01 Mar 2013
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A United Front

An amazing 26-year (and counting) success story
by Sean Silverthorne

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Sustaining peak performance over not just years but decades may be the single most difficult challenge for executives, which makes Sir Alex Ferguson's 26-year run as manager of England's legendary Manchester United soccer club so noteworthy, especially in the up-this-year, out-the-next world of professional sports.

Ferguson's talents include deft management and motivation of some of the world's greatest (and most high-strung) athletes, staying current on the latest training regimens and technologies, and plotting strategy both for on-field play and for long-term organizational success.

"There is no active coach in the highest echelons of the world of soccer—or, to my knowledge, in sports as a whole—who comes even close to such a lengthy tenure, let alone the number of titles and trophies he has accumulated," says HBS professor Anita Elberse, who recently wrote the case "Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United." The flip side of Ferguson's acclaim, of course, is that he and his team have a large target on their backs. When the case opens on the 2012–2013 season, the club is facing a well-funded, vigorous challenge by Manchester City, United's "noisy neighbors," operating under ambitious new ownership. How will Ferguson manage to lead his team to yet another victorious season?

To delve into that question, Elberse received a rare, pitch-level view of how Ferguson operates. She and coauthor Tom Dye (MBA 2012) visited twice with the manager last year, during the season and again at summer break. "We had a chance to speak with a range of people he works with and values, from the club's CEO and his assistant coaches, the players, and the youth team to his longtime assistant, the kit manager, and even the ladies who take care of washing the team jerseys," Elberse comments. "All those experiences and interactions proved invaluable to understanding Sir Alex's day-to-day approach."

That daily approach includes a keen sense of how to motivate his international cadre of players. "He seemingly knows exactly what to say when and understands what different players need," observes Elberse. "He holds everyone to the same high standards but will tailor his approach to different personalities."

But he is also commanding when the situation requires. Says Elberse, "There's a telling quote in the case in that regard: 'You can't ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. And if anyone steps out of my control, that's them dead.'"

Managers in any industry could learn from Ferguson's emphasis on developing young talent. "Sir Alex speaks of the difference between 'building a team and building a club,'" Elberse says. "When he started at United, he immediately set about revolutionizing the club's youth program. He also made it more visible in the organization: for instance, ensuring that academy players warmed up alongside senior players every day in order to foster a 'one club' attitude." Manchester United's stable of homegrown stars has included David Beckham, Gary Neville, and Paul Scholes.

Also important: Ferguson keeps current with the times. "You have to realize that the world of soccer nowadays looks nothing like the one he started in as a coach at United 26 years ago," Elberse observes. "Sir Alex has embraced new technologies and new approaches, hiring sports scientists on his staff and adopting new ways of both measuring and improving the performances of players. That sounds straightforward, but if you have been as successful as he has, it could be very easy to get stuck in your ways."

For the significant contingent of soccer fans among Elberse's students, Sir Alex is something of a rock star, so his October classroom visit to Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries was akin to meeting Sir Paul or Sir Elton. "He seemed perfectly at home in our classroom and thoroughly enjoyed the experience," says Elberse, for whom the Ferguson case represents a growing body of work on creative industries that include book and magazine publishing, film, music, television, video games, the performing arts, sports, and advertising. "You could tell he has a passion for teaching young people."

Sean Silverthorne is editor-in-chief of HBS Working Knowledge.

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