What Manchester United can teach us

6 09 2007

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What Manchester United can teach us


Leadership matters in football as much as in any other business. Hay Group’s Fabian Lim a committed fan explains how Manchester United chairman Sir Alex Ferguson has applied six leadership maxims to create the club’s success:

„h  align culture to goals

„h  groom people today for tomorrow

„h  remember that strategy is nothing without execution

„h  spend money to make money

„h  build for the next encounter; don’t dwell on success, or defeat

„h  have a long-term vision of what success will look like.

Sir Alex Ferguson CBE is the most successful manager in English football. Through force of will, counselling and a system of keeping tabs on players and fines, he has taken United’s mediocre underperforming team of the 1980s and created a tight-knit, disciplined and professional outfit.

When he took charge, the club was coasting on its past ‘Busby Babes’ glory that had culminated in the winning of the then-European Cup by the 1967 team that included Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best.

Since his arrival 17 years ago the team has won, nine English Premier League Championships, five FA Cups, two League Cups, and one European Champion’s League ¡V an average of one piece of silverware per year.

Of the journey, Ferguson wrote in his autobiography ‘Managing My Life’ that “much of the change was painful, never more so than when famous players had to be jettisoned or promising youngsters had their dreams shattered by injury”. But he never let sentimentality cloud his focus on achieving success, which, for a football club ¡V as with all commercial entities ¡V depends on teamwork.

Ferguson‘s approach offers some simple yet powerful truths about helping managers and their teams score.

Align culture to goals
To ensure that his team worked, Sir Alex made it clear that not a single player was beyond the manager’s control. And he was true to his word, off-loading talents like Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, who were at the peak of their careers but had become ‘too big for their boots’.

He puts it in his autobiography: “…if footballers think they are above the manager’s control then there is only one word to be said to them – goodbye”. There is no doubt he knew where the buck stopped – with him.

Groom people today for tomorrow
Upon his arrival in 1986, he recognized the need for a longer term fix for an “alarming weakness [of] the way playing staff had been allowed to age without sufficient care being taken to ensure that younger replacements of the right quality were ready to stake claims for regular places in the first team”.

He re-established the talent-scouting system and integrated it with a comprehensive and structured youth policy that has produced the likes of Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. Short-term results should not be pursued at the expense of long-term growth of our businesses.

Manage talent from the heart
The media scrutiny over his ‘my way or the highway’ clashes with his players and then-Chairman, Martin Edwards, is well known. However, from canteen staff to physiotherapists to players, most speak of his genuine, personal touch and his unwavering loyalty to his players. His knack for ‘man management’ enables the team to see his goals as theirs too.

Take the case of Eric Cantona and his infamous kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan back in 1995. Sir Alex chose to support and rehabilitate the charismatic Frenchman. Cantona went on to help the team win the English Premier League and FA Cup double the following season.

Many organizations claim that ‘people are their most important asset’ yet how many practise what they preach? Sir Alex’s managerial style epitomises the adage that ‘people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care’.

Execution, execution, execution!
Strategy is nothing without execution. History has proven that Sir Alex is adept at executing his strategic vision, restoring the English League title to the club after a 26-year wait and leading the club to numerous titles and trophies, including an unprecedented Premiership-FA Cup-Champions League treble in 1999.

A big part of that vision lies in his judgement in picking, managing and developing the right talent, as this list of stellar names attests to: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, and Roy Keane. The last three have gone on to be club managers in their own right.

He also protects his players from the media spotlight, stressing that “[it] is always better for me to take the flak, rather than the players”.

Sir Alex understands the business of football and stands by the philosophy that ‘in order to make money, you have to spend money’.

He has never lost sight of how United’s performance on the pitch impacts on its fortunes as a listed company. Companies who manage their talent consistently outperform their peers in terms of return on share price. Companies that get that talent equation wrong feel it on the bottom line.

Throughout his 21 years with the team he has seen the business entity go public and yet he has never taken his eye off the ball – nor dwelt either on success or defeat. Last year, as he celebrated his 20th year at Old Trafford, he complained that the festivities would distract him from grabbing the Premiership back from Chelsea.

While United was beaten by Chelsea in the FA Cup Final in May, Ferguson didn’t dwell on defeat. The wily Scotsman has already strengthened his team with the signing of England midfielder Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich.


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