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10 Leadership Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson – Part II

Posted by: Darshan Doshi | Posted on: December 18th, 2014 | 0 Comments

Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United football club (hereafter MUFC), is considered by many to be the greatest manager ever in football (soccer) and even in all of sports. Clearly, we all have something to learn from his leadership, his process to deliver success and his legacy. While his domain was sports, the lessons we can draw apply across dimensions to our life.

SAF

The first part of two-part leadership series blog focused on Alex Ferguson as a Leader. You can read it here. The main lessons were

Lesson 1 – Let you leadership style flow from your personality.

Lesson 2 – Have some simple rules that guide recurring success.

Lesson 3 – Manage both for the short term and the long term.

Lesson 4 – Don’t be afraid to experiment if the environment allows it.

Lesson 5 – The numbers show the process of success.

The second part of the blog focuses on his ability to build successful teams.

Lesson 6 – Set the bar high – both for your team and your environment

Ferguson is famous for the discipline he instilled in the team once he took over. His 7 am practice sessions inspired others on the coaching staff to themselves show up before 7 to mimic the boss. “Hard work is a talent” as Sir Alex once said. He also surrounded himself with a great assistant coach (Carlos Queiroz) and a best in class scouting team. Not only this but Ferguson also made sure the environment was conducive for success. Training facilities were upgraded continuously, criticism of players was never done in public and a siege ‘us against them’ mentality was created to foster a great team spirit. Training sessions matched the intensity of game day. Moreover, anyone who dropped his standards was swiftly dealt with no matter what the reputation or previous contribution might have been. Negative influences resulted in swift departures of hitherto vital team players (Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy)

Lesson 7 – Always look ahead three years and dare to rebuild your team

Ferguson, although he never really mentions an exact formula, always looked at three-year timelines. He also had a mix of players under the age of 23, 23-28 and 28 and above. Therefore, he always looked to build teams with players in different stages of development.

Key Takeaway – keep your team/portfolio with members/stocks with different levels of experience/payoffs so that you can simultaneously manage short-term performance and long-term stability.

When looking at a team, Ferguson was famous for placing his trust in younger players and using the United Youth Academy to groom future stars. His teams always had a core of strong internally chosen candidates. However he never hesitated to bring in players from outside (like Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney) often paying record transfer fees if needed to sustain success.

Key Takeaway – Keep a core internal team (which of course changes over time) and supplement them with outside players if needed. This applies to letting team members move on when they don’t fit into the core strategy.

Lesson 8 – Adapt to survive and never give in

Another trait that set him apart from other coaches was his ability to adapt to changing circumstances. While Ferguson wasn’t known to be a tactical master, he did master how to adapt his team to the changing game of football. When he initially joined the focus was more on fitness and discipline. As sports medicine took hold he got the best to implement it for United. As stats tracking and selection by numbers revolutionized the sport, United kept pace. Adapt to change even if you’re the best.

Something relatively unknown about Ferguson is how his playing career affected his coaching career. He spent 17 relatively unsuccessful seasons as a professional player. That lack of success defined him. In his own words – “The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life,” he said. “I made up my mind that I would never give in.” He also forged Manchester United in this image. His teams were famous for scoring in the final seconds of the game. They never gave in and as it happened more and more often teams would psychologically give in as United risked all to find a goal.

Key Takeaway – Adversity can shape a person/team and can forge a backbone that can define the team.

Lesson 9 – Don’t be afraid to lose but hate it

A significant temptation for organizations, investors and teams is to play safe when it comes to the late stages of an outcome. Sir Alex’s teams had the notion drilled into them that if they were 2-1 down with 5 minutes to go that they should go all out for a goal. Losing 3-1 was acceptable. This tied in with Sir Alex’s risk taking philosophy and imbued his teams with an attacking mentality that though would fail on a one-off basis ensured positive payoffs over the course of 38 games.

Also, Sir Alex hates losing. He’s often quoted as saying he’d liked players who were sore losers. This ‘always need to win’ philosophy meant that team members were always set with a mentality that only winning was acceptable in a results business such as football.

Key Takeaway

In organizations – This point dovetails with a multitude of others. Hating losing means that team members aren’t satisfied with products/services delivered that aren’t the best in the industry and continue to stay at a high performance level day after day to deliver recurrent success.

In investing – Taking unnecessary risks often leads to disaster. However the main takeaway is that one must also dare to be great (risking failure) in order to stand a chance to be at the top. This advice is similar that of famed investor Howard Marks which he detailed in his ‘Dare to be Great’ Memo.

Lesson 10 – The edge you have over others is miniscule and so you must look for every inch to build the edge

Organizations are finding it harder and harder to keep up with startups. Investors find that beating other investors is an enormously hard task for the majority. Similarly Football at the highest level is one where no one has an unassailable lead. Case in point – No team has ever defended the Champions League title successfully since it was incorporated. All this points to the fact that at the highest level of sport and business, edges (or moats as Warren Buffet defines it) are tiny and often temporary. Thus in this environment the edges generally lies in the tiniest of details.

Sir Alex displayed cognizance of this with United. Most famously Sir Alex often persuaded officials to add ‘Fergie time’ to the end of games often extending games by an extra minute giving his team a chance.

Key Takeaway – Leaders in organizations, startups and investors must humbly recognize that the competition is just as good as we are and that finding the tiniest of edges is a necessary condition of success.

In Summary, as Tony Robbins, the inspirational self-help author and teacher mentions, modeling the best in a field is often the easiest way to make ourselves better. We don’t have to always re-invent the wheel. There are many lessons to be modeled from Sir Alex and his unusually long winning streak at the top of professional football. These are just few of them but we believe some of the most valuable.

You can read more about Sir Alex Ferguson in his book called Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography

About the Authors:

This blog is written by Rohan Koshy & Darshan Doshi.

Rohan Koshy works as an investment analyst at a fund based in Mumbai. The psychology of decision-making, probability, football, reading about all things technology and blogging once in a while all interest him. You can read his blog here

Darshan Doshi is the Head of Digital Services at JumpShift

10 Leadership Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson – Part I

Posted by: Darshan Doshi | Posted on: December 11th, 2014 | 1 Comments

Disclaimer – The authors of this blog are avid Manchester United fans and have been following the team since 1997 so some opinions may seem biased.

Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United football club (hereafter MUFC), is considered by many to be the greatest manager ever in football (soccer) and even in all of sports. His towering presence over the game of English football as manager of MUFC for over 26 years set him apart from other managers, even in the highest echelons of the sport. Over this tenure he won 13 English premier league titles and two Champions league trophies (the most celebrated trophy in club football) on the way to a 49-trophy haul that is unmatched probably across the field of sport.

Clearly, we all have something to learn from his leadership, his process to deliver success and his legacy. While his domain was sports, the lessons we can draw apply across dimensions to our life.

Sir Alex Ferguson

 

Source: www.manutd.com

This first part of two-part leadership series blog focuses on Alex Ferguson as a Leader while the second part of the blog will focus on his ability to build successful teams.

Lesson 1 – Let your leadership style flow from your personality

Sir Alex is famous for using the ‘hairdryer’ to motivate players. This means that in the locker room players would often receive very noisy dressing down if they put in a bad performance. Also his style of managing was mostly Authoritative. He managed the club and the players with an iron fist and forged the organization in the image of his own personality – strong at the top with orders flowing down to the rest of the organization. Other great leaders with a similar mentality (and thus organizations shaped by them) were of course Steve Jobs and Jack Welch. However it is crucial to take away that they built their organizations/teams to be in harmony with their own personality. Contrast this approach to Warren Buffet’s – decentralized delegation that flows from his own soft-spoken but results driven personality. Or take Carlo Ancelotti – another manager in European football who like Sir Alex has won everything there is to be won but his teams are shaped in his own quiet but strong and inspiring demeanor.

Key Takeaway – There are many roads to heaven. Make sure to mold your team to your personality.

Lesson 2 – Have some simple rules which will guide recurring success

While success no doubt requires adapting to changing situations, Sir Alex was famous for having a set of rules to which he measured his team’s progress. One simple rule was – Be within touching distance of the leader by the end of December (half way of the season). This put Manchester United with the highest probability of winning every season. Case in Point – Manchester United never finished outside the top three positions ever since the Premier League was created. Another rule – ‘Never lose two games in a row’ was legendary for how it prevented a so-called ‘slump’. All these little rules added a lot to team discipline and results.

Lesson 3 – Manage both for the short term and the long term

It’s easy to say that everyone should look at the long term. However football, like organizational success is a results business where short term results matter. You can’t have six bad quarters of results and have a good three-year outlook. Sir Alex was famous for making sure that his teams were always competing at the top end every year no matter which phase or rebuilding/harvesting his team was in. Like I mentioned in the previous point, not losing two games in a row, being near the top by December and making sure the team gave its best in the final 15 minutes meant that the team almost never underperformed in any one year.

Lesson 4 – Don’t be afraid to experiment when the environment allows it

Ferguson’s teams were famously slow starters. As mentioned earlier, 38 games in the Premier League (sometimes upto 60 games in all competitions) allowed Ferguson to experiment. And experiment he did in the opening stages of every season. Teams lineups and formations would often be changed at the start of the season to judge both formations and players. However the deadline of being within touching distance of the leader come December meant that experimentation and results were kept in balance.

Key Takeaway – Don’t be afraid the experiment early on, especially when the operating environment (like 38 different bets in football through the year) allows you to do so. Keep an open mind to see what is working and what isn’t, and be comfortable that you may not have all the answers immediately when you begin.

Lesson 5 – The numbers show the process of success

‘This is a results business’ – Sir Alex Ferguson. Clearly, while many of his strategies involved understanding human motives, abilities and outcomes, the final outcome was one that always counted in numbers. While bad outcomes sometimes follow good processes (due to bad luck) good outcomes are a high probability given a good process. The fact that United never finished outside the top three in the Premier league is testament to the fact that his process worked. Also considering how football changed over the two decades and that he built probably three completely different teams with different attributes reflects that his process was one that evidently withstood the test of time.

Stay tuned for the next blog that focuses on Sir Alex’s ability to build successful teams and how we can use his leadership principles in our life.

 

About the Authors:

This blog is written by Rohan Koshy & Darshan Doshi.

Rohan Koshy works as an investment analyst at a fund based in Mumbai. The psychology of decision-making, probability, football, reading about all things technology and blogging once in a while all interest him. You can read his blog here

Darshan Doshi is the Head of Digital Services at JumpShift

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