I’m pretty certain that this will be neither the first, nor the last, blog post to look at the Ferguson, Moyes, Manchester United saga. I’m certainly no football commentator or expert and I look at the events more from the world of business and work than sport. That said, football clubs are now multi million (if not billion) dollar businesses and there are a number of things that strike me as ill-fated about this whole scenario.
First, let’s look at the context. David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex, probably the most successful British manager of all times. Over the best part of 30 years he built an empire around himself despite, ironically, arguing that no player was bigger than the club. Whoever was going to succeed him was going to be facing a massive power void. But not only that, they’d be coming in to manage a team that had just convincingly won the league.
So let’s look at what went wrong.
The first mistake was allowing Sir Alex to anoint his successor. I understand the appeal of this move, the romanticism and the seeming practicality of the endorsement. It reflects on the power that Ferguson had. An endorsement in front of the fans from Sir Alex was seen as more convincing than an endorsement from the management.
We all want leaders to build succession, that has to be the right thing, we want them to build talented teams. But the decision on the appointment, the choice has to be based on the people who have skin in the game going forward, it is just a simple fact. When you leave, you should have no further say on your team, the leadership or how they’re managed. You’ve left.
There is one thing asking any manager to turn around an underperforming team. when things are at a low, you can be ruthless, you can experiment, you can wield the axe. Taking over a successful team is much harder. Any changes that you make will be inspected, discussed and examined under the organisational microscope. One of the tricks is to change as little as possible in the short-term, to provide continuity and to examine how to make the incremental changes that will lead to further success.
By changing the key backroom staff, Moyes made perhaps the most fundamental error of his short-lived tenure. If the team had been failing this would have been understandable, even applauded. But by changing a winning formula, so quickly and with little apparent reason, he chose to destabilise a team which was already experiencing a power vacuum. You either have to be supremely confident to do that, or completely stupid.
And finally, let’s talk about recruitment. Once again, we need to see this in the light of a previously high performing (although ageing) team. If Moyes had kept his support staff, his managers, around him he might have been allowed the time to bring on new and exciting talent, he might have created the stability that would have allowed him to experiment. But, as we know, he didn’t.
Given this, he needed to bring in established talent. one of the things that we know about high performing environments is that they recognise and indeed welcome, high performing individuals. Anyone that you bring in has to stand shoulder to shoulder in ability and aptitude with those that are already there. Recruiting in to high performing teams is harder than recruiting in to average or under performing teams. Because more is expected, more is demanded and less is forgiven. The failure to recruit in high performing talent in any part of the team isn’t the failing of one man, it is the failing of the organisation as a whole.
Much will be written about the Manchester United story, much of it will be better informed than this. But the elements, when we unpick them, are nothing new. The tenets of organisational performance are the same regardless of the sector in which you operate and everything that we’ve seen over the last season has been seen and done before in other businesses. Perhaps, most importantly, could easily have been avoided.
If Moyes was Sir Alex and this was a match, he’d be praying for some “Fergie time” right now. But he isn’t and it isn’t. And much to his disgust, the final whistle has just been blown.