Managing Teams - What must Louis van Gaal learn from Sir Alex Ferguson?

Jul 30, 2014

Managing Teams - What must Louis van Gaal learn from Sir Alex Ferguson?

The countdown to the start of new English Premier League season has started, with fans across the globe looking forward to the coming nine months with a sense of optimism and anticipation.  Twenty top flight club managers, have begun the task of building, leading and managing their teams whilst under the highest levels of pressure and scrutiny.

Unquestionably the highest levels of expectation, and no small amount of concern, will be felt at Old Trafford, where new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal will hope to rebuild the shattered morale of one of the world's football super-powers and restart the engines of success following the short and disappointing reign of David Moyes.  

Van Gaal will seek to emulate the success of former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whose twenty seven year reign as manager brought unprecedented success, including 13 premier league titles, 2 Champions League Cups during a period which saw United build a global empire worth $3.1 billion.

Van Gaal certainly has no shortage of experience, with the Dutchman having managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and having guided the Dutch national side to 3rd place at the recent World Cup, but surely it will be beyond the wildest dreams of the club's supporters that he can replicate the level of success achieved by Sir Alex.

So the question is, how does van Gaal begin the job of returning Manchester United to their former glories and how does he get the club to, once again, start dominating world football?

To answer this question, we must first understand what made Sir Alex Ferguson so great at managing teams. According to a CNN interview, he has many unique skills, which have led to the success of the cub. However one skill stands head and shoulder above the rest; the ability to inspire people around him. 

When looking at this video and thinking about managing high performance teams, what can we learn from the skills and techniques employed by Sir Alex, which could be applied within the world of business?  It is clear that there are universal lessons to be learned from Ferguson's approach.

Tom Manfred of Business Insider, has written an article which summaries Sir Alex Ferguson's 8 secrets to success and briefly elaborates on applying these in business today:

1. Start with the foundation

Sir Alex says his first order of business was bringing in young players and building a youth system that could sustain the club for years, rather than signing veterans for short-gain success.  This allowed Ferguson to build a team equipped with the skill sets required, which had been trained into them from a young age.

2. Dare to rebuild your team

Since he wasn't afraid of being fired, he made decisions based on what the team would look like in four years. He thinks that every team should be retooled every four years, and was brave enough dismantle successful teams, with a view to facing future challenges.  This prevented Sir Alex's sides from becoming stale and always allowed for a fresh approach, or a change of direction.

3. Set high standards — and hold everyone to them

He tells a great anecdote about how meeting high standards can become contagious: "I used to be the first to arrive in the morning. In my later years, a lot of my staff members would already be there when I got in at 7 AM. I think they understood why I came in early—they knew there was a job to be done."

4. Never, ever concede control

You have to get rid of an employee if he's creating discord and trying to wrest some of your power, even if he is the best player in the world. Don't worry about whether employees like you.

5. Match the message to the moment

Ferguson says there is no general rule about when a manager should criticise players and when a manager should encourage players. The context of a situation determines the best message to send to your team.  This allowed him a flexibility of approach, whilst not allowing his team to rest on their laurels.

6. Prepare to win

This is more about risk-taking and decision making than anything else. Ferguson's philosophy is that if you're down 2-1, you might as well put on an extra offensive player and risk losing 3-1 in the pursuit of victory, rather than play conservatively and lose 2-1 anyway.  Sir Alex was never afraid to make the bold decisions with substitutions and tactical changes, and this would regularly turn losing situations into victory.

7. Rely on the power of observation

Early in his career, he delegated managing practices to assistant coaches so he could simply watch and observe what was going on with each individual player. He said, "I don't think many people fully understand the value of observing."

8. Never stop adapting

English football exploded into the multi-billion dollar business it is during Ferguson's tenure, but he was still able to win, regardless of the changing nature of the sport. He explains, "I believe that you control change by accepting it."

Clearly Louis van Gaal has a monumental and daunting task ahead. However if he is able to manage his team effectively and inspire them to work harder, to believe and go that extra mile, then he may well achieve the success that eluded Manchester United last season. Only time will tell and come 24th May 2015 it may well be Manchester United that hold the premier league title once again.


Look forward to hearing your thoughts!



Phil Horrigan

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