Sir Alex Fergusson’s career: Lessons in business and life

Recently, Sir Alex Fergusson retired as manager of Manchester United. His career, which saw United pick up 38 trophies in a span of over 26 years, is stuff that dreams are made of. The club, also the richest sports club in the world with a net worth of approximately $ 3 Billion, is loved by millions of its dedicated fans. With a very successful record in the English Premier League and in Europe, the ‘Red Devils’ have been a force to reckon with. Any soccer professional would look at ‘Fergie’ with awe and aspire to accomplish what he did.

Facts of his life and the success that Man U achieved under him are chronicled in great detail in media tabloids, sports documentaries and a vast number of online articles. An active sportsman and an ardent fan of all physical endeavours for a large part of my life, I found Sir Alex Fergusson’s career extremely fascinating. Along with the unique managerial perspective, his career also offers many lessons that would help one stand the rigorous test of time. From a large set, here are a few of the most valuable takeaway lessons:-

1. Inherent advantage of background and experience – His 16 year playing career gave him the necessary experience to see things from the inside. Any attempt to succeed or change the fortunes of an organisation is helped the most when the entire team sees the leader as a man with ‘ground experience’. It applies to any business organisation as well. Experience in most cases is a prerequisite, only a handful few like Jose Mourinho have succeeded at the highest level without getting their hands dirty (or without getting their boots dirty). Success without relevant experience is an exception, not a norm. This must be kept in mind by those professionals who are looking to change their career tracks.

2. Eye for talent – Teams need talented people in order to bring out the best for the group. The manager needs to have an eye to spot ‘the right man for the right job’. Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo were brought to Man U after thorough scouting work. History is proof of the impact that these greats of the game have had on the club. He could see the potential in a player probably before the others and then went on to bring in these players joined Man U, all the while persistent and determined. Of course, strong financial position of the club or any organisation does help to attract talent but recognizing talent is an extremely important aspect for any organisation or company.


3. Right training and planning for future – The present needs to deliver but the future of an organisation also needs to be planned. The combination of talent brought from outside and one that is nurtured at Man U was extremely lethal for the opponents. Neville brothers, David Beckham, Paul Scholes are some of the many who have learnt as kids at the club and then went on to shoulder responsibilities as seniors. Leaders must always keep the future of organisation in mind. Short term hires and quick fix solutions may ‘fight the fire’ but winning over the years needs long-term planning and painful, patient execution. Contribution of players who have come out of grass root development programmes must be balanced with talent brought in from outside. It takes an enormous amount of conviction to believe in long-term since the short-term material gains sometimes overshadow the need to read the future. However, that is exactly why there are so few legends. It is so true of business world where annual compensation and bonuses may put blinkers on the organisation’s leadership to meticulously plan the future.

4. It’s not over till it’s over – Man U came back from behind and outscored its opponents in the dying moments so many times that it almost seemed like a routine. Those who have experienced defeat staring at them in sports field would realize the sapping of energy and the feeling of breakdown which comes by knowing that you are so close to losing. Life also throws numerous challenges at an individual and at teams. ‘Fergie’ trained his squad for ‘never giving up’. The mental make up to outperform at the dying moments speaks volumes of any team. It goes to his credit that opponents could never take victory for granted as they faced a wave of Man U attacks after the 80 minute mark. How many people/teams can muster courage to pick themselves up and turn defeat into victory. It is one of the most important lessons from Sir Alex’s career. Under any circumstances , one must do whatever to remember ‘its not over till it’s over’. Business acquisitions, meeting deadlines and challenges of varying degrees – never say die attitude will always pay off.

5. Genuine passion is seen, felt and respected – Position always brings authority with it. But genuine respect and ‘fear of right’ comes when the senior manager or leader displays unquestionable commitment and undying passion. Anger, high temper and enthusiastic display of disagreement are all positive signs when they come from heart. The feeling towards the team, if genuine, is always appreciated and lays foundation for a long-lasting relationship. Leaders might like to note the way in which the legendary manager let his anger fly. But since his passion for the club was second to none, the message always brought the best out of the team. It is, however, very important to be genuine at all times even if few are unhappy with the traits.

Business world throws challenges to companies and individuals almost regularly. It is important to learn in a rapidly changing world but the application of learning is more important. Sir Alex Fergusson did achieve a lot for the club and for himself too. Soccer history will always have a page for him. How do we want to be remembered in our organisations and in life? The choice is ours but the lessons from the ex Man U manager’s career provide us enough to shape those choices.

-Gaurav Bhandari
PGPX 2013-14

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4 Replies to “Sir Alex Fergusson’s career: Lessons in business and life”

  1. Well written Gaurav! Managing the exceptional but at times wayward Rooney, larger than life Beckham, and perfectionist Ronaldo, and having them deliver in the team, says much about Fergusson’s coaching and management skills. Good learning for all future managers.

  2. Excellent blog, Gaurav. Reinforces my belief that the solid groundwork and a broad vision are ingredients of any success story, not just those in business world.

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