x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Win on and off the pitch

The Life: As Sir Alex Ferguson steps down at Manchester United, there are lessons from his coaching style that can be applied to the boardroom.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson arrives on the pitch at Old Trafford for the last time before retiring. Phil Noble / Reuters
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson arrives on the pitch at Old Trafford for the last time before retiring. Phil Noble / Reuters

It was not surprising to hear the news of Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager of Manchester United, retiring.

He tried before and gave several hints that it was coming. But not being surprised does not equal to not being saddened. As we wish him well in his retirement, his stepping aside did make me consider if there is anything we can glean from his Old Trafford legacy that we can apply in the boardroom.

While I am an admirer of great coaching, I am equally aware of the differences between leading an athletic team and a team in the corporate world. On the pitch, there is no denying Sir Alex's record of tremendous impact. Thanks to his open-for-all-to-see coaching style, his impact can be carried forward, not only on the pitch but also in your boardroom.

Almost on day one at United, Sir Alex made changes to transform what had become more of a "social" club into a football club. What I found most interesting is that his approach lived out Jon Katzenbach's - the famed author of The Wisdom of Teams - definition of "team", years before the definition was printed and possibly conceived.

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Back to that cold day in Manchester, where the manager was about to create a "one-club" attitude. He made changes to the way the senior squad was run, introducing intensive fitness sessions, detailed positional training and a new disciplinary code.

Sir Alex made efforts to establish a "family atmosphere" in which everyone from the star player right through to the kit washer was considered a valuable part of United's organisation.

He made sure that everyone who had any part of the team was focused on winning. Easily said in sports where there are championships. But this is the harder part of the transition from the pitch to the boardroom: what does it look like for your team to win?

Until you are able to answer what is the equivalent of winning the FA Cup and Champions League for your business, you will not be able to apply the insights gained from Sir Alex's or for that matter Katzenbach's definition. Central to team success is knowing how to win.

Sir Alex was a coach who regularly made tough decisions. Starting with his arrival when he put in place a disciplinary code, which was more than a punishment system. It was the code the players practised and played by. It was their common approach. Without this they would have stayed a "social" club rather than go on to become a championship-winning team.

Every team that wins together has established, or in this case established for them, a code - a way of working together. This is the backbone of the definition of a team, players committed to a particular approach.

When the players come together through a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach, the locus of accountability shifts from leader-player accountability to it being mutual with the players taking the ownership.

My scepticism about learning from the pitch for the boardroom is relinquished, as it is clear that we can learn from the world of football. The coaching legacy of Sir Alex can live on - through you.


Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift