Business Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson


I write this with some trepidation. I’m going to talk about Manchester United (all Leeds supporting Board members resign…) In particular Sir Alex Ferguson (Liverpool supporters head for the door) and what we can learn from him (last one left turns out the light…)

In 2011 and 2012 Ferguson gave a series of interviews to Harvard academics, in which he discussed his management philosophy: there’s an article from the Guardian about it here.

I think Ferguson makes some really interesting points, and several of them translate directly to business. Whatever your feelings about Ferguson as a football manager, one thing is indisputable: he’s a winner, and he’d have been a success in whatever walk of life he chose when he stopped playing.

There are two specific points I’d like to pick out from the Guardian article. First of all, here’s Ferguson talking about a player who’s been sent off a few times. He will do something if he gets the chance – even in training. Can I take it out of him? No. Would I want to take it out of him? No. If you take the aggression out of him he is not himself. So you have to accept that there is a certain flaw that is counterbalanced by all the great things he can do.

You don’t have to be a Stretford end regular to work out who he’s talking about. I’ll just have my £1 on Paul Scholes.

The business point is that most companies – even small ones – have someone who doesn’t quite conform; who’s a bit of a maverick and who frequently does things that might irritate others in the office. The flip side of the coin is that they can also do work that no-one else is capable of doing. And that’s the work that can make all the difference with a client.

If you’ve got someone like that in your business then they may well cause the occasional problem. They may have the irksome habit of asking “why not?” But my advice is simple: don’t try and make them conform. As business becomes more and more competitive, you don’t need average – you need outstanding. As Ferguson says, accept that those things they might not do perfectly are counterbalanced by the things they do far better than anyone else.

One word of warning though: if you’ve got a ‘Paul Scholes’ in your office, make sure everyone understands and appreciates why you sometimes cut him a little slack. You don’t want those people who might not be uniquely talented deciding that they’re going to experiment with maverick behaviour!

Ferguson went on to talk about dealing with some of the biggest talents in the game. He made a very simple, but hugely important point. And I tell them that hard work is a talent too.

I remember the first job I had in sales. There was another salesman in the team: his name was Ted and he produced stunning figures. Yet he wasn’t particularly intelligent, his clothes were roughly twenty years out of date and, bluntly, he smelt. But he worked ferociously hard. At the time I was young and naïve and a little bit full of myself (bright boy, sharp suit, after-shave) and I assumed that my figures would soon sail past Ted’s. They never did – and at the time I struggled to work out why.

It was only later that I realised that Ted was supremely talented in one area – hard work – and that compensated for everything else. I came to admire him as well: Ted had worked out a system that worked for him. If grinding away and working the numbers was what it took, that was what he was going to do.

What Alex Ferguson wants to do though, is take remarkable talent and ally that to hard work. Then you’ve got an unbeatable combination, and as business owners, that’s what we should be trying to do. Recruit the best talent and give them an environment in which they can flourish. But make sure the hard work is there. There’ll be times when it’s your job to imitate Sir Alex Ferguson in that other famous area – use of the ‘hairdryer.’ (If you’re not a football fan, it means point out someone’s mistakes rather strongly.)

It’s getting the balance right – staff, motivation, customers, finances and a hundred other things – that makes business so fascinating & challenging for me. My apologies if you’re not a Man United fan, but the two points Alex Ferguson makes are important for us all – even a diehard member of the Toon Army…

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6 comments

  1. stoshdwalsh · January 31, 2013

    Great stuff. The other aspect of Ferguson’s genius, for me, is the environment of expectation he creates. Transfers, training, matches at every level–always about mentality and winning and expecting that from one another. It’s a ruthless culture in some ways (just ask Roy Keane or Gary Neville), but it consistently produces success. Part of this is great (results and some great relationships), part of it is bad (does any manager have more fractured relationships with former players?). The one place I get off the boat completely, though, is the “hairdryer treatment”–that flies in sports, but not in business.

    • edreidyork · January 31, 2013

      Hi – thanks for your comments. Completely agree on the environment of expectation. In terms of the “hairdryer” in business, I don’t believe actually shouting at people will ever get progress for you, BUT, there are times when poor performance needs addressing, and directly.

      • stoshdwalsh · January 31, 2013

        Totally agree, but in business, you can’t bench a player or relegate them to the reserves or sub him off at half time. 😉

  2. easistreet · February 1, 2013

    Great blog Ed. I am not a great football fan full stop, but I think you have to listen to what Alex Ferguson has to say because of his consistent success.
    In terms of dropping a player etc., I also think that in business you have equivalent sanctions available through things such as restricting access to promotion, or limiting the freedom to make their own decisions etc.

  3. Jo Clarkson · February 4, 2013

    Great points – (she says gazing fondly at her Norman Hunter replica shirt) and I’ll throw one into the pot from Jack Charlton (Leeds fans you can join us again!) after his outstanding run as manager of the Irish team – Always do what you say you’re going to do. Make it happen. If you don’t why should they? His example of this was having told the team they would play golf the day after a big game, and waking up to 6 inches of snow on the ground and everyone waiting for him to sort it – because he said they were going to play! And they did play – although they had to travel 100 miles to find a course that was open. His point was you need to lead from the front – accountability, responsibility, tenacity – all the things we appreciate in our employees are the things we need to demonstrate to them as managers day in and day out. I guess that’s one of the reasons its tough at the top!! Onward and upward!!

  4. Pingback: Extra Time from Sir Alex | EdReidYork's Blog

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