HBS Cases: Sir Alex Ferguson--Managing Manchester United

For almost three decades, Sir Alex Ferguson has developed the Manchester United soccer club into one of the most recognized sports brands in the world. Professor Anita Elberse discusses the keys to Sir Alex's long-time success.
by Sean Silverthorne

Anita Elberse, a Professor of Business Administration in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School, studies high performers in creative industries—from basketball superstar LeBron James to pop diva Lady Gaga, from actor Tom Cruise to tennis powerhouse Maria Sharapova.

Elberse's latest subject is a British soccer club manager who turns out to be as incredible a performer as any of the lot. For 26 years, Sir Alex Ferguson has kept his Manchester United soccer club either at or near the top of competition, both in England and internationally.

"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," says Elberse, who recently authored a business case on Ferguson.

“I think his willingness to develop young talent lies at the heart of his long-run success”

Ferguson's career indeed is an impressive feat. Look around for leading executives in any industry who have managed to succeed with the same firm at the highest levels for nearly three decades. 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 organizational success.

Elberse first taught the case, Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United, last month to students in her course "Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries," with Ferguson in the classroom. HBS Working Knowledge recently interviewed Elberse about the case, which is now publicly available.

The Ferguson case is part of Elberse's growing body of work on creative industries that include book publishing, film, music, television, video games, the performing arts, sports, and advertising. She has written dozens of cases on firms and businesses as varied as Hulu, Marvel Enterprises, New York's Marquee nightclub, The Metropolitan Opera, and the NFL.

Sean Silverthorne: What was the inspiration for this case and how did it come together?

Anita Elberse: I am particularly fascinated by companies and people in entertainment, media, and sports that have very strong track records over a long period of time. Sir Alex Ferguson is a manager who has been extraordinarily successful in a career that spans decades—he has been at his current club, Manchester United, for over a quarter of a century. Under his leadership, United has become one of the world's most successful franchises in all of sports. So when I learned through an industry contact that there might be an opportunity to write a case on Sir Alex, I jumped at the chance. I figured I would undoubtedly learn a great deal about what it takes to lead and manage a sports team, and that indeed proved to be the case.

Q: The case reads as if you were able to attend some matches in person and see Ferguson in action. If so, what was that experience like?

A: Yes, that's true. It is one of the sacrifices I make in the name of research! But in all seriousness, my coauthor Tom Dye (HBS MBA 2012) and I felt it was important to take our time and do this right.

Sir Alex FergusonI first met Sir Alex last fall during one of his trips to the US, and we soon made plans to visit him in Manchester twice: in March, to see him in action during the season, and in July during the summer break to allow ourselves more time to speak with him and learn about his approach to managing the club. The access we were given was truly remarkable. We got to see his approach to a game, observing him both at Carrington, the training ground, and at Old Trafford, the stadium. He personally gave us a tour of the training ground, and gave us access to parts of the stadium that are normally closed off to visitors. We had a chance to speak with a range of people he works with and values, from the club's CEO to his assistant coaches, the players and the youth team, to his long-time assistant, the kit manager, and even the ladies who take care of washing the team jerseys. All those experiences and interactions proved invaluable to understanding Sir Alex's day-to-day approach.

Q: A big part of Ferguson's story is his amazingly high and consistent performance over time-26 years. What are some of the key characteristics he demonstrates that account for these strings of successes?

A: I think his willingness to develop young talent lies at the heart of his long-run success. Sir Alex speaks of the difference between "building a team and building a club." When he started at United, he immediately set about revolutionizing the club's youth program. He also made it more visible in the organization: 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. Many of the players he developed—Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes—became true standouts in their generation, providing the club with a strong base on which to build.

Managing this process well over a long period unavoidably involves cutting older players who may no longer be right for the team, which can be taxing emotionally. "The hardest thing to do is to let go of a player who has been a great guy," Ferguson told me.

Many other factors contribute to his successes, too. One factor I am particularly impressed by is his ability to adapt to changing times. You have to realize 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 performances 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.

Q: Like many managers, Ferguson must manage for the short term (in-game and game to game), intermediate term (for a season), and long term. What advice do you think he would give to other executives about how to balance those requirements?

A: You are absolutely right—there is a constant tradeoff between managing for the short and long run. I can't speak for Sir Alex, of course, but I think he would say that as a manager, you have to take calculated risks. Within a season, the trick is to think ahead. Here's how he described it to me: "I might rest key players for a game that is less important. There is a risk element in doing that, and it can backfire, but you have to accept that. You have to trust your squad."

When it comes to managing for success across different seasons, the importance of betting on youth—as I mentioned, one of the hallmarks of his approach—is critical. There is a great quote by Sir Alex in the case that is relevant here: "The first thought for 99 percent of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win—to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club—not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team."

Q: Manchester United has no lack of egos—so how does Ferguson earn respect from his players while at the same time driving them to success?

A: He is adamant that a manager should never lose control. There's a telling quote in the case in that regard: "You can't ever lose control—not when you are dealing with thirty top professionals who are all millionaires. And if anyone steps out of my control, that's them dead."

It may seem harsh to state it like this, but I think his clarity on this matter is what earns him the respect from his players, from the biggest stars to the up-and-coming young ones. They know he will not waver from doing what he feels is best for the team and the club.

Sir Alex 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.

“Sir Alex himself seemed perfectly at home in our classroom”

Of course he earns respect with his tremendous knowledge of the game of soccer, too. The breadth and depth of his expertise is truly astounding. Over dinner one night in Manchester, I told him about a game I had seen live in the early 1990s in Italy—one between two Italian teams, AC Milan and Napoli. He could speak at length about how the teams played in that period, and could name nearly their entire lineups. And he prepares for everything, even his class visit, in great detail. I can imagine that, in turn, motivates his players to give it their all, too.

Q: How did the students react to him, and what was his reaction to the experience of visiting your classroom and participating in the case discussion?

A: Yes, that was quite a day! I taught the case in the first half of the class, and Sir Alex spoke and answered students' questions during the other half. There were so many guests in the classroom that they had to sit in the aisles and on the stairs—the room was completely packed. Sir Alex himself seemed perfectly at home in our classroom, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. They lined up to engage with him after class as well, and he met with many students more informally later in the afternoon. You could tell he has a passion for teaching young people—that comes through in his work at Manchester United, and it was also very evident in the Harvard Business School classroom. It was a very exciting and special day for all of us. I hope to welcome him back next year!

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I am currently putting the finishing touches on my first book, which will be released in the fall of 2013. The book is about the entertainment industry—the idea is to explain how it works, why it works that way, and how the industry may change in the future.

In the meantime, I am working with Sir Alex on a Harvard Business Review article that describes his philosophy to building, leading, and managing teams. (I am pretty sure it will be necessary to visit a few more Manchester United matches to collect additional data). I am also hoping to complete a few other new cases in the entertainment, media, and sports sectors. It's such a fascinating field—I am not running out of ideas anytime soon.

And I'm busy with the launch of a new executive education program, aptly called "Strategic Marketing in Entertainment, Media, and Sports" in early June 2013, that promises to be an exciting new way to disseminate the School's latest, groundbreaking research to executives in these sectors.

    • Anonymous
    Sir Alex Ferguson is a legend, and a true leader. What he has accomplished with Man U (and earlier with Aberdeen) is amazing. Very deserving of an HBS case!
    • Anonymous
    So interesting to learn about his approach! Very cool to have an inside look. Wish I had been in that class...
    • Abhinav Charan
    • Leadership Development Program, Centrica/Direct Energy
    As an ardent Manchester United and Sir Alex follower, I see strong parallels between the way Sir Alex manages his boys and the way the Red Arrows from the Royal Air Force manage theirs. They both produce leaders who never become larger than their organisations, and if you do, you face exit (e.g. David Beckham). This is in stark contrast with the England football team which has produced dozens of poster boys (few of whom are from Manchester United) without yielding much result. The last major English victory was their maiden World Cup win in 1966. The militaristic discipline, the knowledge of the game and deference to his leadership should keep Sir Alex's makes him stand out. Whilst these qualities are seemingly easy to spell, they must surely be very hard to implement. Great article! Thanks
    • Anonymous
    Sir Alex Fergason is a true soccer hero and we can draw sound lessons from him. I hope he will one day be able to transfer his skills to the next leader who will be taking over from him. His dedication and passion, involvement , commitment, consistancy amaze me. If all business would learn from him the would would be interesting. To Sean Silverstorne this a fantastic piece good read..thanks
    • John Whatmore
    • Director, Centre for Leadership in Creativity
    You might want to read my book of nearly fifteen years ago about a study I did for the UK government of leaders of creative groups: 'Releasing Creativity: how leaders develop creative potential in their teams'. It was a scientific study of about forty leaders in science, R&D, sport, the performing arts and the graphic arts. Though out of print, I think you will find one on Amazon. John Whatmore
    • Pat
    • Student
    Pep Guardiola has won 14 titles in 4 years which almost equals Ferguson's titles in 25 years and has beat Sir Alex in two champions League finals with Barcelona. 2009 and 2011
    • Jack Slavinski
    Great example of the difference that a person can make on a continuum if they are open to and focused on continued personal reinvention, transformation and growth.
    • Anonymous
    Anyone with half a brain cell could have won 14 titles in 4 years with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi in their team, what has pep won elsewher and as any football fan would agree, pep was never a leader in the same capacity as Sir Alex
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Sir Alex is a fascinating character from whose life one can learn a lot. His organisational and managerial skill have kept him going and progressing for over quarter of a century. Tirelessness is a key ingredient. Then his skills of teaching and grooming young ones.
    He has full control of what he does and his focussed message " Manager should never lose contr0l" is pointer to what ultimately managers should have in their psyche.
    • Nkululeko Moyo
    • Finance and Operations Coordinator, Khula Sizwe Trust
    Am a hard core Manchester United fan. One thing that amazes me about Sir Ferguson is how he manages to draw out his team from trouble, either during a match or during a season.
    • ali raza
    • Student Affairs, IB&M UET Lahore Pakistan
    I really enjoyed the way you demonstrated Sir Alex's acheivements through is passion to educate the young one's and maintaining the existing one's.

    It's a true success story which anyone would love to be aware of.
    • Robert
    • Founder, www.footballmarketing.biz
    This is great information indeed. There is something unique about this man, he combines youth and experience with great dexterity.

    • Tolulope Popoola
    Absolutely commendable! Without doubt, SAF is a manager of uncommon ability and HBS a school of unusual ideas. Its brilliant to find a nexus for the benefit of posterity.
    • Anonymous
    Sir Alex is one of my heros.
    He has done a t remendous job.It will not be surpassed in our lifetime as managers of football clubs these days last for very short periods for various reasons.
    He has built on the tradition of United and created a world leader in many respects. Again he is open to new ideas and is willing to take calulated risks. That is one of his great strengths. He also is a superb motivator.
    • Michael
    • Academic Director, SMU
    Will there be a teaching note or video interview footage available for faculty? Thank you.
    • Mikail Conybeare
    • Operations Director, HubCloud
    Fantastic insight on elite leadership over such a long period of time. Leadership at that level, whether sports or business, shares so many characteristics. Also worth reiterating that whilst being so successful he was also able to adapt and change his methods and approaches, key to his longevity I suspect. I would be very interested to hear which business owners he is similar to.

    Thank you for the great article
    • Ras Solebo
    • CISM, Greater Philly
    In my opinion, what sets the likes of Sir Alex apart goes beyond their laurel accomplishments! It is their focus, their leadership, management style and longevity in continuously handling the powder keg that is the ego of the stars they manage. Definitely a subject worth studying. Go Red Devils!
    • Govinda Patten
    • Assessor/ Activity Coordinator, Gold Care
    I still remember when Sir Alex took over as Manager and I am a fan of the team as well. I am in fact from Mauritius and would have dream to study in such a prestigious organisation but I have completed my MBA at Wales University.
    I should say if I had the money I would really spend one day visiting Harvard University and I pray that one day one of my kids be able to live that dream.
    My parents were teachers.
    I have to say congratulations to Harvard University Professor, Anita Elberse, that research will help understanding about combination of Managerial style.
    Well Done Professor, I will definitely try to buy this manual.
    • Arpit Goyal
    • Student, BITS Pilani, India
    As usual people are discussing "Manutd" and doing all the sad comparisons. Moving on, "Sir Alex" is in a true sense a formidable leader in "football" industry and has groomed and lead players to attain higher aims in his so long running career.

    I strongly believe that most of the "Business Consultancies" are doing the same kind of stuff i.e nurturing corporate leaders and helping their firms around the globe thus leading them to achieve both social and economic development. I also think our "Education" system also has much to learn from "sports" in the way they nurture top quality players and generate leaders, generation after generations. And we esp. "developing countries" are unable to do the same, even after being so resourceful in terms of technology.

    Therefore, such kind of case studies/interviews should be done more often as it is very interesting, motivational and fun to read.
    • Anonymous
    Sir Alex is a legend, I have worries if there could another Sir Alex in the soccer enterprise. His talent is a brand tough to be replicated. I wish him well. The author has done great job to bring this public domain.
    • Mir Dost
    • Student, Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) Thailand
    Ingredient behind strings of successes seems Sir Alex Ferguson's own set rules, stickiness and providing a family atmosphere at club where everyone felt it home rather job and most importantly, he did not let any player to become bigger than club.

    Nice case, Harvard is always with nice stuff.
    • Anonymous
    we can't compare sir alex ferguson with pep guardiola,pep guardiola team is a world cup winners +lionel messi,currently the best available in the world
    • Saidu Salihu
    • CEO, Ess Consulting
    Alex Ferguson's string of success to my mind is hinged on PASSION FOR BUILDING SUCCESS via STRUCTURE.