Ferguson’s Formula

Success and staying power like Sir Alex Ferguson’s demand study—and not just by football fans. How did he do it? Can one identify habits that enabled his success and principles that guided it? During what turned out to be his final season in charge, my former student Tom Dye and I conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Ferguson about his leadership methods and watched him in action at United’s training ground and at its famed stadium, Old Trafford, where a nine-foot bronze statue of the former manager now looms outside. We spoke with many of the people Ferguson worked with, from David Gill to the club’s assistant coaches, kit manager, and players.

…Ferguson and I discussed eight leadership lessons that capture crucial elements of his approach. Although I’ve tried not to push the angle too hard, many of them can certainly be applied more broadly, to business and to life. In the article that follows, I describe each lesson as I observed it, and then give Ferguson his say.

1. Start with the Foundation

(Getty)

(Getty)

Upon his arrival at Manchester, in 1986, Ferguson set about creating a structure for the long term by modernizing United’s youth program. He established two “centers of excellence” for promising players as young as nine and recruited a number of scouts, urging them to bring him the top young talent.

“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.

When I arrived, only one player on the first team was under 24. Can you imagine that, for a club like Manchester United? I knew that a focus on youth would fit the club’s history, and my earlier coaching experience told me that winning with young players could be done and that I was good at working with them. So I had the confidence and conviction that if United was going to mean anything again, rebuilding the youth structure was crucial. You could say it was brave, but fortune favors the brave.”

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

(Getty)

(Getty)

Even in times of great success, Ferguson worked to rebuild his team. He is credited with assembling five distinct league-winning squads during his time at the club 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. “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future,” Ryan Giggs told us. “Knowing what needs strengthening and what needs refreshing—he’s got that knack.”

3. Set High Standards—and Hold Everyone to Them

(Getty)

(Getty)

Ferguson speaks passionately about wanting to instill values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up—in other words, to make them winners.

…  “I had to lift players’ expectations. They should never give in. I said that to them all the time: “If you give in once, you’ll give in twice.” And the work ethic and energy I had seemed to spread throughout the club. I used to be the first to arrive in the morning. In my later years, a lot of my staff members would already be there when I got in at 7 AM. I think they understood why I came in early—they knew there was a job to be done. There was a feeling that “if he can do it, then I can do it.”

” I constantly told my squad that working hard all your life is a talent. But I expected even more from the star players. I expected them to work even harder. I said, “You’ve got to show that you are the top players.” And they did. That’s why they are star players—they are prepared to work harder. Superstars with egos are not the problem some people may think. They need to be winners, because that massages their egos, so they will do what it takes to win. I used to see [Cristiano] Ronaldo [one of the world’s top forwards, who now plays for Real Madrid], Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, and others out there practicing for hours. I’d have to chase them in. I’d be banging on the window saying, “We’ve got a game on Saturday.” But they wanted the time to practice. They realized that being a Manchester United player is not an easy job.”

4. Never, Ever Cede Control

(Getty)

(Getty)

If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players—in other words, if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be, and what the tactics should be—then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know. Before I came to United, I told myself I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was. Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. That is vital.

… I tended to act quickly when I saw a player become a negative influence. Some might say I acted impulsively, but I think it was critical that I made up my mind quickly. Why should I have gone to bed with doubts? I would wake up the next day and take the necessary steps to maintain discipline. It’s important to have confidence in yourself to make a decision and to move on once you have. It’s not about looking for adversity or for opportunities to prove power; it’s about having control and being authoritative when issues do arise.

5. Match the Message to the Moment

Getty

Getty

When it came to communicating decisions to his players, Ferguson—perhaps surprisingly for a manager with a reputation for being tough and demanding—worked hard to tailor his words to the situation.

When he had to tell a player who might have been expecting to start that he wouldn’t be starting, he would approach it as a delicate assignment. “I do it privately,” he told us. “It’s not easy. I 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 bigger games are coming up.”

During training sessions in the run-up to games, Ferguson and his assistant coaches emphasized the positives. And although the media often portrayed him as favoring ferocious halftime and postgame talks, in fact he varied his approach. “You can’t always come in shouting and screaming,” he told us. “That doesn’t work.” The former player Andy Cole described it this way: “If you lose and Sir Alex believes you gave your best, it’s not a problem. But if you lose [in a] limp way…then mind your ears!

6. Prepare to Win

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League

He prepared his team to win. He had players regularly practice how they should play if a goal was needed with 10, five, or three minutes remaining. “We practice for when the going gets tough, so we know what it takes to be successful in those situations,” one of United’s assistant coaches told us.

United practice sessions focused on repetition of skills and tactics. “We look at the training sessions as opportunities to learn and improve,” Ferguson said. “Sometimes the players might think, ‘Here we go again,’ but it helps us win.” There appears to be more to this approach than just the common belief that winning teams are rooted in habits—that they can execute certain plays almost automatically. There is also an underlying signal that you are never quite satisfied with where you are and are constantly looking for ways to improve. This is how Ferguson put it: “The message is simple: We cannot sit still at this club.”

…I think all my teams had perseverance—they never gave in. So I didn’t really need to worry about getting that message across. It’s a fantastic characteristic to have, and it is amazing to see what can happen in the dying seconds of a match.

7. Rely on the Power of Observation

Barcelona v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Final

As he moved up—to St. Mirren and Aberdeen, in Scotland, and then, after spectacular success at Aberdeen, to Manchester United—he increasingly delegated the training sessions to his assistant coaches. But he was always present, and he watched. The switch from coaching to observing, he told us, allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances. “As a coach on the field, you don’t see everything,” he noted. A regular observer, however, can spot changes in training patterns, energy levels, and work rates.

The key is to delegate the direct supervision to others and trust them to do their jobs, allowing the manager to truly observe.

… ” It didn’t take away my control. My presence and ability to supervise were always there, and what you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable. Once I stepped out of the bubble, 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 struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.

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

Manchester United v Everton - Premier League

In the mid-1990s, Ferguson became the first manager to field teams with a large number of young players in the relatively unprestigious League Cup—a practice that initially caused outrage but now is common among Premier League clubs. He was also the first to let four top center forwards spend a season battling for two positions on his roster, a strategy that many outsiders deemed unmanageable but that was key to the great 1998–1999 season, in which United won the Treble.

Off the field, Ferguson greatly expanded his backroom staff and appointed a team of sports scientists to support the coaches. 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. Ferguson was the first coach to employ an optometrist for his players. United also hired a yoga instructor to work with players twice a week and recently unveiled a state-of-the-art medical facility at its training ground so that all procedures short of surgery can be handled on-site—ensuring a level of discretion impossible in a public hospital, where details about a player’s condition are invariably leaked to the press.

“One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it. That also means having confidence in the people you hire. The minute staff members are employed, you have to trust that they are doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them. The most important thing is to not stagnate. I said to David Gill a few years ago, “The only way we can keep players at Manchester United is if we have the best training ground in Europe.” That is when we kick-started the medical center. We can’t sit still.”

Summing up the Eight Leadership Lessons:

1. Start with the Foundation

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

3. Set High Standards—and Hold Everyone to Them

4. Never, Ever Cede Control

5. Match the Message to the Moment

6. Prepare to Win

7. Rely on the Power of Observation

 8. Never Stop Adapting

Source: Harvard Business Review

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments on “Ferguson’s Formula”

  1. Andy Whitehead September 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on Developing Leadership for Social Change and commented:
    Not really my favourite football team….but some insightful lessons from Mr Ferguson.

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  1. The best of the week (9-15 September) | TOKNOWTHEGAME.COM - September 15, 2013

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