What can we learn from Sir Alex Ferguson?

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

‘Ferguson Formula’ by Anita Elberse, Harvard Business Review, October 2013

I could not resist reviewing this article.  Who would have thought that a former dock worker and rather average Scottish centre forward, who moved into management at the early age of 32, would end up as an example of best management practice in Harvard Business Review?

The article was written in parallel with Sir Alex Ferguson’s visit to Harvard where his class was apparently ‘standing room only’.

The assumption and message of the article is that we can learn from the general principles applied by the most successful football manager of his generation, maybe of all time.  But the question has to be asked – is football so different from any other management environment that it is not possible to extend lessons outside that context?

The first thing to say is that, if the lessons are worthy of learning, there is no indication that other football clubs have been listening.  For the first message is to think long term and not to react to short term pressures for results; to keep faith in the chosen manager.  Yet nearly all football clubs do the opposite and change their managers far too quickly and often.  And they would no doubt argue that it is OK to think long term if you have a manager of Ferguson’s calibre in the first place; fans of Manchester United would respond that the main reason he has succeeded is because they stuck by him in the critical first few years.

So what are the secrets of success that are described in the article and how far are they transferrable?  The first point made is around team building; a good team will combine youth and experience, with some players coming through the youth academy and others bought mid-career.  Harvard’s view is that he is a good ‘talent manager’ and thinks long term about the balance, also being ruthless with those who are performing less well at the end of their career. This led me to wonder whether Ferguson’s ‘secret’ is that he has simply been applying good solid management techniques as employed by any self-respecting business leader.  So I tried to apply this test as I read through the rest of the article.

The second principle applied by Ferguson is to have no favourites, no stars who get special treatment.  The potential prima donnas are expected to work just as hard as others and those that don’t comply will soon be on their way.  It is also interesting that his general experience is that the expensive stars usually work harder than others, indeed that is why they have achieved so much.  Again you could argue that this is no more than good people management principles.

Another principle that many in business would confirm – but which is generally not applied in football circles – is that there must be only one boss, that the top person must never cede control.  This is particularly contentious in the football world because the majority of clubs -particularly those in continental Europe – adopt a different model with a Director of Football sharing power with the Manager.  Another point made in this context is that Ferguson challenged player power and quickly got rid of anyone who challenged his authority, even if the name was Beckham.  Again many successful CEOs would agree though others might argue that there are other more collaborative models that can work for some leaders and in some cultures.  Another interesting observation is that Ferguson believes that player power often arises because managers are changed too often.

Perhaps the most new and interesting point made in the article is the importance of observation.  Ferguson attributes much of his success to standing back from day to day coaching and training – which happened more and more as he got older – and letting others handle these physical activities.  But he always attended the training sessions to observe from afar the attitude and performances of each player.  This may again seem obvious but few management books are as upfront about this management skill; to quote – ‘I came to see ‘observation’ as a critical part of my management skills’.

His final ‘secret’ is very much in line with orthodox management thinking; the ability to manage change. Though in many ways he was ‘old school’ and of a different generation from his players and coaches, he was willing to embrace the new ideas and methods which the younger subordinates brought with them; for example new technology and dietary regimes.  The difference between running a football club now, compared to when he took over twenty-six years ago, is like chalk and cheese; he could not have survived without this flexible approach.

So what are we to learn from this?  The overwhelming conclusion is that this is a very good manager who follows the principles of running a business that most would aspire to but only the best can deliver under pressure.  The conclusion is that Ferguson is successful because he follows these principles in a business sector where few others do.  

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