Sean Silverthorne: What was the inspiration for this case and how did it come together?
Anita Elberse: I am particularly fascinated by companies and people in entertainment, media, and sports that have very strong track records over a long period of time. Sir Alex Ferguson is a manager who has been extraordinarily successful in a career that spans decades—he has been at his current club, Manchester United, for over a quarter of a century. Under his leadership, United has become one of the world’s most successful franchises in all of sports. So when I learned through an industry contact that there might be an opportunity to write a case on Sir Alex, I jumped at the chance. I figured I would undoubtedly learn a great deal about what it takes to lead and manage a sports team, and that indeed proved to be the case.
What are the reasons for his success?
Q: A big part of Ferguson’s story is his amazingly high and consistent performance over time-26 years. What are some of the key characteristics he demonstrates that account for these strings of successes?
A: I think his willingness to develop young talent lies at the heart of his long-run success. Sir Alex speaks of the difference between “building a team and building a club.” 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. And even early on, despite calls from many observers to play it safer (“You can’t win anything with kids” is what a respected television commentator famously said at the time), he gave youth players a chance to win a place in the first team. Many of the players he developed—Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes—became true standouts in their generation, providing the club with a strong base on which to build.
Managing this process well over a long period unavoidably involves cutting older players who may no longer be right for the team, which can be taxing emotionally. “The hardest thing to do is to let go of a player who has been a great guy,” Ferguson told me.
Many other factors contribute to his successes, too. One factor I am particularly impressed by is his ability to adapt to changing 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. Sir Alex has embraced new technologies and new approaches, hiring sports scientists on his staff, and adopting new ways of measuring and improving the performances of players. That sounds straightforward, but if you have been as successful as he has, I can imagine it is very easy to get stuck in your ways.
Sir Ferguson even took classes at HBS..Superb read..