Sport & Business: The Intricate Link Between Two Dynamic Worlds

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Over the years it has become increasingly clear that the worlds of business and sport are intricately linked in nature & in practice. Despite differing uniforms and divergent playing fields, the skills, characteristics, and often formula for success are acutely analogous.

We had the pleasure of talking to two titans in their respective fields of expertise. One has spent nearly half a century at the forefront of global business, managing diverse teams and leading companies through triumph and tragedy. The other is one of the most decorated rugby referees in the world, officiating World Cup finals and once holding the record for most international matches as referee.

To kick start things, we share the story of Clem Booth, former CEO of Allianz and director of multiple other insurance companies. From his first encounters with the insurance/assurance world, to the key lessons he’s pulled from a life in the C-Suite.

Clem is a South African born businessman, currently holding UK & German citizenship, who’s undertaken numerous management & executive positions within the insurance and reinsurance industry. A true leader, having managed national and international teams across Germany, Australian, UK and South Africa, Clem has spent over 45 years directing change and driving success at the companies he’s overseen. Although his expertise is grounded in the complex world of (re)insurance underwriting and broking, his passion for sport and its various dynamics has culminated in the two worlds colliding. Having accrued a vested interest in people development and leadership principles over the years, it is no surprise that he recognised the extensive cross-over between business & sport.

Born in Cape Town, Clem attended Westerford School in Ronderbosch. By his own admission, his grades weren’t great and after redoing his ‘Standard 9’ year was told to stay away from pursuing a higher education/career involving mathematics or the like. With hindsight we can see how inaccurate this advice was. In 1974, as his peers were weighing up their next steps, he was forced to decide between university or a teaching diploma. Unable to afford university and not desperately keen on the idea of teaching, he took to working at a sports shop in Ronderbosch, frequented by the legendary Springbok Ian McCallum on gamedays, to pick up a fresh pair of laces. After a couple months of work, struggling to see a future in selling sports gear, he visited the neighbouring office to see what else was out there. It so happened that that particular office was the headquarters of Southern Life, a large company specialising in Life Assurance.

Clem for Board of Allianz SE

After joining Southern Life, initially due to them being able to offer a little more money, Clem quickly realised that business was his niche, conceding that the confines of school and his specific strengths never truly aligned. Discovering this was the turning point for him. He began to thrive and commit to learning the ins and outs of insurance. In 1978, aged 24, he was offered a scholarship to move to Germany with Munich RE, a market-leading reinsurance company. Fast forward 20 years and Clem joined their executive board; a testament to both his potential and the worth in investing in bright junior talent. This principle is universal, especially through the lens of sport; discovering potential early on and forging a path of empowerment & development is at the heart of successful talent pipelines.

Returning to South Africa in the 80s, running his first business, came with a wealth of obstacles and critical internal-culture decisions. The country was in the midst of apartheid and racial tensions were at an all-time high. For Clem and his brother, the notion of racism and discrimination was abhorred by their mother; he recalls her sternly reminding them that such ignorance was not acceptable, at any time, in any fashion. He was proud of SA’s diversity and carried this into his own business, employing a majority percentage of his staff from black and female backgrounds.

Mandela at Ellis Park for the 1995 Rugby WC

Later down the line, as national change was picking up momentum and Mandela was building his route to power with the ANC, Clem’s company—of which he was first deputy CEO and then CEO—provided them critical office space. He recalls meeting Mandela several times and being taken aback by how meticulously kind he was to everyone; “at the town hall Madiba would greet everyone, he’d shake hands with the staff serving tea, he’d listen to countless questions and answer them with great humility.”

For Clem, Mandela was like a ‘North Star’ to a country in standstill. He represented a new approach to leadership: one driven by hope, marked by collective good, and bolstered by the need for change. This influenced Clem’s management style. When speaking recently, as he looks back on over 45 years in business leadership, he highlighted four key lessons made along the way:

  1. Focus on the people; serve the people. This can include his own companies, his clients, and in broader society. People are at the core of any team or company’s success, so invest in their needs and in creating the best environment for them to prosper. This is often repaid handsomely through employee engagement, satisfaction, and ultimate productivity.
  2. Fix the basics. Zooming in on the fundamental components of any structure or scenario more often than not improves it. It may not always be the most popular approach and people tend to rely on the familiarity of the status quo, but if the basics are flawed the rest are spoiled by consequence.
  3. Impart knowledge. Believing in the notion that you are obligated to share the knowledge you’ve gathered over the years. Train people to take over positions ahead of them, this will ensure a strong succession of talent for the future. Something he found was critical in the development of his own teams was to listen more and talk less.
  4. During a crisis provide reassurance, guidance, and discipline. As a leader, clear direction and communication is essential to managing fears and establishing an organised perspective, particularly with a wide-ranging set of job roles within. The result, more often than not, is a less impeded path to safety and security.

Clem’s experiences of leadership have motivated him to pass on knowledge to next generation of talent from both business and sport. This has taken a more structured format when mentoring a number of Saracens rugby players, coaches, and admin staff, sharing lessons learnt from business that can be effectively applied to sport and utilised in their own development. He embodies that cross-pollination of wisdom; although sport and business take place in different arenas, with different rulebooks, the fundamental fabrics are undeniably similar.

Nested in this passion for leadership and understanding of effective managerial methods is that young school leaver, discouraged from the traditional paths, seeking the right environment to sink his teeth into. With Clem, as with a handful of other successful leaders, the inception of their journey is often marred with uncertainty, with falling outside society’s pre-etched lines, but with an insatiable drive for excellence. Yet, once the scene is set, individuals like Clem thrive and relish at the challenges that come their way, often confronting adversity with composure, tackling grand tasks with calculated analysis, and meeting the vast stakeholders with humility and kindness.

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