Listen, learn, lead: What rugby taught Tim Rodber about business

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Daniel Evans talks to former England rugby player Tim Rodber on how he is driving The Instant Group to new heights.

I didn’t want to embarrass Tim Rodber by asking him how good he was at rugby but let me tell you he was pretty special. In a period when England were the dominant force in European rugby, he was one of the enforcers in a powerful pack. He was an integral part of two grand slam-winning sides and played in two world cups. I recall seeing him at the Northampton clubhouse on a quiet Sunday back in the day and he practically had to turn sideways to get his huge frame through the door.

And you don’t need to take my word for it. I called Peter Jackson, the former rugby correspondent of the Daily Mail and asked him how he remembers Rodber. “I invited Tim to the rugby writers’ dinner when he was an 18-year-old because I thought this lad is going to go a long way. He was in the vanguard of the new breed of athletic, multi-dimensional back row forwards.

“He won his first cap early in 1992 ahead of Dean Richards and I think he must be one of very few players in world rugby to have won their first games against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. He never took a backward step and his finest hour in an England shirt was in their 32-15 victory over the Springboks in 1994 against a side which would go on to win the world cup 12 months later.”

Fast forward to today and Rodber is now chief executive of The Instant Group, a flexible workspace specialist, providing an alternative to the traditional methods that firms use to procure and occupy office space. So the first question was pretty obvious: with 44 England caps to your name, Tim, what skills did you learn during your rugby career that have proved useful in business?

“There are crossover characteristics for business and rugby, for sure,” says Rodber. “You need to be driven and you need a desire within you to tackle and solve problems. You need to want to win. I think that is an innate characteristic that you need. You need to have the right level of being smart, be able to think outside the box, be a problem solver, and recognise other people’s opinions whilst also being a good listener. Ultimately you have to make decisions, be brave, and take risks – make sure you win more than you lose.”

The team at Instant comprises a mixture of workspace consultants, data analysts, property, procurement and outsourcing specialists.  They use Instant’s proprietary data to create workspace solutions that save clients money and offer them business agility, whether they are SMEs or large international corporates.

Rodber talks me through an average working week. “Our HQ is based in London and while I might spend the average week based there, I will spend most of the day talking to Instant’s clients or my teams based in offices around the world.  I travel to our offices in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney as much as is practicable but we also use Skype a lot to stay in touch.

“With a firm that is growing as quickly as ours, it is important to keep driving home the importance of our strategy, so effective communication is a key element of the role.  As a result of the international profile of the business, the day can start early with calls to our Asia-Pacific team, and then end late with video conferences to the teams across the US.“
Rodber is adamant about the most important skills a CEO needs to possess, “Put the hours in!” he says unequivocally.

“Harvey Thorneycroft [a former Northampton team-mate] and I set a business up in 1997 and hired some people to help run it. The latter part of my career I was juggling three things: time in the Army, playing professional rugby and helping to run this business. Anyone who thinks one day you flick a switch and you move to get on with your business career is wrong.

“It’s all about sacrifice. I’d start my day at 6:30am with emails, go to training, head to the office after lunch then sometimes back to training and then spend my evenings in the office. I was very lucky in that, having left rugby at 31, I pitched to a guy called Tim Griffiths who was CEO of business process outsourcing firm Williams Lea and, within a year of leaving rugby, we won a big contract with them. A year later they had acquired my business and I continued working for him.

“You must do everything you can to understand your customers. Leadership is one thing, but being a good listener and paying attention to what is going on in front of you is another thing entirely.  The user experience on our broking platform is of significant importance to us, of course, but our overarching goal is to ensure an absolute understanding of all of our customers, from a business start-up through to a large corporate requiring a managed space solution or one of our operator clients.

“Intelligent analysis of our data gives us a genuine advantage in a rapidly growing market. This insight has allowed us to launch new products to the market; increase Instant’s global footprint, and expand our role as the global, flexible workspace specialist.”

And how do you help SMEs specifically? “Our online procurement platform lists more than 9,000 workspaces around the world of varying sizes from one man co-working deals to 500 desk requirements,” says Rodber. “Hundreds of thousands of SMEs visit the site to find office space and speak to our consultants who can advise them of the best requirement for their business.

“For many SMEs, traditional office space hinders their growth by tying them to long leases that are completely impractical if they need to relocate for any reason.  Flexible workspace is not a tie that binds, but an agile approach that facilitates growth and helps these companies attract and retain the best staff by finding the right location for their firm, at the right time.”

Looking to the future, Rodber is clear where his ambitions lie. “Since I joined three years ago, Instant has achieved 30% compound growth rates and evolved from what was once a predominantly UK platform into a global services business with significant operations in the key markets of EMEA, the Americas and Asia Pac.

“The rapid growth of the UK and EMEA businesses and the market potential for further expansion elsewhere around the world leads me to conclude that we can maintain that rate of growth, and, I hope, exceed it in many places.  We now have an excellent international team in place and while I am proud about our accomplishments so far, we have nowhere near reached our potential as yet. ”

I often ask people I interview to sum up their business approach in three words and Rodber’s are about the best I’ve heard. “Listen, learn, lead,” he says. Excellent advice, whatever job or position you hold.

But we couldn’t finish the interview without going back to rugby. So, Tim, can this current England team under Eddie Jones win the world cup in 2019? “They have come a long way in a short period of time and there has obviously been a massive culture change. If they continue their current rate of progress then, yes, I see no reason why not.