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IN-DEPTH: Fenton-Wells - Lessons, Leadership And The Business Of Sport

On and off the rugby pitch, the concept of leadership is one that fascinates Nick Fenton-Wells – and now, with a master’s degree under his belt, the back-row forward is hoping to bridge the gap between sport and business.

There’s a stark contrast between the South African’s on and off the field demeanor and one which sees him switch seamlessly between firing into rucks and tackles and discussing, in depth, the make-up of businesses and the personnel charged with ensuring their efficiency.

With one eye on the future, Fenton-Wells is keen to show that the leadership characteristics of an elite sportsmen and a good businessman are inter-connected and easily transferable.

“Leadership does fascinate me in that it’s such an interesting dynamic because leaders aren’t necessarily the most liked people, but they get the job done on the premise that they’re able to influence people,” he explains.

“Before I came over to the UK, I studied my post-grad diploma in entrepreneurship and a lot of it was centred around self-leadership and around leadership in teams. I’d been captaining the university rugby team at the time and kind of got a fascination for it just because, I guess, that in a rugby club sense it’s just interesting to see how guys in their own right lead in their position.

“I was captain of the Vodacom Cup side at Western Province and at Bedford and I’ve learned that the best leaders are just surrounded by the best people - and they make good decisions about the people they want surrounding them.

“In rugby, it’s such a tight-nit group of people, whereas in an organisation, people may not have day-to-day interaction with their leaders, so there’s much more of an influence coming from a rugby club environment that I have learned a lot from and I’d love to take that into business in later life.

ON THE CHARGE: Fenton-Wells takes on the Pau defence at Ashton Gate (Photo: JMP UK). 

“There’s definitely transferability across both. I think in leadership, there’s no doubt you can take what great people have done in business and transfer that into sport. I think from a mentality point of view and in terms of team work, other than the army, there’s probably no other environment that would be better than a rugby environment and epitomise what teamwork is all about – you’re literally relying on the guy next to you every second of the game.

“I find it very interesting and I would love to pursue it and make that link – or close that gap – between sport and business and show that the transferability between the two is actually there and it’s not as chalk and cheese as people might think.

“Organisations are warming to the idea that sports people, army recruits, Navy recruits, people like that, can offer so much in terms of the team dynamic.”

At 30-years-old, Fenton-Wells still has his some of his best playing years ahead of him, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting together a blueprint for life after rugby, built around his master’s degree in Business Administration.

Unsurprisingly, leadership coaching within business is high on the agenda but with nothing set in stone, he’s keen to take a leaf out of some of his teammate’s books.

“I’m trying to do as much networking as possible at the moment, so it’s really helpful to have a guys like Kyle Traynor, Mark Sorenson, Charlie Amesbury in the squad – guys who are really good at networking and who have introduced me to a few people who have really helped me to create a bigger network base which has been fantastic,” he says.

APPLAUSE: The flanker thanks the travelling Bristol support at Franklin's Gardens (Photo: JMP UK). 

“Obviously I want to keep playing rugby as long as possible, but I know I’m in the latter stages so it’s been important to meet as many people as possible and get some good connections.

“Trayns (Kyle Traynor) has got a great network and has just started at Oxford University and Charlie Amesbury has just been at Cambridge and will be there part-time for the next two years, so I think those guys will make some unreal connections, but I hope that’s the sort of thing I can do later in my career.

“I haven’t actively pursued anything yet, but that’s the type of thing I’d like to do and see from there, what I’d be keen on doing. I’d be quite keen on going into leadership coaching or something to do with that, talking from my experiences and seeing if I can transfer what I’ve learnt at an organisational level.”

A transferring of skills has also taken place on the field, with Fenton-Wells making the step from the Championship to the Aviva Premiership. It’s the South African’s second crack at the top-flight, having made ten appearances for Saracens in the infancy of his UK stay, before moving to Bedford in 2012.

Back in the big time, Fenton-Wells is keen to enjoy every minute and says the atmosphere in the squad is as good as anything he has experienced. He is though, keen to reference the huge part Bedford have played in his revival and admits he’ll be ‘forever indebted’ to his former club.

PAST: Fenton-Wells in Bedford Blues colours during the 2015/16 season (Photo: JMP UK). 

“I’m absolutely loving it here at Bristol,” he says. “It’s been a tough journey, it’s been difficult, but it’s been one that’s been made so enjoyable by the group of guys that we’ve got here. I just really enjoyed getting to know the guys here and by all accounts, we’ve definitely got what it takes to stay up and there are no doubts in my mind.

“If you look at the group culture, there are no bad eggs here, we don’t have any of those and everyone is collectively keen on achieving the same goals.

“I’ll be forever indebted to Bedford, they are a great club and they welcomed me with open arms when I first arrived. I went on loan at the end of the first season at Saracens and came back and had to have a groin operation. After that, I ended up back there on a season-long loan.

“Effectively, I had been at Bedford for the better part of three seasons before joining here and they were brilliant. They gave me the opportunity to lead the side, which, at a club with such a rich history, was a huge honour.

“I had a fantastic time there and made mates for life and they will always be my close friends. I owe a lot to Bedford in terms of where I’ve got to and getting another shot at the Premiership.”

But for all the reminiscence, Fenton-Wells is now fully focused on the future - first in rugby and then, somewhere down the line, in business. Either way, you get the impression it’s all under control.

By Will Carpenter.