There have been many stories written over the past couple of days showering Sir Alex Ferguson with praise, which he has absolutely earned. Many a man has waxed poetic about how wonderful a football manager, a leader, a business manager … a human being that Sir Alex Ferguson is. They talk about his 49 trophies during is sublime management career, the extraordinary players that have played for him, and we’ve heard their glowing tributes. We’ve also heard his greatest rivals pouring adulation at the alter that is Fergie. I wanted to take a moment to give a little different spin to Fergie’s retirement, a more personal one. I wanted to reflect on what Fergie meant to me personally.
To be transparent, I am absolutely a Manchester United fan. Growing up in America, it didn’t hurt that United were mainly what was on TV. However, as I watched soccer for the first time I fell in love with United. Their swashbuckling play, the hard tackles by a fearless leader Roy Keane and the absolute magic produced by Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. But as I grew older, and got into college and later grad school, I started to really pay attention. This is where my lessons from Fergie began.
I remember my first semester of grad school, one of my professors asked us to write a paper on someone that we felt was a great leader. For me, it was always going to be Fergie. I admired his constant drive for greatness, the never say die attitude, how hard he pushed his team, and how much he loved and protected his team. His team was his family, and family comes first.
As I began to dig a little deeper, a few key traits jumped out at me. His ability to manage talent, manage upwards as well as down, and his passion and resiliency were, to me, the keys to success. One quote that had affected my career was:
“You can’t ever lose control, not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,’ said Ferguson. ‘If they misbehave, we fine them, but we keep it indoors. And if anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.”
Some might say that doesn’t apply to the “real world,” but I disagree. The most important lesson from that is that middle part. When we have misbehavior, or people making mistakes, we often go cover our own behinds and get the news out there to our bosses to make sure they know it wasn’t us. But, it makes a lot more sense to deal with it internally. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Fergie is to protect my team. Shield them from above, but when they do well, profusely praise them and give them the exposure to upper management that they deserve. This also plays into other aspects of my professional life that I’ve taken advice from Fergie, move players on when its time (help those around you, and under you, get promotions they deserve), as well as building with youth. The “ugly” part of it is that he advocated removing the bad apples. We all know how quickly a negative attitude can permeate a company, its important to act quickly and firmly to cultivate a culture where employees frown upon it and help identify those parts and remove them.
Fergie believed that a proper youth setup was paramount to long term success. This plays right into the corporate world. I try to give extra care to interns and Jr employees any chance I get. Proper mentoring, and managing their growth are a priority to me. Its simple, if you believe in helping your team members move on, and you work to get your best promoted, you’ll naturally have a need to fill their spot as they depart. With proper attention to youth, you always maintain a high level of production, and high employee satisfaction. If your top performers have a track record of getting rewarded, and finding promotions, then other talent will want to work for you. This ensures high performance continuity.
This brings me to another quote that I love:
“One of my players has been sent off several times. He will do something if he gets the chance – even in training. Can I take it out of him? No. Would I want to take it out of him? No. If you take the aggression out of him, he is not himself. So you have to accept that there is a certain flaw that is counterbalanced by all the great things he can do.”
In the real world, I think about an employee who may be a little eccentric. They may take a little longer to do something, or they may really hate to do something trivial like documentation. But, they may be absolutely brilliant at something else. Its important that I look for those things, and understand them. If you understand your team’s strengths and weaknesses, you can accurately prepare for those things that may be negative and ensure that their brilliance can overcome the risk. This is done by assigning the appropriate work to your team so that everyone has the best chance to succeed.
There are countless stories of his personal side, but one that I read recently has really hit me pretty hard. I remember hearing it before, but a friend of mine posted it after his retirement, and it really hit home. I’ll post it here because this is better than I could ever tell it. Sir Alex was all about loyalty, family, and friends. I believe this story perfectly sums it up. Our work family is still our family and we shouldn’t stop caring at 5 pm everyday.
“A story about Sir Alex that will always stick with me, and has nothing to do with trophies or victories…
When United’s kit-man (Norman Davies) retired to spend his golden years with his family, Sir Alex always found time to drop by, particularly when the grandkids were around, to chat and challenge the kids to a game. When Sir Alex thought no one was looking, he would slip the kids 20 pounds each and be on his way.
When the kit-man passed, his wife phoned Sir Alex in France where he was having a holiday. A few hours later there was a knock on her door, and there were Sir and Lady Ferguson, having not even stopped at home, offering condolences and asking what they could do to help.
Sir Alex said he knew a few people and insisted on a funeral at the grandest cathedral around. The kit-man was a shy fellow and wouldn’t have wanted a grand gesture, so Sir and Lady Ferguson helped with the details of a more intimate funeral.
Every United player from the youth team to the senior squad was present at the funeral, and though then Madrid player David Beckham sent a massive condolence bouquet, it was still dwarfed by the bouquet from the Ferguson’s.
None of this was done for the public’s benefit or with an agenda, if not for the widow speaking none of it would have ever come out.
Despite his critics, Fergie is a man in the old school sense, where family means everything, and United is his family.”
It is a lesson that I am still trying to fully appreciate. We are all human beings with lives outside of our jobs. He genuinely cared about people, no matter how successful for famous he became. He always remember those he met, where he came from, and was fiercely loyal to his friends. The other part to this, and perhaps the most important, is that every employee has a role to play. We all have superstars, we all have role players, and we all have those that do the grunt work. We shouldn’t treat people different just because of that. Everyone is important for the team to function at its peak. There are reasons that his former players so often referred to him as a father figure. He was hard on them, but they knew he’d take care of them.
You’ll also find many quotes from other managers showering Fergie with praise about how he was the first to call them when they got their jobs and offer help and advice, and he’d also be the first to call to help if they were fired. He was always around to help other managers and advise young managers just getting in the game. I think this is an important lesson for me as well. In the corporate world we see each other as competitors for that next raise, next promotion, but that is largely figuratively. He was quite literally in competition with other managers and was very quick to help. I hope to apply this in my life. Nobody ever lost, or suffered, because they were too helpful.
I think it says a lot, to just mention all of his former players who are past and current managers in the Premier League: Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, Graeme Souness, Roy Aitken, Paul Sturrock, Mark McGhee, Ray Wilkins, and Paul Ince. That is not even counting those that went abroad, such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has the Norwegian Premier League in both of his first two seasons in charge of Molde.
Finally, when I do fail at something, whether its missing a deadline or flat getting a project wrong, I always think of this: “Only true champions come out and show their worth after defeat- and I expect us to do that.” We’ve heard it in many different forms, from many different people, but success is truly getting right back up and facing failure head on. I try everyday to live this in my life and hopefully I instill it in those around me.
If I had to sum up Sir Alex, I believe his greatest achievement was taking the world greatest talents and molding them to play for the team first. They played for pride, the club, and each other … not money. I hope that I can grow throughout my career and have my teams perform that way, If I can, I’ll consider myself as a successful manager and leader.
So, now that Sir Alex has retired, part of me is sad for reasons completely outside of football. Not only did he manage my favorite football club, but he was also a hero of mine. A leader that I looked up to, and learned from, from afar. I only got to briefly meet him one time in Kansas City while covering the Manchester United summer tour a few years ago, and he’d have no idea who I am, but I feel compelled to write a huge thank you. You have no idea the impact you’ve had on people’s lives, completely outside of bringing happiness every week on a football pitch, Mr. Ferguson, and I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way.