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November 19, 2013

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// Business Lessons Learned from a Successful Coach

Many of you know we love to tell sports stories to make a business point. We found a fascinating story about a famous coach in, of all places, the Harvard Business Review October 2013 issue. Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse interviews Sir Alex Ferguson, who recently retired after serving for 26 years as the manager of the Manchester United football club. You may not be familiar with his achievements, but he would be in the same category as Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, or Scotty Bowman — in fact, he’s maybe even more accomplished.

Professor Elberse summarizes Coach Ferguson’s approach in eight leadership lessons. As we read his story, we thought of the obvious relevance to a business. Below are Coach Ferguson’s lessons, followed by our business application:

  1. Start with the Foundation — The coach reports that the first thought of most newly appointed managers is to make sure they win; that ensures they will survive. To accomplish their goal, they bring in experienced players. That’s simply because we’re in a results-driven industry. (Editorial comment: Does that sound familiar?) Coach Ferguson’s focus was on building a club, not just winning a game. He went on to say that his team’s youth development efforts ended up leading to their many successes.

    Application: Most companies seem to need more supervisors, skilled associates, and even a few high-level executives. Often their only solution is to hire from the outside. The most successful companies, however, have a “youth development” program. They have a well-oiled developmental system at all levels, from operators to future C-level executives, including apprentice programs and internships. They are always looking for raw talent they can develop. They take risks. If they are successful, they know they will need lots of great people. They take it upon themselves to grow their own.

    Note: We often hear executives complaining that they invest all this money in developing their people and then those people leave for more money. According to 1 million people interviewed by Gallup, that is not true. (See our September 30, 2013, blog.)

  2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team — Coach Ferguson admitted that managing the talent-development process inevitably involved cutting players, including those he had a personal attachment to.

    Application: If you want to succeed in the long term, don’t settle for less than the best. (See our March 20, 2012, blog.)

  3. Set High Standards — and Hold Everyone to Them — Coach Ferguson wanted to inspire his players to strive to do better and to never give up — in other words, he wanted to make them winners.

    Application: First of all, do you provide clear direction to your team? Once that’s been done, do you hold them accountable? (See our December 3, 2012, blog.)

  4. Never, Ever Cede Control — An important part of maintaining high standards across the board was Ferguson’s willingness to respond forcefully when players violated the team’s standards/values. In 2005, a longtime captain publicly criticized his teammates, and his contract was terminated. Ferguson recommends responding quickly, before situations get out of hand.

    Application: Once again, the coach provides us with some sage advice. In our July 22, 2013, blog, we state that often a team is better off without a big-ego superstar.

  5. Match the Message to the Moment — Ferguson found it useful to remind players how far they had come. He would tell them that having a good work ethic is very important. He went on to say, “As a manager, you play different roles at different times. Sometimes you have to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a father.”

    Application: Needless to say, everything Coach Ferguson said applies to business. One of our favorite stories of knowing when to say what is captured in our July 2, 2012, blog. Enjoy.

  6. Prepare to Win — United practice sessions focused on repeating skills and tactics. Coaches and players looked at the training sessions as opportunities to learn and improve. With this type of mindset, there is also an underlying signal that you are never quite satisfied with where you are and are constantly looking for ways to improve.

    Application: Ferguson’s advice reminded us of Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated. Colvin coined the phrase “deliberate practice,” which is where you really prepare and focus on what you are competing in. He used Tiger Woods as an example. We have all read stories of how Tiger began playing golf as a young boy and, even today, he spends a significant amount of time on the practice green. A business example comes from David Gergen’s book, Eyewitness To Power, where he provided his views of the four U.S. presidents he served. He talked about the many hours President Reagan spent preparing to speak. In this example, you have a former movie star and a gifted communicator who was following Coach Ferguson's advice.

  7. Rely on the Power of Observation — Ferguson said, “I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key — or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”

    Application: When we read this lesson, we immediately thought of the 1982 Tom Peters and Robert Waterman book, In Search of Excellence. It was the first time we were exposed to the phrase “Management by wandering around,” which was originally used at Hewlett-Packard. All great business owners/executives that we know find a way to get out of their office and into the plant, other offices, and other countries — and, yes, they visit customer facilities. Due, in large part, to all the great technology that’s available today, we observe far too many executives who are managing from their office, even though their team and customers love to see them.

  8. Never Stop Adapting — Finally, the coach would say, “One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it. Most people with my kind of track record don’t look to change. But I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change.”

    Application: One of the most refreshing and inspiring change stories is the transformation of Encyclopaedia Britannica. We would highly recommend reading our June 10, 2013, blog, which summarizes their amazing strategy change.

We hope you have picked up at least one idea to improve your business and increase you profitability. As one of our colleagues used to say, it is all in the execution. Good luck — and just do it!

Seek. Climb. Lead.


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