Sir Alex Ferguson is perhaps the greatest living coach in sports. The former manager of Manchester United won countless titles over a period of time that saw United rise to the peak of international sport in terms of both success and financial value. His cultivation of young talent, penchant for motivational speeches, and knack for making the right change at the right time are the stuff of legend and whether you are an aspiring soccer coach or an aspiring business leader, there is much that we can learn from his example.

Harvard Business School’s Anita Elberse and Tom Dye dove headlong into Ferguson’s management style for a 2012 HBS case study entitled Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United. Ferguson then traveled to Harvard to see the case study taught and answer questions from a packed lecture hall. Elberse published an article in 2013 that focuses on eight lessons Ferguson touched on that are crucial for any aspiring manager – of anything – and I found several particularly interesting.

When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty. They will always remember that you were the manager who gave them their first opportunity. Once they know you are batting for them, they will accept your way. You’re really fostering a sense of family. If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it is amazing how much they will surprise you.

The mantra of education in many cases is that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and this is very much the core of what Ferguson is talking about in this quote. It is important for managers and coaches to understand that the best thing you can be for those in your charge is an advocate. When I started working at Rivers, I was fresh out of college with everything to learn about school administration and what it means to be a professional. I was incredibly fortunate to have superiors who believed in my ability and took a chance on a kid who grew up in independent schools and had a passion for their mission. Each day I try to prove that they were justified in taking that chance and can identify with the young players Ferguson tried to foster.

Photo via Flickr/stephenbroadhurst
Photo via Flickr/stephenbroadhurst

The ignorance of inexperience forces teams to approach the “obvious question” and challenge convention, which in turn spurs growth and innovation. It pushes the seasoned veteran to stay closer to the cutting edge and keeps the team in a position where they are nimble, dynamic, and constantly adapting. More on this later.

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.

The ability to read and understand people is a necessary skill that any manager or coach must possess. Whether it is noticing a change in a player’s gait that could point to an underlying injury, sloppy work that stems from an ongoing personal issue, or hearing the hidden message that someone’s answer of “I’m good” carries, it is a good manager’s job to notice the details create the bigger picture.

This lesson came out of a conversation Ferguson had with an assistant coach that ended with Ferguson giving up some responsibilities to his assistant manager. This allowed him to take a step back and notice the finer details instead of focusing on teaching the skills and tactics at practice. It is a perfect example of how a manager can gain more influence by giving up control. Empowering your assistants also gives them an opportunity to grow and push your team further forward. Speaking of empowering your people:

One of the things I’ve done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it. That also means having confidence in the people you hire. The minute staff members are employed, you have to trust that they are doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them. The most important thing is to not stagnate

No game – or business – remains the same for more than a year or two, so it is incumbent on the manager to stay on top of trends to understand what will continue to work and what must be adapted. I look back at the way my basketball team played in high school and contrast that with the modern game that has moved away from two traditional big men and towards spacing and speed along the perimeter. In particular, Ferguson’s point about not micromanaging is a crucial lesson for coaches and managers across all fields: trust your people, believe in their abilities, and empower them to enact change in their space.

Sports have always taught lessons to athletes that inform the way they go about their professional careers, but it is also important as professionals to take lessons – where applicable – from those who have ascended to the top of the coaching profession. These are managers of the supremely talented that take the finest materials and create something greater, and isn’t that the goal of every business?

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