Whether or not you are a Manchester United fan, it would be difficult to argue with the fact that as a business this football club has been massively successful, to say nothing of their success as a sports team. In light of Sir Alex’s recent announcement of retirement, I think one must reflect on what qualities he has that have made him the legend that indeed he has become in sports management circles. Managers and leaders of business could certainly take a lesson or two from Sir Alex, who claims that his childhood in Glasgow was more useful in learning about life and how to manage it, than any MBA from Harvard could have been.
Ferguson took over the reigns at Old Trafford in 1986. To date he is the longest serving manager in football. In the 26 years since he took over, Sir Alex has increased the seating capacity at Old Trafford to over 75 000 and it has become the second largest football stadium in the United Kingdom after Wembley. Sir Alex has grown the merchandise business into a multimillion dollar business with a fan base of 659 million people, meaning that almost 1 in 10 adults in the world have an interest in the Red Devil’s success . He has increased the net worth of the club to over US$ 3 billion, making it the second most valuable football club in the world. The club has also been listed on the New York stock exchange. Manchester United is considered a global brand, with most of it’s support being outside of the United Kingdom. Forbes magazine valued the brand at US$2.23 million in 2012. This is an unarguably successful business.
So, how did Sir Alex get it so right? What can we learn from his management style? Below are but a few things:
Sir Alex was always the first person to arrive at work in the morning and the last person to leave in the evenings. His unwavering and relentless commitment to his club, meant that he never expected from the players what he was not willing to put in himself. Some have described Sir Alex as a tyrant, but all those who have worked under him describe him as a man who was strict but fair. I think it is possible to say that he set an example for those around and they followed suit.
Sir Alex understood one of the new world of work fundamentals, which is the need for collaboration. Part of his success was achieved by realizing that the badge on the front was always more important than the name on the back. For Ferguson, it was, is and always will be about the team. He therefore was able to make hard decisions, which did not necessarily make him popular at the time, like when he let Beckham go, because that was the right thing to do, but he did it anyway for what he perceived to be the greater good for the club in the long term. A lot of managers do not like change and so they do not really deal with it proactively. Sir Alex also profoundly understood the importance of succession plans. He invested in a youth system, training systems and ensuring that there was always a healthy balance between older, more experienced players and younger players whom he afforded opportunities to gain experience. He trusted his players and those around him to believe in this system. He also had enough belief in himself to take calculated risks and he always stuck to his guns because he believed in himself.
Flexible and Adaptable
Despite his unwavering confidence in his own beliefs, systems, methodologies and people around him, he has also very successfully been able to move with the times. This has not meant that he has ever lost sight of his objectives and goals, but rather he has been able to remain open minded in dealing with change so that the decisions he has taken have been in the best interest of the situation; and not necessarily himself. He has an uncanny ability to know when you buy a player and when to let one go (and who to buy), resulting in unprecedented success.
Instilling a Culture
When Sir Alex arrived at the club, they were not particularly successful and there appeared to be a much more relaxed (actually drinking and socialising) culture. It was Sir Alex who changed the culture inside the club to one of professionalism, putting a lot of more emphasis on fitness, physical and mental health and a desire to win above anything else. There is now a very specific and entrenched culture inside the club, which everybody understands and works with. That seamless understanding of the collective goal allows all those who work within the club to selflessly achieving success. Hence he has understood another new world of work fundamental, which is transparency, where everybody understand their role. This has not taken away from the family-like attitude Manchester United is famous for, nor does it mean they no longer have fun, but rather they have learned to balance the two, understanding that success requires consistent hard work.
Sir Alex has never been anything other than himself. He is hard on his team, but they also know that he always had their back, especially in public. He also never forgot the fans, understanding of course, that without them, he was nothing.
Any manager wants to retire on a high, and that Sir Alex Ferguson certainly has done that. By all accounts those who have worked with him are very sad to see him ago. But what one cannot ignore, is that his fans, although saddened by his departure, have shown nothing but support and respect for his decision. If that is not testament to success, I am not sure what is.What I also think is remarkable is that Sir Alex can rest assured that what he is leaving behind to the capable hands of his successor (a fellow Glaswegian) is a club in a whole lot better shape than he found it nearly three decades ago.
Thank you Sir Alex. I just wish I had been in Manchester yesterday for the parade.