Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably one of the most successful and prolific professional sports coaches of all time. Over his 26-year tenure as guardian of Manchester United – one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world – his teams racked up trophy after trophy after trophy. He won 13 English top-league championships and 25 other trophies. Ferguson is to Man. U what Steve Jobs was to Apple.
Despite being a recovering jockaholic, my one remaining jockular vice is a habitual, near-obsession with the beautiful game (or “Real Football” as I like to call it to raise the ire of my NFL-misguided friends). But the relevance of Alex Ferguson to a blog called IT Buzz stems more from my career-long fascination with the parallels of sports coaching with other forms of coaching.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Sir Alex summarized his coaching prowess in a set of eight leadership lessons. As you review these, I suggest you do as I did and think about the applicability of each to other job functions and other realms of leadership e.g. IT management, business management, etc.
- Start with the Foundation: Build continuity of supply and fluency by building from the bottom. This creates a strong team bond.
- Dare to Rebuild Your Team: The cycle of a successful team is about four years. Plan ahead, accept that change is required, and make decisions accordingly.
- Set High Standards – and Hold Everyone to Them: Accept nothing less than the highest quality standards in everything, including training. Intensity, concentration, and speed lead to strong performance.
- Never, Ever Cede Control: Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. The long-term view of the club is more important than any one player, even if the player is the best in the world.
- Match the Message to the Moment: You need to point out mistakes, but showing your angst all the time doesn’t work. You have to pick your moments. The two best words ever invented are “well done”.
- Prepare to Win: Training focused on repetition of skills and tactics. Never be satisfied with where you are – constantly look for ways to improve. Training sessions included drills on coming from behind to win.
- Rely on the Power of Observation: The ability to see things you don’t expect to see is a key coaching skill.
- Never Stop Adapting: Control change by accepting change. Have confidence in the people you hire. Do not stagnate – always strive for the best possible chance of winning.
Alex Ferguson masterfully executed his 26-year reign of supremacy as boss at Manchester United with a roster that turned over completely no fewer than 5 or 6 times. The phrase “rebuilding season” was never needed (after his initial few years). For the twenty years before he called it quits, he delivered a championship or a trophy of some kind in every season but one, and in this regard, he stands alone. No other sports coaching legend – not the Chicago Bull’s Phil Jackson; not the NHL’s Scotty Bowman; not even UCLA’s amazing basketball coach John Wooden – can claim to such a superlative record of recurrent feats. There is plenty we can learn by modelling the habits and following the guiding principles of this exceptional leader, even though his field of play may be different than our own.