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Sir Alex Ferguson and Executive Coaching

Harvard Business Review features a case study about Sir Alex Ferguson, the recently retired manager and coach at Manchester United football club. Sir Alex was coach and manager for 26 seasons and led Manchester United to be one of the most successful soccer clubs in the world. In the HBR case study by Anita Elberse, Sir Alex’s methods are analysed and distilled down into 8 leadership lessons. These lessons are relevant to me as a coach (as well as to leaders) and, in this post, I summarise the lessons and reflect on their relevance.

Alex Ferguson was known as one of the most challenging and uncompromising coaches, and this approach led to huge success. The 8 lessons identified in HBR are:

  1. Start with the foundation – centres of excellence were created for promising young players. Sir Alex said “The job of a manager … is to inspire people to be better.”
  2. Dare to rebuild your team. Sir Alex constantly looked to rebuild the team and said “… we tried to visualise the three or four years ahead…”
  3. Set high standards – and hold everyone accountable to them. Sir Alex demanded his players worked extremely hard, teammates’ not giving it their all were not accepted.
  4. Never, ever cede control. Ferguson responded quickly and forcefully, maintaining control, e.g. sacking or selling star players if they became a negative influence. He said “It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than the individual.”Sir Alex Ferguson Coaching
  5. Match the message to the moment – tailor your words to the moment. Ferguson varied his approach saying “You can’t always come in shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work.” On feedback Ferguson says “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement.”
  6. Prepare to win through regular practice and repetition of skills. Sir Alex said “If we were down – say 1-2 – with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks.”
  7. Rely on the power of observation. Over time Ferguson switched from hands on coaching to observing. “What you pick up by watching is incredibly valuable.”
  8. Never stop adapting, Ferguson said “I believe you control change by accepting it … The most important thing is to not stagnate”.

I did not expect an English soccer manager to be featured in HBR so I was intrigued, and the article strikes me as relevant to my work as a Challenging Coach. It says that nothing is fixed, things change and so anything is possible through practice and hard work. This is applicable to me as a coach and to my coachees. There is a strength in taking time to visualise courageous goals over an extended timescale of 2 to 3 years rather than focusing too much on the here and now. Once the goals are set, hold people accountable, and don’t accept second best. Use tension as a dynamic energy; different levels of tension and different coaching interventions work at different times with different people. Provide feedback in the moment entering the zone of uncomfortable debate. Don’t be afraid to sit back and observe; you don’t need to prove you’re a good coach by being very ‘active’ in a session so you can watch first then intervene. Be confident to take risks in your coaching session, and with your approach, particularly if it is the last 15 minutes and your coachee still hasn’t got the result they require!

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