Over the last few years, the Harvard Business School has been looking to learn from the high-stakes world of professional sports the strategies that can transfer to every business. Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful manager and coach in British soccer history and reveals the lessons he has learned throughout his 27-year career at the helm of the iconic Manchester United brand.
The links between business and professional sports have been explored by the Harvard Business School for many years with legendary soccer coach, Sir Alex Ferguson now an Executive Fellow at the school. Deciding to explore how the professional sports sector can affect the business world should mean looking at the best coaches available, which Ferguson certainly is. The victories of the Scottish-born coach are numerous, including 38 trophies in total with 13 Premier League titles and two UEFA Champions League victories.
For the book, Ferguson worked alongside the journalist and venture capitalist, Sir Michael Moritz who lends the book its business perspective by looking at how new technologies, emerging markets, and much more can be affected by the work of the soccer coach. Moritz does not come across as a fan but shows his respect for his fellow knight of the realm throughout the book. This comparison is similar to that in Extreme Ownership from Navy SEALs to business.
Almost every aspect of the business of soccer is looked at and compared to the business sector with Ferguson taking the reader through his personal opinion on recruitment, delegating responsibilities, and handling big personalities. Despite sitting at the head of a multibillion-dollar organization, Sir Alex Ferguson believes the most important aspects of his work have been the small gestures made to individuals.
Respect is seen as one of the pillars of the leadership model created by Ferguson with the simple acts of knowing the names of janitors and workers further down the line than himself always part of his daily routine. The smallest gestures can mean the most to many employees at Manchester United, including well-paid players who would be motivated by a simple "well done" from their manager. This point is strongly supported in the book Creativity Inc. as well.
In terms of the biggest egos and personalities who have passed through the gates of the Old Trafford stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson relates how the most talented individuals were often the easiest to manage. In the second half of his 27 years at Manchester United, Ferguson managed Cristiano Ronaldo who he credits with an amazing work ethic and level of stamina. The drive to be the best meant Ferguson was quick to identify the stage in Manchester would not be big enough for the Portuguese player for very long.
Negotiation is one of the keys to maintaining a strong team, which is a strategy that can pay dividends for all business leaders at any level. When working with Ronaldo, Ferguson was certain in his views and explained to the forward his belief that one final season in England with Manchester United would be worthwhile. Ronaldo had already explained his desire to leave for the Spanish club, Real Madrid but Ferguson was able to persuade him to give his all for one final season in Manchester before he would be allowed to leave with no problems. If this agreement is interesting, one of the best books on negotiation is Winning Through Intimidation.
Moritz links this negotiation back to the business world by explaining the identification of an executive destined for bigger things can be vital. Being open and truthful with employees about their future roles can be important with Ferguson showing a promise not to stand in the way of a vital employee further down the line can keep them happy in the short-term.
For myself, I enjoyed the passages of the book that detailed the preparation that went into getting ready for games each week and in monitoring his team. Control seems to be the overriding approach from Ferguson with the coach going so far as to create a network of spies around the city of Manchester to help him keep control of his players.
Despite this unprecedented level of control, the character and individual drive of each player seems to have always been at the heart of the recruitment process for the coach. By only looking for players who he felt would enhance the success-driven culture of his team, the Scot shows us that any successful business must employ people who believe in certain ideas and values. Perhaps the best sports book is from the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, titled Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization.
The evolution of Ferguson was detailed in the book with the revelation that his idea of a leader had to change over time. In the first phase of his coaching career, Ferguson took control of every aspect of preparation and match days before his staff revealed they had no role or purpose at the club. By learning to delegate responsibilities and work with new coaches regularly, the ideas and approach at Manchester United were never outdated. The book Contagious gives a wonderful example of a very successful sandwich chain that does something similar, exposing everyone to all aspects of the business and allowing them to be heard and make an impact.
As a leader, I responded to the passages regarding Ferguson's relationship with his players and coaching staff. Although he was known for his "hairdryer" style of shouting when angry, Ferguson remains beloved by most of his former employees and appears to have become a father-figure. Despite this, the ruthless streak that allowed him to move on players he felt were no longer at their best shows an effective understanding of balancing business and personal relationships. For more on this you want to read the book High Output Management.
If you enjoy this book you will love Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.