In the generic stuff, there are a lot of parallels, but I think business is more sophisticated than sport.
“You need to develop different characteristics around resilience, which is an area of interest
for me just now from a neuro-science perspective – what’s happening to your thought processes that will make you more resilient. Having that cognitive awareness to do something about it is difficult.”
That interest in education and learning is a trait that appears to have remained with Sole throughout his career, both in sport and now in business. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, rugby wasn’t a professional game and so his two lives ran parallel with each other for a while.
“My early jobs really revolved around finding something that would keep me occupied during the day until I could go training in the evening,” he remembers. Having studied economics and agricultural economics at the University of Exeter, entering the food and drink industry was a natural choice for the young prop. After working for a dairy and a wine merchant in Bath, he returned to Edinburgh to work as a sales rep for a grain merchant, before a second brief spell in the wine trade.
Winning the Grand Slam wasn’t the only reason that Sole remembers 1990 though; it was also the year during which he began working for United Distillers, the whisky producer created in 1987 by owner Guinness through the merger of its Distillers Company and Arthur Bell & Sons subsidiaries.
In 1998, a year after Guinness itself had been combined with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, United Distillers was merged with International Distillers & Vintners to form United Distillers & Vintners, now known simply as ‘Diageo Scotland’.
“I joined as an assistant grain buyer, purchasing the raw materials needed to make Scotch whisky and gin,” explains the softly-spoken Sole. “I had just been appointed as captain of Scotland, leading the team against Fiji and Romania in the autumn internationals, so they knew what they were letting themselves in for when they hired me.
“I spent nine years with United Distillers and then a further two following the merger of Grand Met and Guinness to form Diageo. At the point of the merger, I was running the team that was responsible for any raw materials that went into a distiller and any co-products that came out, like draff and dark grains, which are used as animal feed.”
One of the driving forces behind the merger of the two companies was the cost savings that could be extracted from the businesses. “We spent something like £1.2 billion in global operations of which £900 million fell into five categories: glass; aluminium; paper and corrugated cardboard; distribution; and commodities and neutral spirit,” says Sole.
“All of the consultants told them that if they applied a strategic sourcing approach then
they could deliver £256m of merger benefits – so obviously people were very excited about that. So I was asked to look after the commodities and neutral spirit category. Basically, we formed a small team of five people, one to run each category.
“I did that for a couple of years and I moved my family down south to Oxfordshire. I got my gold card from British Airways for travelling the world, negotiating deals in Barbados and all sorts of places.
“At the end of the two years, I over-delivered on expectations. The consultants had predicted a 4-6% saving on commodities and neutral spirits and I delivered 9%.”
Once the two-year posting was completed, Sole wanted to return to Scotland and so he left Diageo. “I probably had an early mid-life crisis,” he laughs. “I had a complete change of career. I was introduced to Norman Drummond, who was setting up the Scottish office of the Change Partnership, which at the time was probably the largest coaching organisation in the UK.
“I had no idea that an industry existed around the world of executive coaching. Having come from a background in performance sport – albeit in an amateur era – coaching really resonated with me.
“When I was at Distillers, we went through a cultural change programme and part of that was learning to be a coach and learning some models and approaches to be an effective coach and leader. It really struck a chord with me and I got quite excited about it.”
One of Sole’s early clients was Patrick Macdonald, who had been appointed in 2003 as chief executive at John Menzies, the FTSE250 newspaper distribution and aviation services group. The two got along well together and kept in touch. “We were having lunch one day and Patrick said what a challenge it had been becoming a chief executive,” Sole recalls. “Patrick is a very bright guy, with a first-class honours degree in engineering from the University of Oxford and an MBA with distinction from Insead in France.
“He’s worked at Boston Consulting Group, Unilever, and General Electric and so he has a terrific pedigree. But he said that nothing in his education or experience had prepared him for taking on the role of CEO.
“So we kicked that idea around and we came up with the concept of the School for CEOs.
The difference being that we wanted to approach it from a very practical perspective, so we didn’t want academic input into the teaching on the programme.
“Academics are there to teach people the theory; what we wanted was very much a practitioner’s approach. So all of our faculty – and we have more than 70 faculty members now – are currently or have just finished serving as CEOs, chairmen, or non-executive directors. So they’ve been there, they’ve done it, they’ve got the T-shirt.”
The faculty who teach at the School for CEOs reads like a Who’s Who of the Scottish and indeed British business community, from well-kent faces such as Samantha Barber, Katherine Garrett-Cox and Lesley Knox through to Bob Keiller, Peter Lederer and Lord Smith of Kelvin, with a smattering of sporting greats thrown in too, like Katherine Grainger, Shirley Robertson, and Will Carling.
The list of companies that have used the school’s services is equally prestigious: Aberdeen Asset Management, Bacardi, Carphone Warehouse, Heineken, Santander, SSE, and William Grant & Sons to name but a few. Brakes, the food services business, has used Sole and his team to deliver an in-house version of the course and the school is also doing the same for PepsiCo in Barcelona, where 30 of its rising stars from throughout Europe will be given training as part of a new talent academy.
High-flyers from charities including Children in Need and the Teenage Cancer Trust – along with organisations such as Inspiring Scotland and UK Sport – have also taken part in courses. “We’re very keen to make sure we get diversity in the room,” says Sole. “It adds a richness for the delegates. They get a huge amount from bouncing ideas off each other. Some of the issues facing businesses and charities are different, but others are exactly the same.”
The school runs two courses: the ‘Vital Few’, an intensive two-day residential programme at which experienced directors teach first-timers about the vital few skills they will need, such as setting the agenda, managing relationships and structuring their team; and ‘Runway’, which is aimed at people a few steps away from taking on an executive committee (exco) post, who complete an online self-assessment beforehand and then receive feedback and come up with their own personal development plan while they’re on the course.
"We’ve had our fair share of entrepreneurs on the courses too,” adds Sole. “They’ve loved it. The courses are as relevant to an entrepreneur running a business, if not more relevant.
“Entrepreneurs are wedded to the concept that they’ve developed and are commercialising. This is about stepping back and thinking about the leadership of the company and how you grow and nurture the business, which is sometimes a difficult step for entrepreneurs to take because they are so attached to the technology they’ve developed or the business they’re growing.”
But if entrepreneurs are being asked to part with their hard-earned cash to take up a place on a course, is it possible to quantify the results? “That’s a hard question for any developmental or learning intervention to answer,” Sole admits. “I’m very often asked it as a coach – ‘What’s the payback?’
“For me, I’m fundamentally wedded to learning and being curious about stuff, so any investment in yourself to develop your learning is worth it – and it’s not just about the ‘hard’ messages you get in the programme but also about the relationships you form with the faculty and your fellow delegates.”
Sole isn’t just focused on growing other people’s businesses. He and Macdonald – along with business partner and programme director June Boyle – took on their first full-time staff member last year and held a strategy day over the summer. “We’re being quite grown-up about it,” smiles Sole. “We’re ambitious and we want to grow the business.
“What we’re doing has struck a chord, especially with our ‘Runway’ programme. Getting people to think long and hard about their development and how that’s aligned to their ambitions is something that generally isn’t done. Often it’s just left to an hour-long annual review or appraisal, which – given theamount of time we spend at work – almost
feels a bit disingenuous.”