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Creating a high-performance culture: in conversation with Alec Stewart

Former England cricket captain Alec Stewart recently spoke to Rachel Bridge of executive search firm Drax about what it takes to build a high-performance culture in sport or in business.

Nicknamed “The Gaffer”, Alec Stewart played in more than 130 test matches for England as a wicketkeeper-batsman. He scored 15 centuries and made 277 dismissals during a career that spanned more than 13 years.

A cricketing legend who captained England during his career, Stewart now serves as Surrey County Cricket Club’s Director of Cricket. There he has excelled in the role, developing a talented group of young players and leading the club to the County Championship in 2018.

Over the years, Stewart has become as well known for his leadership skills as he was for his on-field play. So, at the Drax Future 40 Awards 2018, Rachel and Real Deals were pleased to be able to get his first-hand take on what it takes to build a high-performance culture and high-performing companies.

Three key principles

In the course of the conversation, Stewart explained the three key principles that have informed his approach throughout his career:

1. Recognise individual needs, but focus on team objectives

Stewart pointed out that there was a strong correlation between the people dynamics in business and cricket. Both realms emphasise strong individual performance and accountability. However, ultimate success depends of the achievements of the group rather than those of one person.

Leaders and team members must find a balance between what individuals need to perform, and the rules and behaviours required to ensure a team is cohesive, treated fairly and respects boundaries.

“Do your own thing, but buy in to what the team stands for,” Stewart said.

2. Set clear goals and measure progress

Promote high performance culture with clear targets Stewart said one of the most successful practices introduced by Surrey County Cricket coach Michael Di Venuto (who was appointed in 2016) was the use of a whiteboard in the dressing room during all matches.

Before each game, various run, wicket, and bowling and batting partnership targets are given to the team. These are written up on the board and every time an objective is hit, the team gets a green tick. The individuals contributing to that objective are recognised too, and the board also records personal milestones and session wins.

“As soon as the team comes off the field they can see exactly where the match stands, how the team has performed and which people have contributed to the performance. The players see the board and want to be up there. It is a simple thing that makes a big impact,” Stewart said.

3. Be transparent. Stay consistent

Stewart said it was incumbent on any leader to maintain regular contact with team members, be very clear on where people stand and explain what is expected of them.

“If someone is under-performing and you leave it for a few months, but then let them go because there has been no improvement, you have let that person down,” he explained. “An appraisal is not something that should only happen once a year. You need to constantly appraise yourself and your team in regular dialogue.

Stewart also emphasised the importance of staying consistent on team rules and discipline, through good times and bad.

Stewart recalled how Kevin Pietersen MBE, once a maverick England batsman, would wear black socks during matches in contravention of team protocol. When he was scoring runs and the team was winning, nothing was said about the breach. But later, when team and player went through a slump, Pietersen was suddenly called out about his attire, with obvious repercussions.

“Give people space and freedom, but not so much that you can’t pull them back,” Stewart said.

Real Deals is one of Caspian Media’s flagship titles and publishes European private equity news, analysis and deal coverage.

The Drax Future 40 2018 recognised up and coming dealmakers who are setting the agenda for the future of European private equity. Find out more at