Manchester United Football Club announced on the 8th of May 2013 that Sir Alex Ferguson was retiring at the end of the 2012-2013 season. The legendary coach of the twenty times English league champions has explained that “it was the right time”. Can we learn any management lessons from his brilliant career?
As manager of Manchester United for more than 26 years he won 13 Premier League Titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 UEFA Champions Leagues and 1 European Cup Winners Cup – in total Manchester United won an astonishing 38 trophies thanks to the Scottish coach.
Love him or hate him there is no doubt that the 71-year old Scot is one of the most successful managers who ever existed and that anybody in a business or managerial role can learn from him.
Being a successful manager or business person to the extent to which Ferguson achieved is an art form that very few can master, but there are several lessons that a manager of any organisation can apply using his extraordinary career as a template.
What follows are just four of them.
1 – Never Give Up
During the first three years of his tenure as head coach of Manchester United the team did not win a single trophy. The following season the team suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat against arch rivals Manchester City. Six defeats and two draws were to follow and a banner was displayed at Old Trafford stating – “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap … ta-ra Fergie”.
Most of the Sport’s Journalists at the time wanted the Scottish head coach to be sacked, but it never happened.
At the end of his third full season, Sir Alex Ferguson and his team won their first major trophy against Crystal Palace – the FA Cup. After those first three and a half tough seasons, Manchester United won at least one trophy for 12 years in a row.
So what can we learn from this?
Well, as Winston Churchill would say – “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm“.
There is no success without failure and every failure is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, your team and your organisation.
Do you know how many prototypes Thomas Edison constructed before creating a long-lasting incandescent light bulb?
More than 10,000!
2 – Nurture Young Talent
Even though Manchester United has one of the biggest budgets in the Premier League, Ferguson has always kept a balance between experienced football stars and talented young players.
The latest example is the very talented 21-year old Phil Jones: who better than Ryan Giggs to teach this young player everything he needs to know about professional football? By being surrounded by such amazing and experienced players, the younger ones will learn fast, very fast.
What a rewarding and fruitful strategy and the same principle can definitely be applied in business.
A good balance between mature managers and young executives can be the recipe for success: one will teach the other the spirit of your company, the other will absorb everything that they need to know about your organisation.
3 – Hire people that share your Passion and Commitment
Sir Alex Ferguson built great team after great team during his 24 years in charge of United and this was mainly due to his ability to source players with different skills who played together and shared his absolute hatred of losing.
This helped him create a winning culture that not only lasted for his 24 years in charge but will probably last for many more to come.
If you hire people who believe in what you believe, who share the same passion as you and who are as committed to your company as you are then you are well on the road to success.
4. The Collective is more Important than the Individual
Roy Keane was captain of Manchester United for more than 8 years and is still considered one of their all time great players up there with the likes of Best, Charlton, Giggs and Ronaldo. In 2005, although his star was on the wane, he was still the undisputed on field leader of Manchester United and one of the most influential and feared midfielders in the league.
Ferguson even said this of him after his performance in the 1999 Champions League semi final in the Stadio delle Alpi –
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
In short he was a true United legend, loved by the fans and respected by the opposition.
Under most managers he would have been untouchable, Alex Ferguson however was not ‘most managers’.
At the tail end of 2005 after an explosive interview with the club TV channel MUTV, in which he criticised many of his fellow players, Roy Keane left Manchester United. Ferguson did it in a dignified manner allowing Keane to safe face and leave by ‘mutual agreement’. Make no mistake about it though – Keane stepped out of line, Ferguson deemed it to be at the expense of the collective and he was shown the door.
Two and a half years later United won the European Cup with arguably their greatest ever team and without Roy Keane.
No one individual, no matter how important or essential they seem, is more important than the collective.
These four key principles are part of the reason that Sir Alex Ferguson is considered to be the greatest football manager in history.
They also happen to make great sense in a business context.
What do you think about his career and achievements?
Are there any other business lessons that we can learn from his career?
Let us know in the comments!