by Kate Roskvist, Athlete Assessments

Recently we saw a great article by Anita Elberse (Harvard Business School Professor) on Sir Alex Ferguson and his Eight Secrets of Success in Managing Teams.  Ferguson managed Manchester United from 1986 to 2013, and is regarded as one of the most admired and respected managers in the history of Football.  Elberse had the unique privilege of studying the legendary coach’s leadership approach.  Her article discusses Ferguson’s perspective on eight critical leadership lessons, offering unique insights into what it takes to build and manage teams.  So if you missed the article, we have brought you the eight lessons here:

Lesson 1. Start with the Foundation

“When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty.  They will always remember that you were the manager who gave them their first opportunity.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

Successful recruitment is the life blood of top performing sports teams and organizations around the world.  Whilst the intricacies of the actual recruitment process in different teams, colleges and organizations is going to vary, our article highlights what we believe to be six critical principles to ensure you are positioned to recruit athletes who fit your program’s needs best.

Lesson 2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

“The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy — but all the evidence is on the field.  If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to ask yourself what are things going to be like two years ahead.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

The reality is, winning a championship is never easy.  Today more than ever, even before getting to the finals, seasons are defined by a match or game, midway into the season which a team should have won but didn’t.  To achieve this ultimate success you must have the ability to piece together a cryptic jig saw puzzle, which contains a thousand or more pieces, and to put this puzzle together not just once, but week in and week out.  Knowing which pieces you have in front of you is one challenge; another is knowing which order to put them in, and of course, knowing where to start.

Lesson 3. Set High Standards – and Hold Everyone Accountable to Them

“I constantly told my squad that working hard all your life is a talent.  But I expected even more from the star players.  I expected them to work even harder.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

Ensuring your team sticks to the standards you have put forth can be hard.  Using the GRIP Model as part of your pre-season preparation can make this easier. Often, when problems occur during the season, whether it be with player behavior, team dynamics or underperformance, it is because this vital time wasn’t invested upfront.  Prevention is always better than a cure.  Importantly, this can also be where real differentiation can be put in place on the positive side.  Unify your team right from the start with everyone committed to the team and their personal goals, understanding and supporting the agreed team behaviors, engaged in the team’s identity and what it will take to success, playing for each other and the team and overall more confident and happy athletes.

Lesson 4. Never, Ever Cede Control

“There are occasions when you have to ask yourself whether certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and your control of the players and the staff.  If they are, you have to cut the cord.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

In the sporting world, culture is gaining more acceptance as one of the most important factors to “get right” to enjoy a successful season.  Culture is a measure of the observable behaviors your team and organization promotes and accepts. Ultimately culture is best defined simply as “the way we do things around here”.  Culture is not what you think or want to do, it is what you do.  Full stop. Some teams espouse a certain culture but actually behave in a very different way.  That is, they do not walk the talk.  Culture is the talk you walk.  Team culture has an impact on the behavior, contentment and attitude of athletes within their sporting environment.  Your team’s Culture results in either effective and productive outcomes or ineffective and unproductive outcomes.

Lesson 5. Match the Message to the Moment

“For a player — for any human being — there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

There is no doubt that communication is the key to success in the sporting and business world. European Leaders recent research showed that poor communication is responsible for reduced performance in the business world.  In the sporting world it is no different.  Better communication from coaches will result in a positive impact on performance.

There is no single element of the coaching process that is more important than communication”- Spink, 1991

“Being an effective communicator is a distinguishing characteristic of expert coaches” – Bloom, 1996

Coaching and senior management staff must have the ability to communicate effectively to foster a successful environment, no matter what sport they are a part of.

Lesson 6. Prepare to Win

“I am a gambler—a risk taker—and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches.  …  If we were still down—say, 1–2—with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks.  I was perfectly happy to lose 1–3 if it meant we’d given ourselves a good chance to draw or to win.  So in those last 15 minutes, we’d go for it.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

This message, reflects a team’s ability to change and adjust according to the circumstances they are in. Some teams play to a plan and if this plan does not work, then they lose. Other teams can rapidly adjust that plan to suit differing challenges they are facing. This ability to adapt to changing circumstances is a skill but primarily is an attitude where a team has to want to push the envelope and their own limits. Ultimately this also reflects the ultimate goal of any team which is about creating a winning outcome, which may not be pretty but is about being willing to roll the dice.

Lesson 7. Rely on the Power of Observation

“I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills.  The ability to see things is key — or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

This was one of the 8 Factors of Expert Coaches, we discussed in our previous article.  Experts recognize patterns faster than novices.  They have an ability to notice something most others do not.  Before you can recognize a pattern, you have to have noticed the first time something occurred.  Some coaches have a better eye for noticing than others.  Some do not “see” what is actually happening in front of them.  Others can take note of such a minute level of detail, they can give high level direction to an athlete to make a small adjustment which can make a massive difference to the athlete’s performance (these coaches are said to have a well-developed “eye”).

Lesson 8. Never Stop Adapting

“Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change.  But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change.” – Sir Alex Ferguson

This is one of the biggest indicators for success.  Being willing and able to adapt your behavior increases your ability to communicate and build relationships with other people.  The concept of adaptability, as developed by Dr.  Michael O’Connor, co-author with Tony Alessandra, of The Platinum Rule (Warner Books, August 1996), is a two-part process.  It combines flexibility with versatility.  Flexibility is your willingness to adapt.  It’s your attitude.  Versatility is your ability to adapt.  It’s your aptitude.  Being an Athlete Centered Coach is about coaching with the needs of the athlete foremost in your priorities.  It requires that coaches are willing and able to choose a coaching style that is most suitable for their athlete’s needs.

Where to from here?

We hope that this article has given you some great insight into what it takes to be a manager with the success and longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson.  You may also be interested in our downloadable resources, The Performance Through People Playbook, and Your Coaching Philosophy Workbook.

At Athlete Assessments, we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and here to help you be your best.  If there is anything we can assist you with, please Contact Us.

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