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The secret of my success: 7 management lessons from Alex Ferguson

Harvard Business School have studied the work of the Manchester United manager.

Leadership: Alex Ferguson.
Leadership: Alex Ferguson.
Image: : Martin Rickett/PA Wire/Press Association Images

THEY’VE NAMED A stand after him, erected a statue outside the Stretford End and now Harvard is studying Alex Ferguson’s management style.

And after 26 years in charge of Manchester United, why not?

The university’s famous business school conducted interviews with the Scot and his staff and earlier this year Fergie visited HBS to help professor Anita Elberse teach the class.

Here’s what we’ve taken from the case work; some obvious, some not more interesting:

1. Relate to people — even if they are multi-millionaires and a third of your age

“If someone knocks on his door and they have a problem, the first thing he does is turn the chair around and say, ‘Sit down, let’s talk,’” Ferguson’s  secretary Lyn Laffin says in the case study. Even Nani needs a chat now and then.

2. Communication: use your imagination

Ferguson says: “I once heard a coach start with ‘This must be the 1,000th team talk I’ve had with you,’ and saw a player quickly responding with ‘And I’ve slept through half of them!’ ”So I like to tell different stories, and use my imagination. Generally, it is about our expectations, their belief in themselves, and their trust in each other.

“I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the coordination and the teamwork, one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra — how they are a perfect team.”

3. Tactics; get them right

“Tactics can change depending on whom we are playing,” Fergie told the class. ”I tend to concentrate on one or two players of my opponents — the ones that are the most influential. Who’s the guy who is taking all the free-kicks? Who’s the guy who’s on the ball all the time? Who’s the one urging everyone on? The rest of the time I concentrate on our own team.

“On Friday we take our players through a video analysis of our opponents: their strengths, their weaknesses, their set pieces, what their team is likely to be, and so on. Then on Saturday, we might give them another, shorter version — just a recap of the previous day.”

4. Control your temper

“I’ve still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season. It was another day in the history of Manchester United. That’s all it was. It created the drama that only United can produce.

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“Who would have thought that Blackburn, bottom of the league, would beat us 3-2 at Old Trafford? Or that Everton would draw with us when we were up 4-2 with seven minutes to go? My motivation to the players will be that we cant let City beat us twice in a row.”

5. Express yourself quickly

“There are maybe eight minutes between you coming up through the tunnel and the referees calling you up on the pitch again, so it is vital to use the time well. Everything is easier when you are winning: you talk about concentrating, not getting complacent, and small things you can address.

“But when you are losing, you know that you are going to have to make an impact. The last few minutes of the first half I’m always thinking of what I’m going to say. I’m a little bit in a trance. I am concentrating.

“I don’t believe in taking notes. I see other coaches do it, but I don’t want to miss any part of the game.

6. Play politics

“The Glazers decide. They have generally been very supportive and are very low-key. If I owned United and they won the league, I would be over the moon.

“I remember when I played with Rangers, when the directors were under the shower with their clothes on, dancing about. But the Glazers shook a few hands and had some photographs taken, that was it. Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room. That is very dangerous. Football management in the end is all about the players. You think you are a better player than they are, and they think they are a better manager than you are.”

7. Do the basics well

“The first thought for 99% of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club — not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team.”

What do you think?

- additional information at Business Insider

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