How to Win: Career Lessons from Soccer's Greatest Manager

Published: May 14, 2013

 Workplace Issues       
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It's a mark of how much times and interests have changed that news of the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson from the manager's job at Manchester United made it into mainstream U.S. media last week. At the start of his managerial career, Ferguson leaving a job would barely have created a stir in the neighboring town in his native Scotland, while the American audience for his version of "football" barely registered on the scale.

But after a managerial career spanning more than three decades—and with 27 years under his belt at Man U alone—Ferguson leaves the soccer world a much-changed place. Widely touted as the greatest manager ever, Ferguson built United into one of the most recognizable names in world sport, earning a tremendous haul of championships—and a knighthood—along the way (not to mention the club's $3.5 billion valuation). As he steps down, then—the act itself a rarity in an industry notorious for the short tenure of its coaches (and the accompanying trigger-happiness of boards)—it's the perfect opportunity to glean a few lessons from his career.


Failure isn't optional…

As anyone who has participated in sport at any level will tell you, "you can't win them all." And, despite Ferguson's long history of success, there have been periods of his career that were marked by repeated failure. Indeed, any discussion of his career usually includes an account of the early years at United—a period of four years where his teams notably failed to win any of the competitions they entered. While that may sound unremarkable, it's an unusually long period for a manager of an elite soccer team to survive without tangible success.


…but it doesn't have to define you

The usual telling of the tale of "Fergie's" early years at United involves a nod towards the board and their willingness to believe in Ferguson. However, it seems equally likely that, despite his "failures," Ferguson continued to earn that faith by proving that, despite the lack of championships and trophies, the club as a whole were making progress and getting closer to their goal.


Planning is the key to longevity

One of the hallmarks of Ferguson's career has been his willingness to recruit and develop young players. While he is credited with bringing through a golden generation of young players at United—one that unleashed the talents of a certain Mr. Beckham, among others, on an unsuspecting world—Ferguson didn't wait to be offered the platform of one of the world's biggest clubs to put his ideas into action. In his previous managerial post—at Aberdeen, in Scotland—Ferguson displayed a similar willingness to acquire and mold young players, and to develop programs and systems that benefited the club in the long term. Those practices, and the success they brought him with Aberdeen, were surely what helped him to stand out as a candidate for the bigger job.*


Adaptation is the key to survival

In the time since Ferguson took over at Manchester United, "football" has become almost unrecognizable. The problems with hooliganism that blighted the British game in the 1980's have all but been eradicated, players in Europe gained the right to move freely between clubs in the 1990s (a ruling that revolutionized the transfer market), and the game has caught on as a global industry, with more money flowing through it than ever before. Long gone, then, are the days when Ferguson had to go from door to door in Glasgow in the 1970s, beseeching locals to attend the coming weekend's fixture as a means of topping up his budget for players and expenses. But all through the period, Ferguson has proven the ability to adapt, both as a tactician and as a leader of an organization that has grown from a regional force to a global superpower under his management. As he told soccer journalist Philippe Auclair in a recent interview, that longevity has been the key to mastering the different elements of his job, even as it continued to change: 

"When I first came, the club was not as big as it is now, so, therefore, I’ve integrated many things over the years. I seem to be able to cope because of everything that’s brought me to this point—to the point it becomes normal."

Make time to think

With everything that surrounds a leadership position, one of the most important things that any manager can do is to carve out the time and space for solitude and reflection—a process that better enables them to see issues clearly and make good decisions. While Ferguson has undoubtedly made some mistakes over the years, he has long believed in the importance of solitude--a point he also made in his interview with Philippe Auclair:

"What I do—the reason why I have survived—is that I’m able to get to that state of ... vacuum, where I can dismiss everything. You understand? What people say to me becomes peripheral, because I believe I, and everyone else, need 'thinking time,' that escapism which enables you to think. If you don’t have that time to think, the whole day will catch up with you."

Know when to quit

While Ferguson will still be involved in some capacity at Manchester United, his decision to leave now and help to bed in a successor smacks of the kind of long-term planning that he has been practicing for most of career. While he could undoubtedly have remained in the job for a few more years, there are several challenges at the club that are best undertaken by the person who will be responsible for watching them come to fruition. With that in mind—plus the fact that Ferguson has completed his personal goal of making United the most successful team in the history of the English league—this seems to be a perfect time to walk away and end his career on a high note.


* Full disclosure: as a boy growing up in Scotland, the nucleus of the squad that Ferguson left behind at Aberdeen were my first love. Unfortunately (for me), fate has not been as kind to the team he left behind as the one he joined!

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