In the media – Programme leadership lessons from football

– This article was published on Training Journal (November 2015)

Jim Collins wrote a couple of leadership best sellers called ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Built to Last’.  These books looked at the leadership of a number of successful businesses who outperformed the market for a consistent period of fifteen years.  One of the things he identified was that the leaders of these businesses did not relish the lime light, in fact you would be excused for not knowing who they were.

On the other hand one of the most famous football managers Sir Alex Ferguson inherited an underperforming team and led them to an unprecedented 26 years of success building one of the richest, most successful and most iconic footballing brands in the world.  Unlike the ‘Good to Great’ leaders, Sir Alex was publicly scrutinised every week.  His results were published and analysed and his decisions and choices were questioned regularly by everyone who had an opinion on the subject.

Sir Alex realised, if you get the big decisions right, the small decisions can easily be taken by someone else.  What then can the world of programme leadership learn from the success of Manchester United football club.  Here are just a few thoughts.

The Big Considerations

  • Create the vision and the brand. No matter where you sit within the organisation whether you are a CEO, a director or a junior manager, your team needs to know what they are part of and what they are striving towards.  Sir Alex built an international brand that was based on performance and success, an engaging style of play and a mix of youth and experience.  Players wanted to be part of the team because of the image and the brand name and this became a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more great players who played at United the more players wanted to join.
  • Man management.  High performing teams comprise of a series of high performing individuals, each of whom needs to be personally inspired and motivated.  There is no single solution to this?  Whether you consider Sir Alex’s famous hairdryer technique to be appropriate or not there is no doubt that players like Ryan Giggs personally found it to be a motivator but clearly it wouldn’t suit everyone.  As a leader you need to understand each individual and what makes them respond.  While teams can be motivated collectively to perform, understanding the individual is a key to high performance.
  • If you can’t change the people, change the people.  No matter how capable or talented the individual may be, if they don’t step up to the team values and direction, they have to leave.  As a leader you have nowhere to hide, if there is a problem within the team everyone will see it and will wonder why you are not addressing it.  Letting everyone know that bad behaviour will not be tolerated and that no-one is more important than the team itself sends a very powerful message. Prime Minister Tony Blair famously asked Sir Alex’s advice on team selection and Sir Alex himself parted company with some world class players because they didn’t work within the team structure.
  • Grow your own talent.  Any team will run its course if there isn’t an on-going injection of fresh new talent and ideas and that is why teams generally don’t remain at the top of their game for 26 years.  Manchester United’s youth programme is considered to be one of the best in the world and the amount of effort put into searching for and developing new talent clearly paid dividends when you look at some of the big names who were a product of the Ferguson years.  Instilling the ethos of the team creates a really solid foundation for future growth and providing opportunity to develop and grow builds loyalty and trust.
  • Know Your Stakeholders.  In football, as in any other business, there is a really diverse list of stakeholders ranging from the fans, investors and the media.  Sir Alex took the very conscious decision of prioritising some stakeholders over others to ensure that he knew where his focus should be.  This is a risky strategy as stakeholders generally hold some power over the operation but it is not possible to please everyone and the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
  • Lead from the front. How can you expect people to live the values you are promoting if you do not?  Sir Alex was known for being the first into the training ground and last to leave.  His players realised that they too should be there earlier.  Sir Alex knew the names of every person who worked in or was involved with the club.  There were no ‘little’ people and this too was infectious.  And importantly Sir Alex didn’t give up and this behaviour was most famously mirrored in the UEFA Champions League final in 1999 where Manchester United scored two last minute goals coming from behind to beat Bayern Munich.

Each of these lessons is equally applicable in business as it is in sport.  Football has become big business and Manchester United was at the forefront of this change.  Delivering successful programme outcomes depends upon all of these factors and by getting the big decisions right and ensuring consistency, we create the environment within which our teams can flourish and over-perform.

View the Training Journal article

Eddie Kilkelly

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