What are the lessons of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27-year tenure as manager of Manchester United?
Pundits and former players have been falling over each other to praise Ferguson’s successes and his ability to bring out the best in his players. But I think there are some wider lessons for the business world that can be learnt from his lengthy reign, and from the way he has handled his departure.
- Generating a return on long-term thinking. It took Ferguson seven years (1986-1993) before his team won the Premiership. Can you imagine the manager of a top team today getting even half that amount of time to prove himself? Or indeed can you imagine a corporate board giving their new CEO seven years to hit his targets? The credit here goes as much to the United board as to Ferguson, for having faith in him for such a long time. But Ferguson himself was also a long-term thinker, investing in youth teams and proper scouting efforts, rather than just buying the star players of the day.
- Capacity for renewal. Many leaders are hostage to their previous successes – they stick with investments (e.g. their star players) and ways of working (e.g. team formations and strategies), and sooner or later they are eclipsed by competitors with newer and better ideas. Ferguson was a master of self-renewal. He sold off famous players, often while still at their peak, and he experimented with younger, unproven players.
- Leaving at the top. Many leaders stay in post well after their best-before date. This creates anxiety and disillusionment in the ranks, and it often leads to stagnation and decay. Ferguson smartly chose to leave before anyone was asking him to do so. It also looks as if he has left the organisation in good shape as well, with a good crop of younger players coming through. Leaving at the top is smart – but it’s even smarter to do it in a way that sets up the next guy for success.
- Succession planning. Ferguson presumably played a big part in the choice of his successor, David Moyes. Wisely, the United board have chosen to avoid the star manager – Jose Mourinho –who might think himself bigger than the club. Instead, by choosing Moyes, they have gone for someone cut from the same cloth as Ferguson, and someone young enough to potentially enjoy a 10-15 year tenure himself. Similar in many ways to GE’s handover from Jack Welch to Jeff Immelt.
- Tough but Fair. Ferguson’s management style wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea – he was famous for bearing grudges (against the BBC, for example) and for employing the ‘hairdryer treatment’ on underperforming players. But his tough-but-fair was highly effective and, importantly, his former players have (almost) all said they respected his approach. The important lesson here is that when it comes to style, context matters– Ferguson was managing highly talented, overpaid, oversexed, and not very bright teenagers, and he developed a way of working that was part coach, part boss, part father figure. If you are managing a group of PhD scientists or software engineers, you need to find a different way to motivate them.
What about mistakes? Well, anyone who has been around as long as Ferguson has made his share of bad decisions, and football fans around the world all have views on bad signings and star players he fell out with. But my biggest worry is that he seems to be sticking around on the United board. There is nothing that makes the new guy’s job hard than having the former boss lurking in the background, second-guessing your decisions. Jorma Olilla at Nokia and Stelios at Easyjet, for example, both made life difficult for their successors. I think Sir Alex should make a clean break, and give David Moyes a free hand to chart a new direction for Manchester United.