Former Davis Cup captain serves up winning advice for business and leadership innovation

Former Davis Cup captain serves up winning advice for business and leadership innovation

Pictured (L-R): Stuart McCallum, Leon Smith, and Derek Lauder at the corporate tennis event

Successful Davis Cup captain, and former coach to Andy Murray, Leon Smith, believes sport has sometimes been slow to look outwardly for ways to innovate – and can learn lessons from the world of business. 

Smith was speaking at a special tennis clinic event in Edinburgh, hosted by RSM UK and Rutherford Cross, involving representatives from prominent businesses operating in Scotland. The event was held at the state-of-the-art six court indoor tennis centre at Heriot Watt University’s Oriam Sports Performance complex.

The Scot said sport, and particularly tennis, has only recently embraced the growth mindset required to innovate from outside influence, and hailed the example of football club Manchester United in bringing in former British Cycling performance director Sir David Brailsford to help improve its operations.

The 48-year-old tennis coach, also head of men’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), said looking to other sports and industries has been pivotal to his evolution in both roles, particularly given his unique route to Davis Cup captain having not performed as a tennis professional at the highest level. He added that the business world had been an inspiration, and urged organisations to continue looking to other industries for ways to innovate within their own fields of expertise and tackle ever-evolving – but shared – challenges.

He said: “Businesses often look to the sporting world to find fresh perspective and a break from the norm. Sport, and especially tennis, perhaps hasn’t been as quick to embrace the growth mindset required to do that in the other direction.

“It can be massively beneficial to see things from a different angle, hear how a different approach was taken, and then apply that in your own field.”

Smith continued: “In sport, it used to be frowned upon, but it’s changed a lot now. Sir Clive Woodward’s appointment at Southampton FC in 2005 was heavily criticised, but now you see Sir Dave Brailsford at Manchester United and it’s viewed as a masterstroke – attitudes evolve.

“The fresh perspectives and lessons learned in taking different approaches to tackling new challenges, and the heightened performance and professionalism – such as the marginal gains Brailsford is famed for – are a great example.”

“I’ve learned a huge amount in the past five years or so due to our sport being more open to outside influence – and expect further innovation to come as a consequence.”

Smith, who was appointed Davis Cup captain in 2010 aged just 34 and having never played tennis at the highest level, also discussed the challenge of entering a high-profile leadership position despite what many perceived at the time to be a lack of experience. He added that taking a “person-centric” approach had been key to achieving buy-in from players and senior leaders – and he sees parallels in business.

He added: “Success as a new leader takes a person-first mentality, and is all about building trust and respect. That takes time.

“Having not come from a top 100 background, I had to earn that by explaining my plans in detail, and backing it up with reasoning, and ultimately results. None of that would’ve mattered without the groundwork you do with individuals – spending time with them, getting to know them, and banking a lot of credit to get you to the stage where they come with you.

“You need it because, down the line, other things that come with leadership arrive that you can’t shy away from – difficult conversations and decisions.

“For me that’s which young talent to invest in, or selection for a Davis Cup team. You need to have their respect for them to understand. You see that transfer across to business – whether recruiting, or giving someone a job or a contract. Again it requires fundamental understanding and empathy around people.”

Smith led a tennis clinic and Q&A session with representatives of some of the biggest and most exciting businesses operating in Scotland including Maven Capital, Dexcom, Archangels, N4 Partners, Dobbies, Forth Ports, and Burness Paull.

Stuart McCallum, a partner at RSM UK and head of food and drink, said: “It’s not every day of the week that you get coaching from someone with the experience of Leon Smith in a world class indoor tennis facility in Scotland, so this was a unique event for all our guests to enjoy.

He added: “I think it’s fair to say that people learned a lot from Leon, but also expended a great amount of energy which is important to improve our health and fitness levels given the busy working lives that everyone has. We wish Leon and Team GB all the best at the Olympics which will be played at Roland Garros in July.”

Derek Lauder, director at Rutherford Cross, added: “Leon is an expert in creating conditions that enable the delivery of elite performance, and his insights provide a highly valuable lesson for decision makers at all levels of business.

“The event may have been about performance on the court, but we all took lessons away that will help participants make a greater impact off the court too. We’d like to thank Leon massively for his contribution and insights.”

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