Since the remarkable Sir Alex Ferguson retired from the position of manager of Manchester United FC in 2013 the club has struggled to replace him. In the first 20 years of the Premier League under his leadership they won it 13 times. In the last six seasons the best they have achieved is second last year but 19 points behind the Champions, their “noisy neighbours “Manchester City. This year with three matches to go they are 25 points behind City having lost to them again this week. They are in sixth place and unlikely to qualify for the Champions League. In those six seasons they have worked their way through no less than four managers, three having already been paid off with huge compensation.
The latest, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, seemed an unlikely choice. He is certainly popular with the fans as a former United player who scored 91 goals in 235 appearances for the Club including the last minute winner in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999. But his managerial record is less auspicious including an unsuccessful stint at lowly Cardiff City. He was appointed as ‘caretaker’ manager apparently to the end of the season. This followed the sacking of Jose Mourinho after a bad defeat by Liverpool in December 2018. The players seemed to respond to the cheerful optimism of Solskjær and went on an unbeaten run of 11 matches winning ten and drawing just one. Their first defeat was against Paris St Germain but they won the return match and so you could say that even that does not count as a loss as they won the tie on aggregate and so they went undefeated for Solskjær’s first 17 matches in charge.
But then it started to unravel. In the last nine matches they have lost seven and won only two, in one of which they were fortunate that two bad refereeing decisions went in their favour otherwise they would have lost that match too. Strangely, on 28th
March, Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward announced that Solskjær would receive a full-time contract for three years. So that good run of form was enough to convince him that Solskjær had what it takes to manage one of the biggest and best–supported sporting clubs in the world. I thought the idea of a ‘caretaker ‘ manager for the rest of the season was a good one and Woodward should have waited to at least see whether United could win a competition, the FA Cup, for example, or qualify for the Champions League by finishing in the top four of the Premiership. They are still in sixth place and while they could still qualify the odds are heavily against it.
Alex Ferguson was a phenomenon as manager but he has made no secret of the reasons for his success. In a 2012 Harvard Business Review
article by Anita Elberse, professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, called “Leadership & Managing People” with which Ferguson fully cooperated, she drew out eight leadership lessons that capture crucial elements of his success.[i]
Many of them can certainly be applied more broadly, to business and to life.
Start with the Foundation
Upon his arrival at Manchester, in 1986, Ferguson set about creating a structure for the long term by modernising United’s youth programme. He established two “centres of excellence” for talent as young as nine and recruited a number of scouts, urging them to bring him top potential. The best known of his early signings was David Beckham. The most important was probably Ryan Giggs who went on to become the most decorated British club player of all time. Paul Scholes and Gary Neville also came through at this time. When they came into the first team Alan Hansen, a respected television pundit, said “You can’t win anything with kids”. He was spectacularly wrong.
Alex Ferguson said” From the moment I got to Manchester, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit. ….When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty. They will always remember that you were the manager who gave them their first opportunity. “
Dare to Rebuild Your Team
Even in times of great success, Ferguson worked to rebuild his team. He is credited with assembling five distinct league-winning squads during his time at the club, while continuing to win trophies all the while. Managing the talent development process inevitably involved cutting players, including loyal veterans to whom Ferguson had a personal attachment. Despite the clubs great financial strength Ferguson was highly astute in the transfer market, often finding absolute gems at bargain basement prices, or best of all, bringing through the youth players with no transfer fee involved. In his last six seasons he won the Premiership five times but spent less in net terms than his main rivals Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Ferguson: “We identified three levels of players: those 30 and older, those roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in. The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards that the older ones had set. Although I was always trying to disprove it, I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years, and then some change is needed. …It was mainly about two things: First, who did we have coming through and where did we see them in three years’ time, and second, were there signs that existing players were getting older…. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy – but all the evidence is on the field.”
Set High Standards – and Hold Everyone to Them
Ferguson was passionate about wanting to instil values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up – in other words, to make them winners. His own record as a player, first with a top club Glasgow Rangers, was largely unsuccessful with only one Scottish FA Cup runner-up’s medal to show for it. “The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life “Ferguson said. “I made up my mind that I would never give in.”
Ferguson looked for the same attitude in his players. He recruited what he calls “bad losers” and demanded that they work extremely hard. Over the years this attitude became contagious – players didn’t accept giving teammates’ not giving it their all.
Ferguson: Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club – this applied to all my team building and all my team preparation, motivational talks, and tactical talks. …I had to lift players’ expectations. They should never give in. I said that to them all the time; “If you give in once, you give in twice. “
Never, Ever Cede Control
“You can’t ever lose control – not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,” Ferguson said. ”And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.” If they got into trouble they were fined. And if they stepped out of line in a way that could undermine the team’s performance, Ferguson let them go. Responding forcefully is only part of the story here. Responding quickly, before situations get out of hand, may be equally important to maintaining control.
Ferguson: If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players – in other words, if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be, and what the tactics should be – then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know. Before I came to United, I told myself I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was.
Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room. That is very dangerous.”
Match the Message to the Moment
When it came to communicating decisions to his players, Ferguson worked hard to tailor his words to the situation. When he had to tell a player who might have been expecting to start that he wouldn’t be starting, he would approach it as a delicate assignment. “I do it privately” he said. ”It’s not easy. I say, ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here. ‘– I always say that – ‘but I think that this is the best team for today.” Ferguson has often been portrayed in the media as one who favours the ‘hairdryer’ treatment in half-time talks. But the players tell it differently. He would reserve such behaviour for when he thought the players just hadn’t tried hard enough.
Ferguson: “Noone likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player – for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented.”
Prepare to Win
Ferguson’s teams had a knack of pulling out victories in the late stages of games. This was so common that the concept of ‘Fergie time’ was developed. Over ten seasons, United had a better record when drawing at half-time and when drawing with 15 minutes left to play than any other club in the English league. Inspirational half-time talks and the right tactical changes during the game would have had something to do with this, but they weren’t the whole story.
Ferguson prepared his teams for these situations. They practiced what they would do if they weren’t winning near the end of games. Most managers won’t take the risk of putting more players into attack if they are drawing for fear of losing to a breakaway goal. Ferguson would.
Ferguson: “I am a gambler – a risk taker- and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches…. Being positive and adventurous and taking risks – that was our style. We were there to win the game. Our supporters understood that, and they got behind it.”
Rely on the Power of Observation
As a club manager in Scotland at the age of 32 Ferguson was not much older than his players and was very hands on. As he matured he increasingly delegated the training sessions to his coaching staff. But he was always present, and he watched. The switch from coaching to observing allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances. The key is to delegate the direct supervision to others and trust them to do their jobs, allowing the manager to truly observe.
Ferguson: “Observation is the final part of my management structure. When I started as a coach, I relied on several basics: that I could play the game well, that I understood the technical skills needed to succeed at the highest level, that I could coach players, and that I had the ability to make decisions. But then I learnt to delegate to my assistants and my performance level jumped.
I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key – or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”
Never Stop Adapting
In Ferguson’s 27 years at Manchester United, the world of football changed dramatically, from the financial stakes involved (with both positive and negative consequences) to the science behind what makes players better. Responding to change is never easy, and it is perhaps even harder when you are on top for so long. Yet evidence of Ferguson’s willingness to change is everywhere.
On the field he was the first manager to field teams with a large number of young players in the less prestigious League Cup. This caused outrage but now everyone does it. He was also the first to let four top strikers compete for just two starting positions in the 1998-99 seasons - the result an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and European Champions League.
And off the field he was just as innovative. He appointed a team of sports scientists to support the coaches. At their prompting, he installed Vitamin D booths in the players’ dressing room to compensate for the lack of sunlight in Manchester. He was the first to employ an optometrist for the players and hired a yoga instructor to work with players twice a week. He had installed at the training ground a state-of-the-art medical facility so that all procedures short of surgery could be handled on-site – ensuring a level of discretion impossible in a public hospital, where details about a player’s condition are invariably leaked to the press.
Ferguson: “When I started, there were no agents, and although games were televised, the media did not elevate players to the level of film stars and constantly look for new stories about them. Stadia have improved, pitches are in perfect condition now, and sports science has a strong influence on how we prepare for the season….
One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it. … Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change…I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me.”
Ferguson struggled at first when he came to Manchester. It took him four years to win his first trophy, the FA Cup in 1990, He never looked back. But his successors haven’t been given anything like four years and I suspect it won’t be any different with Solskjær. Woodward’s predecessor, David Gill, had a much better understanding of the game. Woodward is a financier who is good at negotiating sponsorship deals but seems at sea in his football dealings. He needs to bring in a heavyweight Director of Football to oversee that side of things and then maybe Solskjær will be able to work with his coaching staff and get the best out of the players.
But it won’t be easy….
Leadership and Managing People. Anita Elberse & Alex Ferguson. Harvard Business Review
. October 2013