Management Lessons From Sir Alex Ferguson’s Career – Rohan Thomas, IIM Rohtak

Pele, Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi. These are the magicians who have mesmerised generations with their exploits on the pitch. However, if you dig deeper into the world of football, the players are just the cream embellished on top of an enormous cake. The base includes Managers, Referees, Club Owners and most importantly, the loyal supporters. All this is essentially a huge business which demands an astute mind for smooth functioning.

According to Forbes magazine, the top 20 Football clubs in the world are worth $1.44 Billion! Each valued by its image or brand, the endorsements made, the players signed and the trophies won. Football is no more about only winning trophies, it’s about winning hearts, it’s about winning deals off the pitch and also about surviving at the top of the table.

As an owner or CEO of a multi-million dollar franchise who would you trust with your valuable money? Who would win you accolades both on and off the pitch? Who would be responsible for signing in the most coveted player on the planet? Here comes the ‘manager’.

26 years, 38 trophies! Rebuilding a broken unit and taking it from rags to riches. This, in short, is the story of arguably the greatest manager to have set his foot on the football field- Sir Alex Ferguson.  From 1992-93 (the first season of the Premier League) to 2012, he has increased revenues of Manchester United from $39 million to $502 million! Yet, the legend of Sir Alex Ferguson goes well beyond numbers. Let’s have a look at some of the key lessons that his long reign at the helm of MANU provides:

 

Develop youth and in-house talent

Manchester United have always fielded some vibrant young players along with the experienced ones. This, lasting legacy of the club, was somehow forgotten in the 1970s and 1980s. Sir Alex Ferguson revived this culture. He reinvigorated the youth academy to make it, in some opinion, the best in the world. Winning the Treble in 1999(winning the European Cup, the English League and the FA Cup), was possible largely due to the “The Class of 92”, whom he nurtured and developed in the Manchester United Academy. The players- Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Neville brothers formed the core, around which the team amalgamated.

HR Managers in particular, should take a note of this. Develop in-house talent, since the employees will always have a passion for the organization and the skills they learn. The acquisition costs of new employees would also be saved if the in-house talent is nurtured.

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  1. More a Leader than a manager:

Sir Alex is remembered more as a father-figure than a manager. He had a certain aura around him which inspired players to perform beyond their realized capabilities. A leader knows his subordinates better than they do themselves. This was evident when he asked Cristiano Ronaldo to don the much-revered number 7 Jersey rather than number 28 which Ronaldo preferred. The number 7 jersey has been worn by ManU greats and Sir Alex believed Ronaldo had the talent to follow on their footsteps. The will power of this man reflected on the team’s performances, especially when the players raised their game in dying moments to pull off a heist. This led to the coining of the term “Fergie Time”. The miracle win in Barcelona, where United staged one of the greatest comebacks in football history by scoring 2 goals in the final 3 minutes of stoppage time is but an example of this.

 Managers can take a leaf out of his book and learn the art of leadership. Knowing your subordinates inside out is one of the most important leadership skills. Also, motivation and guidance is the key to get goals achieved.

  1. Organization before Individuals:

Quite often in his career Sir Alex Ferguson had to tackle individual egos. Players would fight for status, money or time on the pitch. Some of them would not perform to their full potential. Ferguson would always put the interests of the club first. Having nurtured them in their youth, he never gave in to emotions, and when time came took the hard decisions and let them go. Examples include David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. He is known to have said, “You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires, and if any player wants to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with him.”

 Thus, managers would need to learn the art of coercing their employees to be a positive influence on the team and if that doesn’t work then be ready to weed them out. The organisation always comes before the individual and the vision of both the organisation and individual should match, a manager needs to ensure that.

  1. Mix, match and prosper

If the young players provided the energy and force, the experienced ones formed the shield and the backbone of the United squad. The team had an ideal balance of youth and experience. They competed against and complemented one another. Sir Alex divided the players into three segments- those above 30 years, then the players who were between 23 and 30 years and finally, players below 23 years of age. He would gradually move out the older players and bring in young ones, thus keeping the squad fresh with talent. He believed that each team had a life cycle of 4 years, post which the squad needed reshuffling. Harvard Business school terms him as “a uniquely effective “portfolio manager” of talent. He is strategic, rational, and systematic.”.

A blend of youth and experience and diversity is required for any team to prosper and managers must work on this team balance when they form their teams. Experience mixed with different perspectives leads to the prosperity of the team and thus the organization as a whole.

  1. Transferring an intense desire to succeed

Being one of the greatest football managers in the world would never be possible without having a ruthless desire to win. Ferguson set high standards for his players and expected them to adhere to it. His famous “Hairdryer treatment” was reserved for those players who did not meet expectations albeit a number of ‘soft’ reprimands. Andy Cole, one of United’s greats remembered, “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!”.

 

An illustrious and long a career as his is bound to have some rough patches as well. Some transfer of players seemed like a waste of money, wasting millions on the wrong individual. The Paul Pogba transfer which cost Manchester United 89.3 million pounds this year can be held as the biggest mistakes of Sir Alex’s career, when he let go of the youth at the age of 18 for a mere 800,000 pounds. Moreover, Ferguson was lucky in the initial years of career when he was allowed to go trophy-less for three years. These days it is unimaginable for managers to get such a long rope.

Despite these, the fact remains that he has taken Manchester United from the depths of despair to being the most successful English Club in history. There has not been a more successful manager in the world of football. His principles are relevant not only for managers in the field of management but for everyone in every sphere of life. His career is best captured in his quote:       

    “I’ve never played for a draw in my life.”

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About the Author:

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Rohan Thomas is a first-year student at IIM Rohtak. He is a Production engineer from Father Conceicao Rodrigues College of Engineering, Mumbai and has worked as a Data Analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland for three years. A member of the Sports Committee at IIM Rohtak, he is an avid follower of basketball and football and plays the same in his free time. 

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