Developing Others ,
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Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United football club (hereafter MUFC), is considered by many to be the greatest manager ever in football (soccer) and even in all of sports. Clearly, we all have something to learn from his leadership, his process to deliver success and his legacy. While his domain was sports, the lessons we can draw apply across dimensions to our life.
The first part of two-part leadership series blog focused on Alex Ferguson as a Leader. You can read it here. The main lessons were
Lesson 1 – Let you leadership style flow from your personality.
Lesson 2 – Have some simple rules that guide recurring success.
Lesson 3 – Manage both for the short term and the long term.
Lesson 4 – Don’t be afraid to experiment if the environment allows it.
Lesson 5 – The numbers show the process of success.
The second part of the blog focuses on his ability to build successful teams.
Lesson 6 – Set the bar high – both for your team and your environment
Ferguson is famous for the discipline he instilled in the team once he took over. His 7 am practice sessions inspired others on the coaching staff to themselves show up before 7 to mimic the boss. “Hard work is a talent” as Sir Alex once said. He also surrounded himself with a great assistant coach (Carlos Queiroz) and a best in class scouting team. Not only this but Ferguson also made sure the environment was conducive for success. Training facilities were upgraded continuously, criticism of players was never done in public and a siege ‘us against them’ mentality was created to foster a great team spirit. Training sessions matched the intensity of game day. Moreover, anyone who dropped his standards was swiftly dealt with no matter what the reputation or previous contribution might have been. Negative influences resulted in swift departures of hitherto vital team players (Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy)
Lesson 7 – Always look ahead three years and dare to rebuild your team
Ferguson, although he never really mentions an exact formula, always looked at three-year timelines. He also had a mix of players under the age of 23, 23-28 and 28 and above. Therefore, he always looked to build teams with players in different stages of development.
Key Takeaway – keep your team/portfolio with members/stocks with different levels of experience/payoffs so that you can simultaneously manage short-term performance and long-term stability.
When looking at a team, Ferguson was famous for placing his trust in younger players and using the United Youth Academy to groom future stars. His teams always had a core of strong internally chosen candidates. However he never hesitated to bring in players from outside (like Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney) often paying record transfer fees if needed to sustain success.
Key Takeaway – Keep a core internal team (which of course changes over time) and supplement them with outside players if needed. This applies to letting team members move on when they don’t fit into the core strategy.
Lesson 8 – Adapt to survive and never give in
Another trait that set him apart from other coaches was his ability to adapt to changing circumstances. While Ferguson wasn’t known to be a tactical master, he did master how to adapt his team to the changing game of football. When he initially joined the focus was more on fitness and discipline. As sports medicine took hold he got the best to implement it for United. As stats tracking and selection by numbers revolutionized the sport, United kept pace. Adapt to change even if you’re the best.
Something relatively unknown about Ferguson is how his playing career affected his coaching career. He spent 17 relatively unsuccessful seasons as a professional player. That lack of success defined him. In his own words – “The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life,” he said. “I made up my mind that I would never give in.” He also forged Manchester United in this image. His teams were famous for scoring in the final seconds of the game. They never gave in and as it happened more and more often teams would psychologically give in as United risked all to find a goal.
Key Takeaway – Adversity can shape a person/team and can forge a backbone that can define the team.
Lesson 9 – Don’t be afraid to lose but hate it
A significant temptation for organizations, investors and teams is to play safe when it comes to the late stages of an outcome. Sir Alex’s teams had the notion drilled into them that if they were 2-1 down with 5 minutes to go that they should go all out for a goal. Losing 3-1 was acceptable. This tied in with Sir Alex’s risk taking philosophy and imbued his teams with an attacking mentality that though would fail on a one-off basis ensured positive payoffs over the course of 38 games.
Also, Sir Alex hates losing. He’s often quoted as saying he’d liked players who were sore losers. This ‘always need to win’ philosophy meant that team members were always set with a mentality that only winning was acceptable in a results business such as football.
In organizations – This point dovetails with a multitude of others. Hating losing means that team members aren’t satisfied with products/services delivered that aren’t the best in the industry and continue to stay at a high performance level day after day to deliver recurrent success.
In investing – Taking unnecessary risks often leads to disaster. However the main takeaway is that one must also dare to be great (risking failure) in order to stand a chance to be at the top. This advice is similar that of famed investor Howard Marks which he detailed in his ‘Dare to be Great’ Memo.
Lesson 10 – The edge you have over others is miniscule and so you must look for every inch to build the edge
Organizations are finding it harder and harder to keep up with startups. Investors find that beating other investors is an enormously hard task for the majority. Similarly Football at the highest level is one where no one has an unassailable lead. Case in point – No team has ever defended the Champions League title successfully since it was incorporated. All this points to the fact that at the highest level of sport and business, edges (or moats as Warren Buffet defines it) are tiny and often temporary. Thus in this environment the edges generally lies in the tiniest of details.
Sir Alex displayed cognizance of this with United. Most famously Sir Alex often persuaded officials to add ‘Fergie time’ to the end of games often extending games by an extra minute giving his team a chance.
Key Takeaway – Leaders in organizations, startups and investors must humbly recognize that the competition is just as good as we are and that finding the tiniest of edges is a necessary condition of success.
In Summary, as Tony Robbins, the inspirational self-help author and teacher mentions, modeling the best in a field is often the easiest way to make ourselves better. We don’t have to always re-invent the wheel. There are many lessons to be modeled from Sir Alex and his unusually long winning streak at the top of professional football. These are just few of them but we believe some of the most valuable.
You can read more about Sir Alex Ferguson in his book called “Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography”
About the Authors:
This blog is written by Rohan Koshy & Darshan Doshi.
Rohan Koshy works as an investment analyst at a fund based in Mumbai. The psychology of decision-making, probability, football, reading about all things technology and blogging once in a while all interest him. You can read his blog here
Darshan Doshi is the Head of Digital Services at JumpShift