READ FERGUSON’S FORMULA
by Anita Elberse with Sir Alex Ferguson for Havard Business Review
Some call him the greatest coach in history. Before retiring in May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson spent 26 seasons as the manager of Manchester United, the English football (soccer) club that ranks among the most successful and valuable franchises in sports. During that time the club won 13 English league titles along with 25 other domestic and international trophies—giving him an overall haul nearly double that of the next-most-successful English club manager. And Ferguson was far more than a coach. He played a central role in the United organization, managing not just the first team but the entire club. “Steve Jobswas Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,” says the club’s former chief executive David Gill.
In 2012 Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse had a unique opportunity to examine Ferguson’s management approach and developed an HBS case study around it. Now she and Ferguson have collaborated on an analysis of his enormously successful methods.
1. Start with the foundation
Ferguson: “From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom.”
2. Dare to rebuild your team
Ferguson: “I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly. Because I was at United for such a long time, I could afford to plan ahead.”
3. Set high standards and hold everyone to them
Ferguson: “Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club — this applied to all my team building, my team preparation, motivational talks and tactical talks. I expected even more from the star players [than the rest].”
4. Never, ever cede control
Ferguson: “I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was. If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players — 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. “
5. Match the message to the moment
Ferguson: “No one likes to be criticized. Most respond to encouragement. At the same time, you need to point out mistakes. You play different roles at different times. Sometimes you have to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a father.”
5. Prepare to win
Ferguson: “Winning is in my nature. There is no other option for me. I am a risk taker and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches. All my teams had perseverance — they never gave in. It’s a fantastic characteristic to have.”
7. Rely on the power of observation
Ferguson: “My presence and ability to supervise were always there and what you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable. Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.”
8. Never stop adapting.
Ferguson: “When I started, there were no agents and, although games were televised, the media did not elevate players to the level of film stars and constantly look for new stories about them. Players have led more sheltered lives, so they are much more fragile than players were 25 years ago.”
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