Coaching lessons from Alex Ferguson
“I tell the players that the bus is moving. This club has to progress. And the bus wouldn’t wait for them. I tell them to get on board.”
Sir Alex Ferguson was successful in management across four decades. It took him 5 years to win a trophy at Manchester United and 7 years to win the league; however when he retired in 2013 after 26 years managing Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 European Cups and the Cup Winners Cup under his belt. In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse had a unique opportunity to examine Ferguson’s management approach and developed a Harvard Business School case study around it. In this week’s blog we take a look at 8 leadership lessons that outline the habits and principles that underpin his success story.
1: Take the long term view
From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit
Building a foundation for future success is critical to continuity and development. In a results driven industry managers are often fired if they lose a number of games in a row and therefore are afraid to bring in new young talent and favor experienced players. If you focus on winning at all costs you run the risk of neglecting and nurturing future talent and thereby preventing consistency and stability for your club.
2: Don’t be afraid of change
Although I was always trying to disprove it, I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years, and them some change is needed. So we tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly
Ferguson’s decisions were driven by a strong sense of the lifecycle of players and how much value they were bringing to the team. He give young players time and the development environment to succeed and often sold on older players to other teams while they were still valuable.
3: Always set high expectations
Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club…For example, we 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.
Everyone understood what was expected from them, and were held accountable for their actions. High standards were set coupled with creative motivational and inspirational stories. This created a contagious attitude throughout the club where every player wanted to perform at their best.
4: Always keep control
“You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires”
Ferguson wasn’t prepared to allow any player to be stronger than he was. If certain players were affecting the performance of the team and the manager’s control over other players and staff he let them go. This was evident in 2005, when Roy Keane’s contract was terminated after he publicly criticized his teammates and in 2006 when Rudd van Nistelrooy was sold to Real Madrid after openly showing his frustration with being on the bench. Ferguson usually acted quickly if he thought a player was having a negative influence and he had confidence in his own instincts to make those decisions and move on with no regrets.
5: Match the message to the moment
No one likes to be criticized. Most respond to encouragement. For any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented. At the same time you need to point out mistakes when players don’t meet expectations. That is when reprimands are important.
Ferguson was a master of playing different roles at different times optimizing his message to suit the situation. He mastered that fine balance between being too soft and being too hard.
6: Expect to Win
Winning is in my nature. There is no other option for me. Even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win.
Manchester United under Ferguson’s reign could never be ruled out of victory in a match until the final whistle blew. Their ‘never give up’ attitude clinched them victory often in the last minutes of injury time. Perseverance was critical to his approach.
7: Be observant
As a coach on the field, you don’t see everything.. A regular observer, however, can spot changes in training patterns, energy levels, and work rates
Ferguson often delegated direct supervision to others, trusting them to do the job they were being paid for and he observed. This allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances without losing any control. His belief was that by stepping outside of the bubble he became more aware of players habits, deviations from normal performance and injury risk.
8: Never stop adapting
One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it …. The most important thing is to not stagnate
Ferguson demonstrated his willingness to change and adapt new technologies. He expanded his backroom staff and appointed sports scientists when it wasn’t the norm. He installed Vitamin D booths in the players’ dressing room and introduced GPS sensors to help analyse performance. He kept up with the trends and the challenges and continued to motivate his players.
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