Alex Ferguson: A Manager in History

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Sir Alex Ferguson was a formidable manager, who achieved outstanding results and etched a place in history, developing a team that was a force to be reckoned with.

Having recently read his autobiography, whilst enjoying the Mauritian sun, I not only found it interesting and humorous in places, but also identified tips that could be taken from his management style.

Now I’m not advocating everything he did as good practice for senior managers but there are certainly some highlights that I feel are worth sharing with you!

A good mentor: Despite having previous experience as manager of Aberdeen, when he took on the role of manager for Manchester United, in 1986, he recognised that he still required support and guidance. John Lyall guided him through his early years, imparting his wisdom and experience, to empower Alex to succeed in his career. With additional support from the great Bobby Charlton.

Surround yourself with positive people: Whether it is in sport or commerce, good managers surround their self with the right staff; who can be relied on in the face of adversity, or states of flux along the journey, as well as acting in your best interest. Alex freely acknowledged many colleagues and members of staff, from his CEO, to his PA, even to the ‘laundry girls’. Quite often back-office staff are just as important as customer-facing staff; indeed they ensure the smooth and efficient running of the business and therefore, need to be equally recognized and valued.

Confidence in decision making: Part of the requisite of management is making difficult decisions and knowing when changes are necessary, for the benefit of the business and the individual. Despite being one of the “Class of ’92”, loyal and well thought of, there came a time when Phil Neville was no longer right for Man United and by keeping him, Ferguson would have been doing him ‘more harm than good’. So the difficult discussion had to take place for the benefit of the individual and the club.

Courage in your conviction: Talented individuals may excel in their profession but can become disruptive to the overall team dynamics and eventually become consumed with their own self-importance that they begin to lose focus and excellence. David Beckham was increasingly focusing on his celebrity status and dismissive of criticism on his performance. His deterioration in his level of application and his weakened form was not to the standards required of the club. I don’t advocate the action that Alex took, and we all know about the famous boot incident, but as the manager, Alex had to take charge of the situation before it escalated beyond control.

Don’t be afraid to show humility: Admitting when you have made a mistake is not a sign of weakness but is a sign of emotional intelligence, particularly when lessons are learnt from that mistake and actions taken to prevent it reoccurring. In his own words Alex states that when there is a “sudden rush to solve problems, mistakes are made.” The signing of Kleberson and Veron were rushed rather than considered and strategic, and he is not afraid to admit it

Look, listen and learn: A great manager doesn’t always do the talking, instead they listen to what their team have to say, and not just hear what is being said but also observe and assess individuals’ habits, moods and behaviour patterns. If you are aware that something is wrong with an individual you can address it quickly rather than leave it to spiral. Likewise, by walking into a room and observing the atmosphere and people’s actions, you can assess the situation to determine if someone may need motivating more that day, may need a more challenging task, or simply address a situation with greater application. Being aware of what is happening within your team and responding quickly can turn things around to get the best performance out of the team.

Strategic vision: Those who consider the longer-term vision, rather than focusing on current performance, can define a clear strategy to lead effectively, and take calculated risks. Again, with recruiting the young players of ’92 to develop home-grown talent, was a calculated risk, but one that provided dividends during the ‘golden period’ between 1995 and 2001. Success came in the form of winning the League 5 out of 6 times, plus 2 champions league trophies.

Drive and determination: In times of demonstrate their innate drive and determination, and seek methods to overcome obstacles and excel once more. Ferguson describes the summer of 2003 to May 2006 as one of his “least fertile spells”. He had wanted to sign Edwin van der Sar but was usurped to signing the goalkeeper, by Chairman Martin Edwards, for Mark Bosnich. As in sport, business has its dips, lows, defeats and disappointments, but with drive and determination there is also highs, triumphs, wins and successes to be experienced.

Continuous development: Irrespective of the length of experience acquired or successes achieved, leaders and managers need to continue developing. Roy Keane accused Ferguson of having changed, to which he responded that yes he had changed “because today is not yesterday … I would never have survived if I hadn’t changed”. The pace of business and technology is constantly evolving and managers cannot afford to remain stagnant, they have to embrace and promote change, or they will stagnate and get left behind.

Build credibility and trust: Trust is not something that is given freely; it has to be earned - by delivering on what you say you will do and standing up for staff when they are criticized by others (internal or external). At the beginning of the book, Alex explains that very early in his career he decided that in order to build trust and loyalty, you have to give it to your team first. “That is the starting point for the bond on which great institutions thrive.”

During his time as manager of Man United, the Club won 38 trophies, including the Club World Cup, 2 Champions Leagues, 13 Premier Leagues and 5 FA Cups. In his career as a football manager he achieved a total of 49 trophies, which has made him the ‘most successful British manager of all time’. 

In his TV interview on Monday 5th October, Wayne Rooney explained that Alex was the reason why he left Everton for Man U, and whilst they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, in his own words he (Ferguson) was the “best manager”.

Quite clearly there is something that we can all learn from Ferguson, who is quite clearly a legend of our time!

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