30 March 2014

The big debate in Manchester at the moment is: is Moyes the right man for Manchester United?

I think a more interesting question is: “Is Alex Ferguson a level 5 leader?”

If you are not familiar with the term, it comes from Jim Collins, a Stanford Professor. He wrote the books Good to Great and Built to Last. If you are in business and you have not read them, they are an essential read.



They are written using huge amounts of research that Collins and his team at Stanford set about collating after a student questioned his predictions that Apple was going to be a huge success when they were just an embryo of a business. Unable to give scientific reasons to back up his hunch, he believed in his prediction so much, he and an army of students set about evaluating all the fortune 500 businesses to track the behaviour and styles of the people who ran them.

After identifying the top performers, the businesses who had grown at unprecedented amounts for a sustained period longer than a decade, he started to compare the results and find the things that were different in these top performers that weren’t in these under achieving and normalised businesses in the list.

Its fascinating because from my understanding it’s the first book that takes that research and then discounts anything that is common. For example, all of the top performers – Disney, Gillette, HP, IBM, to name a few – all paid big salaries and big bonuses to their executives, but because some of the under achieving ones in the list also did the same, he removed this as one of the deciding factors that turn a business from good to great.

I remember when we read our first Jim Collins book. We were tiny, probably about a million turnover, but we were doing everything in the book bar one thing. We didn’t have a “purpose.” A purpose is a goal you cannot ever hit. It’s not a mission statement, which is something you can arrive at or achieve, it’s something that is far more important.

Disney’s purpose is to “Make People Happy”. You can’t make all people happy and until you do you have never accomplished your job, so therefore your job is never over. This sort of statement of intent prevents you from ever stopping to congratulate yourself on successes as ultimately your work is never done.

A mission statement on the other hand, might be to reach a certain level by a certain date, which is something that is needed but something that you need to reset regularly.

We wrote UKFast’s purpose on holiday in the Maldives more than a decade ago.

UKFast exists to significantly accelerate commerce and learning, through innovation and thought, whilst contributing to our customers’ success.

Basically, however hard we try to speed up the internet and make our clients successful, there is always more that can be done. Hence, we have never been able to settle! Maybe I should have rethought  that one!!

Going back to level 5 leadership, there are a few things that separate a level 5 leader from other types, but one of the main identifying factors is that when a lower level leader leaves a business or sports club, in Manchester United’s case, the business immediately struggles and experiences a change in fortune.

When a level 5 leader leaves a business it isn’t affected and it runs for a period without any real change.

The reason being is that great leaders build great teams and they empower people to take responsibility. They don’t expect all decisions to come to the top and they want people to take ownership. This type of management style creates a strong culture and people love working in these environments.

So with all the evidence from Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United pointing to him being one of the greatest leaders in the history of football, how can his legacy be dismantled in one season? Was he actually just an average leader after all? Was it luck?

There is a lot of debate at the moment but no one really knows how to put their finger on why Moyes just isn’t the man for the job at Manchester United.

I think I can help and am well placed, being impartial. I am supporter of the Great city of Manchester, yet I am neither red or blue.

Before I do, there is one other massive identifier in a level 5 leader. They take ownership of a problem. When things go wrong they look inward and don’t blame the people around them. When things go well, they give the credit for the victory to the team and staff around them. Sound familiar?

I heard a quote the other day that Moyes said that “Sir Alex Ferguson would have struggled this season too.

Really? With the same team he won the premiership that previous season.

How can Moyes actually know that? I wonder what Alex feels about this statement.

So if Alex Ferguson is a level 5 leader, what’s changed?

Well everything if you work at Manchester United.

Instead of coming in and respecting the history, institution and structure Ferguson left as a legacy, the things which would have allowed even the worst leader on the planet time to learn the great and necessary lessons from his predecessor, Moyes has apparently changed everything behind the scenes.

He has brought in his old back room staff from Everton and swapped out the winning formula for his one. The only thing is, his was not not a proven success, if anything you could argue that it was proven to be an unsuccessful formula. Ironic that with Moyes gone from Everton, they are now doing better than ever!
A level 5 leader would want to learn from the best and not just wade in and throw his weight around, before assessing the lay of the land.

Moyes is now in state of free fall. Yes, they will win the odd game because fundamentally there is talent in that side; however, the confidence that Ferguson gave his players to win over and over again is missing and sadly I do not believe Moyes has the emotional intelligence of a level five inspiration.

Hearing Moyes say after playing Manchester City, “they are the best team and we are trying to get to their level” is all the demonstration I need to give me clarity that Moyes is unfit for the job. He will always fall short.

Moyes should be creating a purpose, something along the lines of “becoming the greatest footballing club and team that has ever been built.” This type of objective is going to create the emotion and belief needed to get you through the difficult times.

Trying to get to another team’s level is simply too easy and lacks ambition. It’s a mission statement that is never going to inspire his troops and hence, under his lack of leadership, they will continue to deteriorate until they arrive at their natural level.

Unless United swap out Moyes quickly, the era that has helped lift Manchester’s international and even business profile is undoubtedly over. Luckily, we have another incredible club that is keen to take the baton. However, all the banter aside, I am sure the city would be all the better if both teams were beating all the other teams in the UK.

So was Alex Ferguson a level 5 leader? Of course he was. He is a man who’d have created team spirit in whatever he did. He is a warm charismatic man who understands and cares for his people around him. Yes he’s portrayed as a tough Scot who doesn’t take prisoners, but this is just a small part of what he does and his warmth and generosity allow him to get away with his fierce nature. If he’d been in business, he’d have done exactly what he did in the corridors at Old Trafford.

If you are creating a team, I highly recommend reading Jim Collins’s books. Maybe someone at United should send their manager a copy.

If you are aspiring to be a great leader, the warmth and the genuine care for your troops is so much more important than any other factor. You can have all the management techniques necessary, but that doesn’t guarantee you success. You will undoubtedly make lots of mistakes – I have made far too many to count – but if you are close to your team and treat them well, they will undoubtedly back you through the tough times.

I am currently on my way to Verbier for a weeks’ skiing with my team. Next to me is a  great man and best friend, Stevo. He started at UKFast as a boy just like me. He is my Ryan Giggs. I remember the first moment I clocked him, walking through Ancoats. We both nodded and said hello when passing on the street.

I walked into the office and described the guy I’d seen outside and asked is he the guy who came for the interview? “Ring him and tell him he’s got the job!” I said.

More than a decade on, we both have wives, kids and a few extra pounds both in and out of our pockets and we are still celebrating our journey together.

The best part of being a leader is that your job is never done. You have to grow the talent from within the ranks. Interesting that the class of 92, Ryan Giggs, the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt along with a few others have bought Salford City FC and have set the goal to get them to the Champions League with in 15 years. A goal far greater than just getting into the Premiership, they are aiming at the heights every top footballer achieves to reach. Who is going to bet against them?

All the great Level 5 leaders that Jim Collins identified all grew from within their organisations. They were not loud demonstrative people, they were quite quiet and went about their business carefully and without disruption. By growing from within they understand and believe in the culture more than anyone else and have experienced all the highs, the lows and the behind the scenes secrets that define winners and losers.

I wonder if Manchester United have missed a trick here? Somehow I think they have missed the big opportunity that was right under their nose.

Jim Collins’s latest book, “How the Mighty Fall” might be quite appropriate for those in Manchester United boardroom.



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