Learning from the Man U master

Managing My Life - My Autobiography Alex Ferguson

Managing My Life - My Autobiography Alex Ferguson

Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0340728558

Nobody is perfect, but the players of Manchester United have got nearer than most over the past few seasons,writes Mark Lewis. Granted, schoolboy gaffes by Gary Neville and another David Beckham tantrum saw them dumped unceremoniously out of last week's World Club Championship in Brazil. Still, five league titles, four FA cups and a European Cup in the past decade is an awesome record by any standards.

That the club has achieved such success is in no small part due to the expertise of its manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson is a football "lifer". Without straying within sniffing distance of an MBA or management textbook, this remarkable man from the Clydeside shipbuilding community of Govan has developed a rare talent for eliciting loyalty, commitment and excellence from the teams he has managed.

Managing My Life, the autobiography he published last year, imparts knowledge and experience with a clarity of prose that most self-styled management gurus could only dream of.

There's no wizardry to Ferguson's achievements, from his early days at lower division Scottish clubs to his epoch-making residency at Manchester United, and therein lies the strength of this book. He makes best practice seem simple, obvious and attainable.

Ferguson himself puts it another way: "Common sense, when there is enough of it, amounts to wisdom."

This being the story of a life in football, effective team building features predictably heavily. "My aim in management", says Ferguson, "has always been to lay foundations that will make a club successful for years, or even decades."

An early lesson in the importance of succession planning to ensure prolonged success came when Ferguson took up his first managerial post at East Stirlingshire, in 1974. He discovered to his horror that he had inherited a total of only eight players on the books, with not a goalkeeper among them. By securing enough money to buy extra players, and immediately establishing a youth policy, Ferguson averted disaster. But the lesson was never forgotten.

Assuming command at Old Trafford 12 years later, he found a similarly unhealthy situation. Never was there a project longer overdue than Manchester United's reclaiming of the League Championship. And yet key players had been allowed to age without any thought to replacing them. Contracts looked in danger of running out at the same time and the club's scouting and youth policies had withered.

Once again, through a combination of youth development and judicious signings, Ferguson brought stability. The presence of youth team graduates like Giggs, Beckham and Scholes in United's first team, is a tribute to his strategic planning.

Leadership, so crucial a weapon in the armoury of today's IT director, emerges as another of Ferguson's key strengths.

Ferguson admits to his fair share of half-time histrionics and tea-cup throwing. On one occasion, he cracked a cola bottle above the heads of his St Mirren team. "Not one of them moved as the Coke ran down the wall and the glass dropped on to their strips."

Nevertheless, his ability to inspire loyalty is formidable. Wherever he has managed, Ferguson has built a loyalty culture by defending players in controversial situations, by treating players with dignity, and by finding time for personal mentoring. He learnt the importance of this last skill at first hand through his relationship with the great Jock Stein, who schooled Ferguson in networking, mental firmness and streetwise politics.

Meanwhile, his motivational powers are second to none. Arriving at Aberdeen in 1978, Ferguson found he had a club-wide inferiority complex to dispel before he could think of winning silverware. The dominance of Celtic and Rangers in Scottish club football had, he realised, infected the club with resignation, and left it feeling that it was its destiny to be the supporting cast. "Passivity of that kind", Ferguson asserts, "is alien to me".

That Aberdeen went on to be three times Scottish Premier Division Champions, and winners of the Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, is a measure of his success.

Here, surely, is an object lesson for IT directors attempting to raise the profile of their department. Forget the cultural and historical baggage that your department carries, and have the confidence and self-belief to draw attention to the value it can deliver to the business at large.

Other instructional nuggets come thick and fast. "Buy while you are doing well, not while you are on the wane," is one: invaluable advice for anyone looking to establish an e-commerce team.

Ferguson also has much of value to say on the subjects of managing expectations, delegating to allow time for strategic thinking, communicating effectively and using politics to your advantage.

But perhaps Sir Alex himself should have the last word. "I was learning something new about management every day and, although I was making mistakes, I was not repeating them."

Ensure your fingers are in the e-pie Have you noticed that everyone is involved in a major, hush-hush e-commerce initiative, one that will change the way they do business forever, transform their organisation's future and, of course, their own careers?

This is great news for IT leaders, who should be at the heart of any and every such project. Y2K ensured IT directors were listened to at board level - e-commerce offers the chance to keep us there. Yet too many organisations are not even involving their IT people in these new plans. Their argument is that the traditional IT department is fine for traditional IT work, but they do not have the skills and mindset for e-commerce.

Such an attitude sounds the death knell for IT, and must not be allowed to happen. IT people are outstandingly placed to make new technology initiatives succeed. They can bring in third parties as and when needed, work closely with marketing and other areas of their company, and effectively translate all industry hype into commercial reality.

It is not simply enough, however, to moan and shout that IT should, or has an automatic right to be leading the way - IT leaders and their teams have to earn that acceptance.

There are many ways of doing this. If you are being bypassed in discussions and planning on e-commerce, you must act quickly.

The window of opportunity for e-commerce to succeed in any organisation is small, possibly six months, which basically makes the timescale available for IT departments to get in on the act even shorter.

There are proven ways to achieve this:

  • Come up with the answers yourselves - make a presentation to the board on the possibilities that e-commerce holds for the organisation. Include real bottom-line benefits in the areas of increased revenue, improved information and knowledge and/or closer alignment with your customers

  • Become a champion of change inside your company. This will allow you to both reduce illogical change initiatives being foisted on you, while taking control of the change agenda. Go to your CEO and argue that there is simply not enough change going on in your company, and propose a raft of new ideas that includes e-commerce technology

  • Schedule an external speaker on e-commerce, to ignite your board's interest in its possibilities

  • Find out what your competitors are doing, and tell your board -- make them paranoid

  • Change your departmental title, instead of being the IT department, become the new media, or knowledge department - change of label, change of image.

    There will be many people in your organisation that want to own an e-commerce project. After all, it promises far more glory than any other major IT development.

    E-commerce technology and the virtual world will, in many ways, replace the need for traditional IT services and departments.

    If you are not at the heart of your organisation's thinking, planning and delivery, you are at the heart of nothing, and may just as well go home.

    David Taylor is president of association of IT directors, Certus.

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