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What SME Managers Can Learn From Sir Alex Ferguson

Of all the contemporary knowledge-based businesses, SMB leaders and entrepreneurs would be unwise to dismiss the elite sports, and specifically football, as unallied to their own daily business lives.

The football and the small business worlds (and indeed those of politics and big business) have had a symbiotic relationships for decades now. Small business leaders and entrepreneurs often make the mistake of assuming that the the respective natures of their businesses are worlds apart. Not so. Actually, the football business offers a very accessible model to use as a learning tool for successful management practice.

Last week Sir Alex Ferguson finally stepped aside and it is noticeable how many well-wishers and admirers from many different walks of life made their feelings known. His achievements are especially highly regarded by members of the business community because Ferguson’s is an utterly results-based business and he has survived longer than anyone. Imagine if the metrics for success for his business were applied to SMEs?

Tony Blair used to speak of taking counsel from Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Richard Greenbury has referred to him as the best man-manager in British industry. The Manchester United manager elect David Moyes spoke at the Cambridge University Union just a week or so ago, and sports managers are regularly invited to speak on a motivational or knowledge sharing basis at conferences or plenaries.

It might be useful to cut through and give a sense of focus to the key areas of commonality for small business leaders and successful football managers like Ferguson which startup managers, entrepreneurs and SMB stakeholders can apply to their own contexts;

Adapt or die

A very underrated tenet of any business strategy is the capacity to adapt to the environment and shifting sands of the market around you. Ferguson was a master at adapting to both the medium term changes – tilting market forces, the rise and fall of direct competitors, huge financial investment elsewhere, and the short term changes – injuries, red cards, positional tactics, the weather even.

Nor was Ferguson afraid of making emotionally-based decisions – especially when under severe pressure. He knew that the key to successful perseverance was to blend that tenacity to continue which an ability to change approach according to individual contexts.

SMBs who, especially in this flux-driven digital climate, do not retain a flexible outlook and stick too fiercely to their early formation, risk growing obsolete faster than the changing of the weather.

Man Management

Managing a football team at the highest level is about managing a core business on a daily basis but within an annual cycle. The goal: continually produce winning performance levels.

The key way football managers do this is by harnessing passion and focusing it in the right way.

In business terms the players could be exchanged for sales people, coders, financial experts or product owners, but the method is the same: identify early on what makes that particular staff member tick – and harness it to the collective direction (and collective passion) of the business.

Crucially, Ferguson would also stick by players undergoing periods of strife in order to reap the rewards later- Eric Cantona being the prime example. SME leaders can certainly benefit by supporting staff members through periods of difficulty as it fosters loyalty.

Staff Retention

Ferguson often pointed out, with the increasing comings and goings of managers, players and owners at other clubs, that staffing stability had been a major factor in the continued success of Manchester United over the past twenty years. In fact, he often pointed out that some of his backroom staff had been with him for almost all of those years.

Above and beyond retaining a core staff, Ferguson knew the value of making every single member of every single department feel like an essential part of the collective. He made a point of knowing everyone by their first names, he would always return phone calls no matter how great or small the importance, and he would welcome returning staff without fail and always with due respect.

Moreover, Ferguson also knew the best way to keep staff on his side was to give credit where credit was due. He says that his favourite two words, and those which have had most resonance with his staff were, quite simply, “well done.”

Unity of Vision

One of Ferguson’s most uncanny powers was to cement a sense of unity across the entire operation.

Ferguson harmonised the development of a strategic direction, the creation of tactical plans, the continuity and succession of playing staff, the relationships between the board and the team, their shareholders, the media and the regulatory authorities. Clear and consistent communication underpinned all of this.

These facets apply equally to the running of a business and if an SME leader can orchestrate them in the same way, the business will be in an extremely healthy position.

By communicating a consistent approach and policy-set with regard to across all elements of the business from expected standards of staff behaviour to sensible social media, IT usage and security, to reward schemes and beyond, an SME leader will always remain in control of the direction of the business and keep the staff on-side.

Using Competition to Your Advantage

As the former CEO of Pepsi, Roger Enrico, once said, “If Coca-Cola didn’t exist, we’d pray for someone to invent them.”

Alex Ferguson was adept at using the competition as both a motivational driver, a way to build differentiation (and a siege mentality) and means to focus the club’s energies. In a perverse way this helped to underscore the strengths of his own club at the same time and reinforce their own identity.

Of course this also applies richly to the positioning of an SME within a market. Savvy SME leaders will use their competitors to further hone and define the qualities of their own brand.

At the same time, it helps if you have Ferguson’s brutally competitive streak and his ability to conjure extra time from nowhere…

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2 Responses to What SME Managers Can Learn From Sir Alex Ferguson

  1. Bookbuzz May 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    Expect a management book soon. We will not be reviewing it. Only Cruiff should be allowed to write management books 😉

  2. Gerry Sinnott May 22, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Great article thanks for sharing Ron . I heard a playback on Rte Radio and Ferguson said “Their are two things you cannot change about a man the way he walks and what football team he supports ”

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