18 May 2014

“Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United” – David Gill

With the news that Louis van Gaal could be coming to United to replace Moyes, with Giggs taking on a senior role as his number two, there’s been plenty of speculation about the club’s future. After such a disappointing season, it certainly seems like the right time for the team to take stock and re-evaluate their position. Which elements of their former success have fallen by the wayside? How do they recapture that drive and passion to regain their winning streak once more?

On reflection, I think it’s fair to say that there was a sense of inevitability about United’s dip in performance after the departure of Alex Ferguson. If you look at the strategy he took from the start, building the club from the ground up, there’s so much you can learn, not just as a manager or sportsperson, but as a business owner. You could even argue that, had David Moyes tried to emulate his predecessor’s success by analysing his methods, there would have been a more seamless transition, and he might not have been met with such rebuke.

Alex Ferguson entering Old Trafford. Photo by Robin Harrison.

Alex Ferguson entering Old Trafford. Photo by Robin Harrison

United were always at the top of running sport as a business. It’s ironic that Sir Alex is now over at Harvard University teaching about the business of entertainment and sport, and United seem to be wearing their heart on their sleeve with everybody knowing their problems and goings on. What concerns me is whether something is fractured within the club as a business.Alex Ferguson was a fierce character and well aware of this side of the club. I remember watching him being interviewed and he actually governed the whole thing. He asked the interviewer how many questions he had for him and said, “Well, you can ask me those two, but if you ask any more, you’ll never come in here again!” He was extraordinary to watch, but he was doing that as a businessman as well as a manager. He’s a big loss to the city and, personally, I think we need him in our universities, not in Harvard. Can you imagine how many people would enrol on that course!

So, what can Van Gaal and Ryan Giggs learn from the great man himself? Well, firstly, I think it’s an interesting partnership and one that holds promising signs for success. If you consider that part of Fergie’s approach was to build a strong culture for the club, one where young players like Giggs and Beckham developed together, it’s really positive that one of them might take on an important management role for the club. Having been taken under Ferguson’s wing as a youngster, he’s likely to be mindful of all the elements of his winning formula.

Now, I know what you’re thinking; is there such thing as a winning formula?

Surely, some of winning is down to luck? Well, whilst I’d agree that sometimes, unforeseeable events can take the ball out of your court, what about sustained periods of high performance and success? Can that be down to luck? I don’t think it can. Nor can the sense of family and the feeling of focus and drive that he instilled in his players. Alex Ferguson has spoken about the different elements of his management approach before. In fact, talking of Harvard, one of the most fascinating interviews on this was carried out by Anita Elberse and published in the Harvard Business Review.

Photo by Robin Harrison

Photo by Robin Harrison

In it, he runs through the principles that contributed to the club’s success, things that he actively instilled as manager. His belief in young talent was one thing, but a big part of their success was down to the way he motivated them. The image of him bellowing at players during halftime talks is actually only half of the story. In his own words: “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. For a player – for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’.”

It’s a belief shared by many other great leaders and whilst different approaches work for different businesses, I think using fear as a driver is counter-productive as it only leads to short term results. Ferguson gave players a dressing down when they fell short of their potential. And by turning up for training sessions early from the start, he led by example, something I think a number of businesses seem to overlook, but at what cost? Can you expect a certain standard to be upheld by your employees when you often don’t meet it yourself or should you embody the values of the business? In my experience, the second option works best.

So, can Van Gaal and Giggs return the club to its former glory?

Personally, I think Giggs has had the experience of learning from the best having grown up under the wing of arguably the greatest manager of all time. He’s been on the receiving end so he has the benefit of knowing what worked for him and what motivated him.

When it comes to Van Gaal, you could ask, is he distracted by his responsibilities with Holland? Players who have worked with him have described him as an experienced coach, passionate about the game and driven to win. Either way, I think this is the start of a new chapter in United’s journey. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Out of the ashes, phoenixes rise.


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