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Lessons in leadership for rugby legend Thierry Dusautoir


Even at the beginning of his rugby union career, former France captain Thierry Dusautoir was thinking about the end. “Being a professional rugby player is great — it is the best thing that has happened in my life,” he says. But it can stop at any moment, he adds, whether because of injury or someone better coming up, so you “need more weapons, like studying, to have more options”.

It might now seem surprising that someone so acclaimed ever worried about future career opportunities — or had time to. Although Dusautoir, 39, did not play rugby until his mid teens, initially preferring judo, he turned professional in 2001 at 19, going on to enjoy a successful career with French clubs such as Biarritz and Toulouse.

In 2006, he was called up to the French national team, earning 80 caps in an international career that included some iconic moments. In 2010, he captained the French side to Grand Slam victory before leading them to the 2011 World Cup final, which they lost to New Zealand’s All Blacks. He was also named Player of the Year in 2011, the second Frenchman to win the international title.

But Dusautoir also saw friends struggle for a couple of years after leaving the sport while they worked out what to do next. “I just wanted to be the master of my life,” he says. With an eye on ensuring he would indeed have “options”, in 2008 he invested in his first company, All My SMS, a text and voice messaging service. He now works in business development and strategy for the platform, alongside investing in other, mostly tech, companies with a partner.

A conversation with former international teammates Frédéric Michalak and Sébastien Chabal — the famously hirsute “caveman” — opened up the next option. Michalak and Chabal both started EMLyon’s executive MBA in 2019. After hearing what they were up to, Dusautoir was attracted by the idea that an EMBA could help him analyse the companies to invest in, and better support his own.

“I went to EMLyon because I wanted academic tools to help me take decisions and have more self-confidence when [I was] going to deal with someone, talk about business or do risk analysis of a company,” he says. “I used to invest with my guts. Now I want to invest with my brain.”

Thierry Dusautoir: ‘I just wanted to be the master of my life’ © Magali Delporte

A chemical engineering graduate, Dusautoir says it was “weird” going back to school in September after 15 years. But he is already enjoying the networking and peer learning that come with an EMBA. “It is really fulfilling to meet people from different backgrounds who are starting something with you,” he says.

The sense of cohesion struck a familiar note early on during the course. During the first three-day study block, his bike was stolen while he was out with course mates for an evening. He was surprised that everyone wanted to help.

Thierry Dusautoir and his Toulouse team with the Heineken Cup in 2010
Thierry Dusautoir and his Toulouse team with the Heineken Cup in 2010

“I was like, ‘Wow, I have known you for one day and it really felt like something that I experienced in rugby — the solidarity,” he says. “I felt that something was starting between [us]. I would not say thank you to the thief, but it was a moment that showed me that maybe I was getting into a new team.”

Dusautoir is already learning and reflecting on the lessons and his old life. The first block was on management, a subject he is familiar with. He says he doesn’t know that much about finance but “quite a bit” about management as the captain of a team. It has been interesting to consider whether leading a rugby team would have been easier with the knowledge gained from the programme, he adds.

For example, there was a tough moment in the 2011 World Cup when the French side was almost knocked out. While the way the team bounced back together is one of the proudest moments of his rugby career, Dusautoir says being the leader came at a personal cost. “I was thinking that maybe if I had known this [about management] at this time, would it have been easier? Would I have had more energy for being a better player on the pitch? Because I lost a lot of energy managing the guys,” he says.

While his management studies made him reflect on his rugby career, he intends to use his experience as an elite athlete to meet the demands of his EMBA. “I am going to use the same recipe as when I was a player — so work hard and try to find better organisation with the family,” he says. “My wife is with me: it is not my choice, it is a couple choice and a family choice. I think that is going to help me a lot in this, because you cannot do anything alone.”

Testing times: Frédéric Michalak

Frédéric Michalak started a sport tech venture after finishing playing
Frédéric Michalak started a sport tech venture after finishing playing

“I do not have any regrets, so that is a good thing,” says Frédéric Michalak, Thierry Dusautoir’s former teammate, reflecting on a rugby career that spanned almost 20 years. It is easy to see why: in 2015, he finished his international run as France’s leading points scorer, with 77 caps, three Grand Slam victories and participation in three World Cups.

But in 2019 Michalak switched to costing, compliance and macroeconomics on an executive MBA at EMLyon. The previous year he co-founded a new venture, Sport Unlimitech, an initiative to bridge research, sport and entrepreneurship to develop sport tech, and began to consider business school. Besides being “curious”, he says he needed new tools to progress.

Those skills are already being put to the test. As well as learning a lot from fellow students, Michalak is putting his formal lessons to good use. Just as the course covered disruption, Covid-19 struck. Even if your business objective was three to five years ahead, he says, you had to act now.

“I was lucky to be in school at the time,” he says, adding that he needed to react and create a new business model for Sport Unlimitech.

But his advice is to fully commit to the EMBA. “Do it because you want to do it and put 100 per cent on that. It is going to be hard,” he says, adding that putting some money away is a good idea as it is expensive.

An open mind is also helpful. “Travel, be curious, talk with people, try things, do wrong, learn about that,” Michalak says. “You can learn a lot when you are losing.”


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