Sean Van Staden
Columnist
3 minute read
21 Sep 2013
10:00 am

The secrets to Sir Alex Ferguson’s success

Sean Van Staden

One of, if not the, greatest coach retired from the frontline at Manchester United in May. His game victories and ability to pull goals out of the hat in the dying minutes of a game has been nothing short of miraculous.

Sean van Staden

You think it is luck, but Harvard Business School professor, Anitia Elberse, took on an assignment to try bottle Sir Alex’s formula for success. Here are the first four of eight lessons you can learn from the great Sir Alex Ferguson:

Start with the foundation

In the mid-Eighties, Ferguson had a vision for the club. It was not to buy the top players like most clubs do today but to set up two “centres of excellence” instead and recruited players, some as young as nine years old. He gave a mandate to scouts to bring him the best of the best and among those talents were David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.

Ferguson believed this allowed for players to bond, build spirit and create fluency. The future success in building a great club is making sure you have a strong foundation and a supply chain to the first team.

Dare to rebuild you team

Ferguson has been credited with assembling five distinct winning squads over the years and this has been attributed to a keen sense of player life cycles. It all boils down to what value a player is bringing a team at any given moment. The minute the value did not benefit United, the player would be sold. “He never really looked at the moment, he’s always looking into the future,” Ryan Giggs told HBS. Ferguson believed that any great team has about four years before the life cycle changes, this is why it is so important to look to the future in planning.

Set high standards

One of the most important philosophies from Ferguson is instilling value in his players. His goal was to inspire them to strive to do better and never give up. United had a standard set by Ferguson, and if you wanted to be a part of United, you had to eat, sleep and breathe the culture.

Ferguson said that he never had a bad training session, it was all about quality, high focus, intensity, concentration and speed. Off the pitch it was no different with motivation talks, tactical talks, team building exercises and preparation. “I had to lift players’ expectations. They should never give in. If you give in once, you’ll give in twice,” he said.

The goal with setting high standards is to make sure everyone, including the guy who cuts the grass to subscribe. Players should not feel they have to always push to give a high standard each practice but to believe this is the norm expected of them.

Never, ever cede control

“You can’t ever lose control – not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,” Ferguson told HBS. “And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I’ll deal with them.” If anyone violated his code of ethics, they were dealt with accordingly, as Roy Keane soon found out when his contract was terminated for publicly criticising his team-mates.

Ferguson firmly believed that if players decided what the training should be, what days they should have off, what the disciplines should be, and what the tactics should be, then United would not be the United we know.

It’s all about keeping control and making sure your personality is bigger than theirs.

It is hard to bottle years and years of experience. People have tried to bottle billionaire Warren Buffett’s success principles but failed miserably. The important thing to remember here is that Ferguson’s eight principles of success are key ingredients in making any club a success but it is often the finer processes that are not spoken about that support and strengthen the principles. Take time to reflect on his principles and see how they have made Sir Alex a legend, and can benefit your club environment.

Look out for next week’s article on the final four principles of his success. Tweet me your thoughts and views @SeanVStaden.