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A man for all seasons, all 27 of them.

May 13, 2013

After winning 13 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, two domestic league and FA Cup doubles, Sir Alex Ferguson retires from Manchester United on 1 July.  A man for all seasons, a leader who had the winning mind-set imprinted on each team he created.

From a debut at the now demolished Manor Ground in Oxford on 8 November 1986 to The Hawthorns and West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, 19 May 2013, Ferguson has cast a giant shadow over English football at the highest level for over a quarter of a century. Charismatic, explosive, contrary, love him or hate him, he was devout in his pursuit of attacking football and trust in young players. The history and tradition of Manchester United ran red through his veins.

Ferguson’s career is an impressive list of achievements. Look around for leading executives in industry who have managed to succeed with the same company at the highest levels for nearly three decades – there is just a handful who have dominated their industry as Ferguson has done.

Insights from Ferguson’s success offers lessons for business from two perspectives: anecdotes from how he created successful teams, and his day-to-day management techniques; secondly, the investment in a leader as the architect of a long-term strategy, and not simply focusing on short-term results.

I’ll explore the long-term leadership perspectives on Ferguson’s reign in a future blog, today I’ll focus on his leadership of winning teams.

1. Be the leader Ferguson set the rules, and anyone who challenged them was moved on. It applied to the greatest as strictly as anyone else, with Keane and Beckham the prime examples, and currently Rooney knowing who is boss.  But to suggest Ferguson simply ruled by iron fist is to do him a disservice, he has a gift for man-management, shown by the nurturing of young talent. It’s not all about losing his temper – but he’s prepared to remind players who is boss.

You can’t always come in shouting and screaming, but in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes.  I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m onto the next match. You can’t ever lose control. I believe you must make quick decisions and move on. Why should I go to my bed with a doubt?

2. Don’t tolerate a lack of focus When players failed to live up to his stringent standards, Ferguson was apt to unleash his infamous ‘hairdryer’ upon them. I would eschew such an aggressive management style, however, leaving your employees in no doubt of what’s expected of them is no bad thing. He wasn’t afraid to move on under-performing employees – blundering goalkeeper Massimo Taibi, signed for £4.5m in 1999, was offloaded after just four appearances following a calamitous 0-5 defeat to Chelsea.

If employees show commitment and ability, they should be rewarded with your loyalty. When Eric Cantona scissor-kicked a Crystal Palace fan, Ferguson stood by him. If your employees are doing the business, and are integral to your team, don’t worry about the popular perception of them too much (N.B. this may not apply if they are actually kicking people).

3. Use psychology The psychological mind games Ferguson indulged with other managers, usually consisting of well-judged barbs, have proved effective – most potently on Keegan, Benitez and Mancini.

Also, whenever Sir Alex berates a referee for not adding enough injury time, one suspects that to some extent, each outburst is calculated. He has added to football’s own lexicon with the phrase “Fergie Time” coined to describe those extra minutes many felt he was awarded simply by force of character that allowed United to win so many games.

4. Managing for today, and tomorrow Ferguson built and developed successful teams and squads, with short, medium and long-term strategies. The short is each season; the medium will be the period taken to transition to the next generation; the long is his ultimate focus on sustained success. How many times has he done this – maybe five times? The structure he has built is based first and foremost on the development of young talent.

In building another team and squad, he has two particular challenges: to replace the established, aging stars as soon as practicable; and to blend in a larger potential supply of talent from the youth team. This is a real test of man management skills.

5. Managing the individual Ferguson emphasises the importance of taking an individual approach to each player when he discussed his approach to the match-day routine, and the need for players to trust his decisions. We never reveal the team to the players until the day of the game. For a three o’clock game, we tell them at one o’clock and before that I speak to the players I’ve left out. I do it privately. It’s not easy, but I do them all myself. It is important. I have been dropped from a cup final in Scotland as a player at ten past two, so I know what it feels like.

I’m not ever sure what they are thinking, but I tend to say: Look, I might be making a mistake here, – I always say that – but I think this is the best team for today. I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are big games coming up. But generally, it is about our joint expectations, their belief in themselves, and their trust in me.

Determination to keep his team sheet from leaking out until the last minute, and how to make sure there is no resentment from players left on the bench or kept out altogether, shows his attention to individual man management.

6. Credibility To be a great manager, you must have credibility. Sir Alex has that in spades, a great footballing CV and a track record of success.  As a player, he was top scorer in the Scottish League, playing for Dunfermline, scoring 45 in 51 games, and then went on to score 44 in 57 for Rangers.

He was 37 when he took over Aberdeen, who had only ever won one league title and nothing else.By the time he took over at Manchester United, age 44, he had not only broken the stranglehold that Celtic and Rangers had over the Scottish League, he had just won the European Cup-Winners Cup.

7. Winning mentality United are renowned for scoring late goals, nobody does it better. When the chips are down, Manchester United know how to win. They have done it so many times, winning matches they have no right to, coming back from 0-3 to win 4-3, with late, late winners. Ferguson created the inner belief and expectation, never give up, and a winning mentality.

The players never stop believing. The philosophy at United is simple. They try and win every match, individually and collectively they have won so much. In the recent match against QPR, the team United fielded had ten times the career experience with United that the QPR players had with their club. That says a lot about loyalty, longevity and building a long-term vision.

8. Quick, effective decision making At half-time, there are maybe eight minutes between you coming up through the tunnel and the referees calling you up on the pitch again, so it is vital to use the time well. Everything is easier when you are winning: you talk about concentrating, not getting complacent, and small things you can address. But when you are losing, you know that you are going to have to make an impact. The last few minutes of the first half I’m always thinking of what I’m going to say. I’m a little bit in a trance. I am concentrating.

9. Teamwork and team spirit Both are fundamental to the ethos Ferguson espouses, without that, he would find it very difficult to maintain his policy of squad rotation. Sir Alex is loyal to his players and they repay that loyalty. What better testament is there than Giggs and Scholes giving their entire careers to one club? How often do we see that elsewhere?

The manager’s loyalty also extends to protecting them. He deflects criticism of individuals unless it is completely warranted but then will defuse the situation by making clear he is taking appropriate action.

Besides fostering effective teamwork and team spirit, it’s important to have unity with your management team. The Glazers have proved controversial custodians of Manchester United, with many fans upset about funds being diverted from the club to service loans used to finance the takeover. Yet Ferguson hasn’t a bad word to say about the Glazers in public, claiming they’ve ‘been great’ while citing the side’s continuing success since the takeover. The lesson is: as long as your board keeps backing you, keep backing them.

10. Focus on the future Never rest on your laurels, and constantly reinvent. I think his willingness to develop young talent lies at the heart of Ferguson’s long-run success. When he started at United, he immediately set about revolutionising the club’s youth programme. He also made it more visible in the organisation: for instance, ensuring that academy players warmed up alongside senior players every day in order to foster a ‘one club’ attitude.

And despite calls from many observers to play it safer – You can’t win anything with kids – he gave youth players a chance to win a place in the first team. Many of the players he developed – Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles – became true standouts in their generation, providing the club with a strong base on which to build, and probably saving them £200m in external transfer fees.

Ferguson’s closing address at yesterday’s game was telling in terms of his management style, based on reinforcing the winning mind-set:

I wish the players every success in future. You know how good you are, you know the jersey you’re wearing. You know what it means to everyone here. And don’t ever let yourself down, the expectation is always there.

It will be inscribed on a wall at Old Trafford and adorn a thousand replica t-shirts. It was a lesson on the shaping of Ferguson’s United and it is the kind of legacy that you’d want from a retiring leader.

Like many managers, in football and business generally, Ferguson managed for the short term (in-game and game to game), intermediate term (for a season), and long term. What advice do you think he would give to business leaders about how to balance those requirements?

Over on the east side of town, City are disposing of another manager, their 14th permanent appointment during Ferguson’s reign at United. The contrast is painfully sharp. At City they bundle another out the back door, at United he is carried out shoulder high,

In a follow-up blog, I’ll look at the impact and balance of investing and supporting an organisation leader for 26 years, instead of simply focusing on the short-term stop-start success cycle. With the pending removal of Mancini from City, the lessons look obvious.

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