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What can businesses learn from top sports teams?

29 January 2020: we talk to Sue Day, Chief Financial Officer at the Rugby Football Union and former England women’s rugby team captain, about what businesses can learn from sports teams, as well as her sporting and professional achievements.

Sue Day has enjoyed phenomenal success both on and off the rugby pitch. She’s played 59 times for her country (scoring 61 tries), became the first female president of her club (Wasps), and made partner at KPMG in 2015. What can we learn about business from Day’s sporting and professional achievements?

How has captaining a national sports team shaped your views on organisational culture?

“Teams I’ve played in where everybody has really worked for each other have been the most successful. Good teams find a balance between being honest and supportive.

Feedback doesn’t have to be about being blunt and hard-nosed; it’s about getting better at what you do.”

Which have been your most painful but useful learning experiences?

“They’re still painful now! Losing in two World Cup finals and a World Cup semi-final. You need to be able to fail and work out how to pick yourself up – the resilience you learn from that is so important. I learned about the importance of sports psychology. In sport, people spend a lot of time on physical training, but we don’t spend enough time on mental training. That’s true in business too.”

What have been your proudest moments in sport and in business?

“Getting into the England team was amazing. We played against Spain, in Madrid, in December 1997. I don’t remember much about it – I scored a try, I know that! The other proudest moments would be winning Grand Slams.

“KPMG supported me throughout my rugby career so, having grown up in the firm, making partner in 2015 was also a really proud moment.” 

Who have been your most important influences, in sport and in business?

“Carol Isherwood played rugby then moved into the administration side of things in the 1990s and helped us become professional with a small "p". We still weren’t being paid, but she started bringing in nutrition advisers, strength and conditioning coaches. Her vision and her influence on every female rugby player that has followed has been enormous.

“The day I joined corporate finance in KPMG – where there weren’t many women – Melanie Richards, who’s now Deputy Chair there, took me for a coffee. She showed me that she was thriving and I could too.”

What’s next for women’s rugby in England?

“Women’s rugby is really exciting and skilful; you get more of a running game, less dominated by big hits than the men’s game.

“If we want to take women’s rugby to the next level, we have to commercialise it, to develop better players, get more visibility for the England team. At the moment the Rugby Football Union makes most of its money from 15-a-side men’s England matches at Twickenham. But we can’t ask the men to play any more matches. So I don’t just want to commercialise women’s rugby to help women’s rugby – I want to do it to help men’s rugby as well.”