(Photo by Stacy Geiken Photography)
Last month, Former Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson joined Sequoia Capital Chairman Sir Michael Moritz in a fireside chat for Stanford GSB’s View From The Top speaker series. The two discussed the critical role managers play in setting expectations, assessing talent, and recognizing the people who work for them. (Watch the full video.) After the talk, Sir Alex answered additional questions from the audience. Read his insights below:
Who coached and mentored you the past twenty years?
I never really had a mentor during that period, but I did have a good staff that I could discuss any area with and had a great CEO in David Gill. I had a support structure that I could always count on to give me solid, honest opinions and that was priceless.
What kept you motivated to continue at Manchester United for all those years?
Looking out at that training ground in the morning was a great motivation. You go to the stadium, even if it’s empty, it’s a great motivation. The history of the club was something that could always inspire you. You also had the challenge of ensuring that we maintained the standards set and the levels of success achieved.
How do you judge a leader’s success? Is it just the outcome of the efforts or is there more to it?
Sometimes success can be measured in different ways. I tended to judge things in terms of trophies won, the health of the organisation and the development of young people.
Coming from a working class background in Glasgow, did this influence your management style and your eventual success?
What it gave me was a purpose, resilience and determination. Scottish people want to do well when they move to England and my management style had certain characteristics associated with my upbringing, particularly my personality and my decision making.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you made as a leader and what did you learn?
I made many mistakes but not many that I ever repeated. It’s important to learn from your mistakes but not to linger too long on them. It’s happened and can’t be changed, I found it better to move on and deal with the next issue.
What was it like to co-author a book with Sir Michael Moritz?
The project was made possible by Michael’s sacrifices in terms of traveling to the U.K. regularly to spend time discussing the various components and then heading back home to edit and structure the content. Michael’s approach also opened up a number of areas I hadn’t considered and allowed me to take a step back and look closely at not what I did, but how I did it. He was a brilliant partner.
What was the most difficult moment in your career and how did you overcome it?
There were a few but the best way to deal with these moments is to keep your composure and not panic. I always felt that I should make a decision on key issues quickly and not take the problem to bed with me. It’s important that you get your sleep and dealing with things this way allowed me to get my rest rather than a sleepless night that still left an unsolved problem in the morning.
As the manager of Manchester United, was your focus more on winning games, or on seeing your players improve on a daily basis?
I think the platform we created for the players brought about the progress. The training ground, and the consistency, concentration and intensity of our training led the way to success. The work we did during the week delivered results at the weekend.
How did you imbue your players with the belief that they could win any game? Not just the stars, but also the squad players.
There was always a constant message to the squad of the expectations of being a Manchester United player but part of the development of players was the importance of the work on their character and ensuring a winning mindset and the desire to never give in. Again, the foundation for this came from the training ground.
How do you motivate yourself season after season?
I never looked back, the feeling of success only lasted within me for about half an hour and then I was looking forward to tomorrow. I couldn’t afford to become complacent; we were too big for that.
How do you know when it’s time to move from the established (and more costly) veteran to the younger talent?
The evidence is always on the football field and you must be aware of that. It can be a horrible decision to release someone who has given you many years of quality service but the history of the club pointed to youth and I was always conscious of that.