10 Lessons from “Leading” with Alex Ferguson

Dear Friends,

Leading is a masterful guide to great leadership on Sir Alex Ferguson, written by Sir Michael Moritz. Embedded within the sharing by Sir Alex are relevant lessons for entrepreneurs who want to build enduring companies.

1. Build strong basic foundations. Ferguson created a structure for the long term by restructuring the youth and scouting program. Early signings included Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. I can think of similar examples where some of the most important hires by our technology companies are young unproven people hungry to win.

2. Recruit, train and promote young people. They’ll be loyal, they’ll climb mountains for you, and they’ll take on many of your values, notes Ferguson, who became famous for spotting and developing players when they were young.

3. Fire people early. When Ferguson took over United in the 1980s, it was a mediocre club with the wrong players and culture. It took him years to change that into one reflecting his values. In retrospect, he says, he should have switched out more people sooner. This is quite pertinent for technology companies as a wrong hire has a dispropotionate negative impact on a company’s growth.

4. Dare to rebuild teams. He assembled five distinct league-winning squads during his time at the club and continuing to win trophies all the while. “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future,” Ryan Giggs.  The world won’t stand still and nor can you. “(A)t United we effectively rebuilt the team on four-year cycles,” Ferguson recalls.

5. Show up. Leaders underestimate just how important their simple presence is, Ferguson says. He recalls a player complaining about his absence even from a training session. In total, he says he missed just three of United’s 1,500 professional fixtures during his tenure — an astonishing record.

6. Set high standards—and hold everyone accountable.
Ferguson speaks passionately about wanting to instill values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up—in other words, to make them winners.

7. Never, Ever Cede Control. “You can’t ever lose control—not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,”

8. Stay clear-headed in negotiations. Ferguson: “It’s hard to remain clear-headed during negotiations and not get swept away by the passion of the pursuit or emotion. It’s so easy to get over-stretched…If discipline slips during a negotiation it can have all sorts of ramifications. Not only does it drive the price up for a particular transaction, but it has ripple effects. In football, just as in other businesses, it means that people now expect you to pay top dollar.”

9.  Focus on the big things. Like many people who’d watched United from afar, I’d assumed Ferguson kept an iron grip on every detail of the club. Not true, it seems. Ferguson says leaders need to learn to delegate and manage through others. And he recalls learning early on how much more valuable it was for him to take a step back from the team’s daily practice sessions and watch from the sidelines, where he could see everything, than to take the field and try to coach them himself. That lesson, he recalls, “was the making of me.”

10. Pick values over talent. Ferguson is famous for developing or signing some of the greatest soccer players in history, but says: “If I had to choose between someone who had great talent but was short on grit and desire, and another player who was good but has great determination and drive, I would always prefer the latter.”