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Long-term leadership: Moyes or Mourinho to sustain Ferguson’s Formula?

January 20, 2014

The post-match debate after a 1-3 defeat to Chelsea was again about the rapid post-Ferguson decline of United, and what if Jose Mourinho, and not David Moyes, had been appointed as Ferguson’s successor? It’s one of the most intriguing debates given current league positions and momentum of both teams. In fact, the way that Mourinho talks about United, you could be forgiven for wondering how much he thinks about it too.

Back in the summer, Mourinho was in the running to replace Ferguson, but Moyes was deemed a better fit, someone who could make the immediate transition as easy as possible. Nevertheless, as United struggle for consistency and Chelsea find theirs, would the Portuguese coach have been a better choice? He was the initial choice of the fans, on the day of Ferguson’s announcement, the Manchester Evening News ran a poll asking readers to nominate a successor – Mourinho polled 28% of the votes to Moyes 18%.

Mourinho’s credentials are clear: he has charisma, a winning record and ability to motivate players – the only manager who comes anywhere near that of Ferguson. Although he didn’t win anything, Moyes built stability and consistency over 11 years at Everton. He managed for the long term and that is what he is expected to do at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, for all his obvious charms, does not do that. Two seasons at Porto, three at Chelsea, two at Inter and three at Real Madrid before rebounding to Chelsea tells its own turbulent story. Moyes was given a six-year contract – the idea of Mourinho staying in one place for that time might have seemed fanciful to United’s board.

Nevertheless, after years of spectacular progress under Ferguson, would the rather capricious, impatient and combustible nature of Mourinho have been suited to a club that not only measures success in the immediate period, but also in terms of groundwork laid for the future?

United’s results have not been what Moyes and those who appointed him would have wished, but there is more to Premier League management than what happens on the field in the first months of a six-year contract.

His rehabilitation of Wayne Rooney should not be under estimated, it was a classic hospital pass from Ferguson. Moyes has also resolved a contract wrangle with Adnan Januzaj, and has started to move out aged stalwarts and rebuild after recognising the obvious faults to which Ferguson seemed blind.

Moyes has borne these challenges quietly and with dignity, he strikes me as a proud man, shaped by steely determination and resolve. If he was struggling and frustrated, you wouldn’t know it.  It is unlikely that Mourinho would have done the same, his temperament and ego would have seen some interesting press conferences.

Certainly Mourinho’s crash-bang-wallop style of management is headline grabbing, and not unattractive. It fills seats, generates excitement and wins trophies. However, it’s all about building for the long-term, not just winning trophies this season and next.

If Moyes does look back over his shoulder at the Ferguson’s success, he should note a piece of Harvard Business School Research undertaken by Anita Elberse. She researched the Ferguson Formula to identify habits that enabled his success and principles that guided him. She identified eight leadership lessons that capture crucial elements of his approach that are principles to guide long-term leadership in any organisation:

1. Start with the foundations Upon arrival at Manchester in 1986, Ferguson set about creating a structure for the long term by modernising United’s youth system, which subsequently formed the core of the great United teams of his era.

He talks about the difference between building a team, which is what most managers concentrate on, and building a club. The first thought of 99% of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win – to survive, so they recruit experienced players.

But winning a game is only a short-term gain – you can lose the next game. Building a club requires vision: You don’t ever want to take your eyes off the first team, but our youth development efforts lead to our many successes in the 1990s and early 2000s. The young players really became the spirit of the club he said.

2. Dare to rebuild your team Even in times of success, Ferguson worked to rebuild his team. He is credited with assembling five distinct league winning squads during his time at United, and continuing to win trophies all the while.

His decisions were driven by a keen sense of where his team stood in the cycle of rebuilding and by a similarly keen sense of players’ life cycles – how much value the players were bringing to the team at any point in time. Managing the talent development process inevitably involved cutting players, including loyal veterans to whom Ferguson had a personal attachment.

Ferguson was always looking at this moment, and at the same time looking to the future, shaping the business of today and cultivating the business of tomorrow.

3. Set high standards and hold everyone to them Ferguson speaks passionately about instilling values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better, to never give up and to make them winners. His intense desire to win stemmed in part from his own experiences as a player: The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life. I said to them all the time: “If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.”

Ferguson looked for the same attitude in his players. He recruited what he calls bad losers and demanded they work hard. This attitude became contagious, players didn’t accept teammates’ not giving it their all, and the big stars were no exception.

For example, he never allowed a bad training session: What you see in training manifests itself on the game field. So every training session was about quality. We didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, and a high level of performance.

4. Never, ever cede control Ferguson was renowned for his tight control, his response to any challenge to his authority or way of doing things was an important part of maintaining high standards across the board. Ferguson’s reputation included a willingness to respond forcefully when players violated those standards:

There are occasions when you have to ask whether certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and your control of the club. If they are, you have to cut the cord. There is absolutely no other way. It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual.

5. Match the message to the moment When it came to communicating decisions to his players, despite his reputation for being tough and demanding, Ferguson worked hard to tailor his words to the situation and be personal.

When he had to tell a player that he wouldn’t be starting, he would do it privately, and with an explanation. His pre-match talks were about expectations, the players’ belief in themselves, and their trust in one another. He reminded players that having a work ethic is very important.

In half-time talks, you have maybe eight minutes to deliver your message, so it is vital to use the time well. Everything is easier when you are winning: You can talk about concentrating, not getting complacent, and the small things you can address. But when you are losing, you have to make an impact. I liked to focus on our own team and our own strengths, but you have to correct why you are losing.

6. Prepare to win Ferguson’s teams had a knack for pulling out victories in the late stages of games. Analysis over the last 10 seasons showed United had a better record when drawing at halftime or with 15 minutes left to play than any other club. Inspirational halftime talks and the right tactical changes during the game undoubtedly had something to do with those wins, but they may not be the full story.

When their teams are behind late in the game, many managers will direct players to move forward, encouraging them to attack. Ferguson was both aggressive and unusually systematic about his approach. He prepared his team to win. He had players regularly practice how they should play if a goal was needed with ten, five, or three minutes remaining: We practiced for when the going gets tough, so we know what it takes to be successful in those situations. I think all my teams had perseverance, they never gave up.

7. Rely on the power of observation Ferguson’s presence and ability to supervise with a ‘hands-on’ perspective were always there, but he recognised the benefits of standing back: I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: Is it family problems? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in?

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.

8. Never stop adapting In Ferguson’s quarter of a century at United, the world of football changed dramatically. Responding to change is never easy, and it is perhaps even harder when one is on top for so long, yet Ferguson had a tremendous capacity to adapt and evolve.

Off the field, Ferguson expanded his backroom staff and appointed a team of sports scientists. Following their suggestions, he installed Vitamin D booths in the players’ dressing room in order to compensate for the lack of sunlight in Manchester, and championed the use of vests fitted with GPS sensors that allow an analysis of performance just 20 minutes after a training session.

Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change and I would explore any means of improving. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me.

Eight useful principles which Elberse termed Ferguson’s Formula, but how did Ferguson sustain his appetite and drive for success for long-term success? After a period of success, doesn’t the challenge wane? A study by Professor Bruce Barry of Vanderbilt Graduate School of Management which examined how certain types of professionals sustain their motivation and enthusiasm over the long-term answers this.

He conducted in-depth interviews with 25 professionals and distilled the key findings into eight sources of motivation that provide psychological sustenance in the pursuit of long-terms goals:

Allegory: Figurative representations that offer significant, consequential meaning in terms of comparisons to other major achievements.

Futurity: Allusions to the long-term impact that may result from the realisation of a long-term goal.

Self: Statements that invoke personal identity, reputation or personal satisfaction.

Singularity: The perceived uniqueness of the endeavour i.e. I’m the first to have achieved this.

Knowledge: Success that refers to skill development and learning.

The Work: Relates to the nature of the work and the work ethic.

Embeddedness: Ways in which individuals see their work and results giving social legitimacy within their professions and in society.

Progress: Related to the notion of movement in the direction of long-term goal pursuit.

Two interesting pieces of academic research profiling Ferguson’s traits and motivations as a strategic leader, focused on the long-term. Rare is the business leader who can articulate and instill a long-term vision and manage the day-to-day operations with the requisite obsession for detail, but Ferguson achieved this.

When they chose Ferguson’s successor, United decided they didn’t want a manager for today but for tomorrow and the day after. As a consequence of short-term results, Moyes’ focus is now clearly the major challenge to transform their fortunes and rebuild for the long-term, adopting elements of Ferguson’s Formula along the way.

Revolutions just spread blood, evolution is something that changes in the long term, and in this regard you still sense Moyes is a better manager than Mourinho to effect the required change.

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