Alex Ferguson – lessons in talent management and succession planning

(This post, written by Gert van der Heijden, was first published in Dutch on our Spend Matters Netherlands site. )

Last week Alex Ferguson, the coach and manager of Manchester United announced his  departure after a period of more than 27 years. An icon bids farewell to football. But last year, Professor Anita Elberse from Harvard Business School published a case about the leadership of Sir Alex.

This provided lessons to managers in other organizations, not just football.  The strength of Ferguson includes his success in developing young talent. From his early days at Manchester United, he started to develop young players and also offer them the chance to display their talents alongside the bigger names.  Thus he has always been keen to build a real club feeling, not just an effective team. For many companies this is a tricky subject - how do you ensure that you build your “club” with young talent?

I do not have to convince the readers of Spend Matters about the commercial advantage he gained by giving opportunities to young talent and not just buying expensive players from elsewhere.  The internally developed players included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, and he also  developed players like Christian Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney who he brought to Man United at an early age.

Succession planning is another component, where many companies have difficulty. When do you replace a top player? Do you do that as they are at their peak, or shortly after that, or hang on to them for longer? Ferguson has never been afraid to allow players to leave at what looked like their peak, in order to make space for young talent.

Hacking away at the “dead wood” in an organization is not too uncommon or too difficult. But having the bravery to  cut away at what seem to be reasonably effective, still growing parts of the “plant” in order to allow the young shoots room to thrive is tougher and  seen much less often. Ferguson’s ability and courage in doing that not only helped the development of young players, but gained him respect for his tough but effective style.

(There is a Harvard Business Review article with 11 management lessons from Sir Alex scheduled for June – we will keep you posted).

(Editor’s note – The succession planning at Manchester United corporate level has also been a model of best practice. The timing, organization and professionalism of the transition to David Moyes has been exemplary. Who knows whether he will succeed – but his appointment was handled quite brilliantly).


Share on Procurious

Voices (5)

  1. PlanBee:

    Peter, I would take issue with the fact that the succession planning was a model of best practice. He’s been there 26 years, surely enough time to develop internal talent ready to take over. But that obviously failed so they had to recruit from outside.

    1. bitter and twisted:

      Surely realistic succession planning must account for ‘Anyone good enough to succeed as No.1 isnt going wait around being a No.2 for very long’.

  2. Evans:

    I want to be notified when the HBR article with 11 Mgt lessons from SAF is released!

  3. Peter Kobryn:

    It is interesting to me how SAF has managed to adapt to change despite the (incorrect) assumption of many that he is just an old fashioned power culture type manager.

    True the club is absolutely moulded in his image and he is the most visible expression of its culture, but over the years he has had to show a remarkable ability to not only move with the changing demands of the game but often keep one step ahead on the pitch as well as developing the club culture that you refer to in the article. This also despite the upheaval of the Glazer take over

    The success they have had could not possibly be won through fear alone – this was successs built on collective engagement to the cause and a fierce determination to keep highest standards – witness how the players hold each other to account when a mistake is made on the pitch.

    ……by the way I am not a Man.Utd fan……far from it !

  4. bitter and twisted:

    Analogy FAIL.

Discuss this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.