Business

A lesson from sports: ManU and Sir Alex Ferguson

Business Communication ROI

By Yvonne Grinam-Nicholson, ABC

Wednesday, January 09, 2013    

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IT is fascinating to watch successful leaders in any sphere at work. They are not only 'do-ers' but they are also great motivators -- it is hard to find that combination in one single person. Some of these great men and women who have stood out in their respective fields have over the years developed well-honed, masterful motivational skills. The field of sports has handed us standouts who have great communications lessons for us.

A true, blue motivator and master of the game of football has been Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, manager of Manchester United since 1986. A Scotsman and former player, Sir Alex Ferguson is considered by many to be the most successful manager in British football history, and is the manager of one of the world's most decorated professional football clubs and one of sport's biggest franchises. He was knighted in 1999 for his services to the game.

He stands out as an example of a manager who has successfully used his communications skills to make his team successful. This is no small feat in a group of men with over-sized egos and millionaire winners. Many of the players Sir Alex developed, such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, became megastars in their own right and their continued successes on the field have, over the years, helped to build the reputation of the Manchester United team.

So fascinating and impressive has been Sir Alex's track record of success that Anita Elberse, a professor in the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School, recently authored a business case on Sir Alex. Says she, "There is no active coach in the highest echelons of the world of soccer -- or, to my knowledge, in sports as a whole -- who comes even close to such a lengthy tenure, let alone the number of titles and trophies he has accumulated. When he started at United, she writes, "he immediately set about revolutionising the club's youth programme. He also made it more visible in the organisation: for instance, ensuring that academy players warmed up alongside senior players every day in order to foster a 'one club' attitude. And even early on, despite calls from many observers to play it safer ("You can't win anything with kids" is what a respected television commentator famously said at the time), he gave youth players a chance to win a place in the first team".

She also pointed to his ability to adapt to change as another contributing factor for his success. "One factor I am particularly impressed by is his ability to adapt to changing times. You have to realise that the world of soccer nowadays looks nothing like the one he started in as a coach at United, 26 years ago. Sir Alex has embraced new technologies and new approaches, hiring sports scientists on his staff, and adopting new ways of measuring and improving the performance of players. That sounds straightforward, but if you have been as successful as he has, I can imagine it is very easy to get stuck in your ways."

She noted that Ferguson's talents include deft management and motivation of some of the greatest (and most high-strung) athletes in the world, staying current on the latest training regimens and technology, and plotting strategy both for on-field play and organisational success.

Executives on their own paths to success can stand to gain from some of the practices and lessons of Sir Alex. After all, many work in similar environments; with hot-headed ego-filled teammates, all of who want to be the continuously shining star in a galaxy of superstars. One of the keys in Sir Alex's communications toolbox, as singled out by Elberse, is his remarkable motivational skills.

Sir Alex, she notes, is also a true master at motivating his players; he seemingly knows exactly what to say when, and understands what different players need. "He holds everyone to the same high standards, but will tailor his approach to different personalities. "He knows how to look after people," is how the kit manager put it, and many people at the club spoke about the family atmosphere he creates. I think that allows players of all different backgrounds to thrive."

Every now and then, history hands us a Six Alex who presents us with precious notes from his playbook of success. Not everything will work for us as it has done for Sir Alex, but it gives us the opportunity to learn and prepare our teammates and ourselves to score some well-placed and even spectacular goals. I choose his motivational style of communication to kick off 2013. Best wishes to all.

Yvonne Grinam-Nicholson, (MBA, ABC) is a Business Communications Consultant with RO Communications Jamaica, specialising in business communications and financial publications. She can be contacted at: yvonne@rocommunications.com. Visit her website at www.rocommunications.com and post your comments.

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