United Leadership (part 1)

“Innnn West Midlands Wolves, born and raised, in a playground is where I spent most of my days…”

OK, it doesn’t have the same impact as the opening theme tune to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air but having seen Will Smith bring the song alive again on Graham Norton recently people like me, who grew up watching the exploits of Will and Carlton, couldn’t hide the goose bumps and feel good factor whilst watching it.

The same has to be said for football fans watching Manchester United dominate the English game, and for a short period Europe too, over the past 20 years or so. And it’s in no small thanks to the living legend that is Sir Alex Ferguson that the Red Devils rode this successful train for so many years.

On the 6th June 2013 I rode a short train journey of my own, from Wolverhampton up to Manchester, to attend a brilliant session organised by HouseMark and facilitated by the Manchester United Foundation on what it takes to build a high performance team through teamwork and leadership.

John Shiels delivered the session, CEO of the Foundation, who has worked with Manchester United for the past 7 years – so it’s fair to say this guy has some first hand experience of this club and what it takes to taste this success and, just as importantly, to maintain it.

You don’t need me to tell you just how big Manchester United are. With an annual turnover of over £330million they are more than just a football club, they are a brand – a very large brand – but one with a very expensive shop window. So to survive they need owners who do not throw money at it – their finances needs to be properly invested. They do things on purpose – not by accident. Some of the new kids on the block throw money at the shop window, but that doesn’t guarantee them longevity. It’s not just about today or tomorrow, it’s about building the foundations for a successful future.

This wasn’t a one-on-one session by the way, I went along with my colleague Josie and we represented Bromford in a room of 20 or so other Housing professionals. So, why would we be interested in what a football club has to say? Well, there are some significant leadership examples for us all here, applicable across many businesses, not just football or housing. There’s a lot to fit in, lots of stories to tell, so I’ll share some of the highlights of the day with you in two parts. This is part one.

Think BIG

To succeed in business your vision has to be big – mediocre is not good enough. When he joined the club as manager 26 years ago, Sir Alex wanted to beat the 18 league titles that Liverpool Football Club had won – it seemed an impossible task at the time but having recently stepped down from the helm he leaves the role with the club having won 20 league titles – when he joined Manchester United they’d only won 7!

Sir Alex Ferguson Stand

Have a shared vision

To continue in these successes, like any other business, there has to be succession planning at United. So, who have they brought in as Sir Alex’s successor – a manager with a track record for winning trophies, right? Wrong. They’ve appointed their new manager (David Moyes) because he had remained consistent throughout his last post at Everton (12 years as manager), had kept them in the top flight of football during his time and built a very good team and structure within a club who had very little investment in the transfer market (Manchester United spent £48m in 2012/13) and City (£76m in 2011/12). So, United have reflected their faith in him with a 6 year contract – a long time in football terms – because it’s all about creating stability and having a shared vision to build success.

Never stop learning

When you look at today’s top footballers, most of whom are multi-millionaires, how do you keep them focused when money is not a driver? It’s about knowing the individual’s needs and working with them to achieve their goals. John told us a story about Ryan Giggs – for those of you who don’t know him he’s the most decorated player in English football of all time (and still playing at the top level at the ripe old-age of 39). The club were looking for a volunteer to help out on a training session with some young kids one afternoon, and when the first team were asked that morning who could be available Ryan was the first to raise his hand, although he did explain that he couldn’t make it for the 1pm start as he had a prior engagement. When he did arrive shortly after 1.30pm the coach asked why he was late. Ryan explained that he was taking swimming lessons! Despite being a tuned athlete, fit as a fiddle, and still performing at the highest level Ryan wanted to do more, but it didn’t stop there. Ryan is learning to swim as he’s training to become a triathlete, amazing! If you want to be the best you’ve got to keep pushing yourself.

Create a positive environment

We often hear stories of how United bounce back in games where defeat seems to be staring them straight in the face. During the 2012/13 season there were 14 times where United came from behind to win the game, but they can’t always be victorious. John told us how, after seeing United lose one particular game, he got to see them warming down shortly after. Some players were seen laughing and joking – which he couldn’t understand. Why was this? Because they need to be focused on the next game; they had quickly put the loss behind them and were now preparing themselves physically and mentally for the next challenge. John said:

“Manchester United are better at losing than winning!”

Performance is key; get the performance right and the right result will follow.

Sir Alex rant

Communicate effectively

Some of you reading this may already be familiar with the model that effective communication is:

7% words

38% tone

55% body language

The power of body language is emphasised in this great story: United were having a bad day and weren’t playing particularly well in one of their home games. So, at half-time the manager came out first – before all the players – something he doesn’t normally do. He went over to the loudest section of fans (the Stretford end) and worked up the crowd by throwing his hands into the air and applauding them – he’s now got their attention. With the entire crowd watching him he now walks to the linesmen and follows them onto the pitch. He makes his way towards the referee to have a word with him, pointing his finger and looking typically animated. Nobody knows what is said but through his body language has communicated to 76,000 fans that there could be a problem and that “we need to do something here”. The second-half began shortly after; the fans got behind the team in rip-roaring fashion and united went on to win the game. Enough said – or in this case – hardly anything at all!

Learn from mistakes

Experience is about learning from the mistakes that have gone before, Manchester United are no different.

Great people like to be challenged, and that’s exactly what happened in the close season of 2011/12. Manchester United had just won their final game 1-0 meaning that Manchester City had to win their game to clinch the title; 27 seconds after United’s game finished City scored to win 2-1 and claimed the title. The following day was United’s player of the year awards and the body language around the room said it all. Sir Alex stood up to addresses the room saying something along the lines of:

“That was yesterday, we’re Manchester United and we will learn from that – I’ll go away and sharpen my saw and we’ll come back and win.”

Sir Bobby and Bryan Robson addressed the room too and said some similar things to that of the manager – all of a sudden the mood in the room was transformed. The United culture instilled. The following season United went on to romp the title beating their City rivals by an 11 point margin. Inspired by the top and believed in from the bottom.

I hope you enjoyed part 1. Keep checking back, or enter your email address at the top of the page, to hear more stories in part 2 and what Sir Alex meant by ‘sharpening his saw’.

*Part 2 is now available by clicking here

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8 thoughts on “United Leadership (part 1)

  1. looking forward to part 2 Andy – and recognising the ‘sharpening the saw’ – very interested to hear Sir Alex’s take!

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  2. Pingback: United Leadership (part 1) | weeklyblogclub

  3. That was a nice piece. I love it. I will love to read the 2nd part.(sharpening of saw) . Lol

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  4. Pingback: Caring, volunteering and walking | weeklyblogclub

  5. Pingback: United Leadership (part 2) | Andy Johnson

  6. Pingback: Stories in Music | Andy Johnson

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