13 Secrets of Sir Alex Ferguson That Will Upgrade Your Business Now (Part One – 7 Minute Read)

He has achieved 49 Trophies including 13 Premiere League Titles. Christiano Ronaldo still calls him his ‘Father in football’. Legendary investor Michael Moritz carved a book around the man who’s leadership skills can rival the top dogs in any sector.

Based around the Netflix documentary Sir Alex Ferguson, Secrets of Success – I have compiled the 13 precise ingredients you need to take from the iconic powerhouse behind Manchester United, one of the world’s most prestigious brands:

1) Focus 100% On Your Next Step

29th Sep 2001. Half time and United are 3-0 down against Spurs. Most people would enter a state of dispair, frustration and anger. In the locker room Ferguson took just one position. Whoever scores the next goal wins. He steered his teams focus away from the big picture and solely onto achieving that one small but certain step forward ‘we’re going to score the first goal in this second half and see where it takes us’.

Where attention goes energy flows. Within 9 minutes of the second half Utd had their first goal. The back of the psychology game had been broken. Fear struck into the hearts of their opponents and the power was now in the hands of the predators. In what many consider the greatest comeback of all time Utd won that game by an astounding 5 goals to 3!

When we succeed or fail we tend to start thinking big. Our heads move to the macro picture either in a very positive or very negative way. What this serves to do for us is to distract us from our next step. We lose track of the moment and lose the only real opportunity that exists – the one right in front of our face in the present moment. By focusing on the small victory achievable within the next 10 minutes of our lives we summon our full resources and tap into the only place that life is….NOW. Now is the only place where we have influence and as we achieve that first goal, we develop a confidence which we carry into the next opportunity.

Action: Wherever you are forget whether you think you are winning or losing in your life, your business, your relationships right now. Turn your entire focus towards the next 10 minutes of your life and ask the following question. What is my opportunity NOW? This shift will change everything for you and brick by brick you will build a life that your grandchildren will be inspired to hear about.

2) The Person Who is Most Certain Will Influence the Rest

In 1986 Sir Alex arrived at a club with a strong alcohol culture. Ferguson rightly concluded that this was completely unacceptable if he was going to steer the ship towards greatness. He stood unrelentingly firm and the first thing he said to them was ‘I won’t change, you are all going to have to change – that’s a fact’. This stance had the power to influence the majority of players to change their lifestyle and join Ferguson’s mission.

However there will always be those who just aren’t willing to do what it takes. With absolute clarity and conviction he followed through on his promise, ridding the team of all who refused to bend with a controversial fire sale.

At the core of every good business and every great society are certain values that cannot and will not under any circumstances be compromised. It’s important to take the time to clarify for yourself what are the standards that are absolute for you and your company. We all have a list of ‘Shoulds’ in the back of our head but all we end up doing with these is ‘Shoulding all over ourselves’. You need to take these shoulds and divide them into two columns – MUST’s and not important. If it’s important then make it happen, if not then don’t spend your time worrying about it.

The clarity that you reach in your own convictions will be picked up instantly by those in your organisation. Let’s face it, most people don’t really know what they want in their lives so when they are in contact with those who do they tend to follow those who seem to be clear on where they are going. If you don’t decide your values, your day, your life, someone else will make those decisions for you….and guess what…they won’t necessarily have your best interests in mind.

Action: Your only way to not be a sheep and to gain some real influence in your life and business is to get clear on what it is exactly that you do and do not stand for. Results will flow from there.

3) Flex According to Individual Needs

The Eric Cantona episode in which the prodigy jump kicked a fan in the stands revealed a strategy which at first appears to contradict what we have just said about steadfastness and standards. Ferguson shocked the squad by standing by Eric and continuing to mentor him like a nurturing father. Sensational left winger Ryan Giggs commented ‘the thing that frustrated me was why he was not having a go at Cantona’ but then concedes ‘His man management was second to none. He knew in the long run that he would get the best out of him’.

So why didn’t he let out the fury on Cantona? Sir Alex said ‘I needed to stand by him because the world was after him’ … different situations and personalities have different needs. The art of leadership involves knowing that every woman and man is different and ultimately requires personal attention. While we must have certainty in our guiding principles Ferguson was convinced that those values had already been enforced by the rest of the world. His job therefore was to be the one person in Cantona’s life who could give him the strength to face that criticism in a healthy way and progress as a person and a player.

Action: Who in your business is not getting what they need because of a lack of attention to their individual needs. If you support them personally you will tend to receive a multiple reward 1) the satisfaction of helping them 2) a stronger relationship with them 3) a loyalty leading to increased and often surprising performance levels.

4) Be the Example

Ronaldo shares about Ferguson, ‘He was always the first and last’ at the training. I know CEO’s who get frustrated that their staff are cutting corners and yet fail to exercise any control because they rock up an hour late themselves. The leaders who I have seen dramatically growing their turnover and leading epic teams were always there early to open and late to close shop.

A great pianist once said….when I don’t practise for one day I notice, when I don’t practise for two days my coach notices, when I don’t practise for three days my audience notices.

Action: Where are you cutting corners? One way or other you are setting the culture in your business. Others are watching and taking note of all the nuances in how you conduct yourself and approach the enterprise. Take a stand and take pride in your commitment to your mission. Express that commitment through TEA timing, energy and attitude.

5) Direct Confrontation

Sir Alex was known as ‘The Hairdryer’ because he would not have a problem with letting his anger completely loose on a player, much like holding a hairdryer up close to your face. While this fiery approach is debatable it is part of the fabric which made him such a success and many manager’s will exercise the opposite approach at their peril. They will hide their frustration and often times bury it as resentment. I’ve had clients who were on the path of doing this, sharing how some employee wasn’t living up to expectations. ‘Have you told them exactly what you require?’ I ask. The answer is often no and somehow the employee is expected to pick up their game without direct instruction and correction. This just leads to a cycle of resentment and disappointment. Bring clarity to the situation. You don’t need to get physical or violent but express calmly and firmly exactly how the action they took makes you feel and what it does to the organisation as a whole. Then start to build them up as person again and support them in knowing their true strengths.

What mattered most was in the follow up, ‘(Giggs) The great thing about the boss was, the next day it’s gone and you’d be walking towards him thinking is he going to have a go at me – and he would just crack a joke or talk about the next game.’ Ferguson’s key was never to bear a grudge and to confront matters directly and as close to the time as possible. Then….let it go and be present with the new reality as it unfolds.

Action: Are you holding onto resentment about anyone in your organisation? Forgive them and wish them the best. If they have done something specific which hurts you or the business then confront it directly. Again no verbal violence needed – just a very clear assertive expression of exactly how the action makes you feel and the collateral damage to the company. Then remind them of their real potential, remind them of their real identity to hold themselves as standard to and move on.

6) Inspire and Maintain High Standards

‘Of course you don’t win every game….but when they dropped or lowered their expectation – that annoyed me the most’.

This relentless attitude is possibly the most important secret to what Ferguson achieved at Manchester Utd. If you read it back again and again you will realise that it is pivotal to consistent achievement. If the mind does not believe or expect something then the way the human brain works, motivation drops and lack of action follows. The expectation or lack thereof ends up being a prophetic vision of what is to come.

‘Those who believe they can and those who believe the cannot are usually right’

Henry Ford

Both Ferguson and Ford were able to have a great impact on others levels of motivation and action because they reminded their staff of what was possible if they truly put their mind to it. Your dream must be specific, inspiring and realistic to you in order for it to motivate you to take action…but if you forget your dream or replace it with lower expectations and standards then it cannot take root in your mind and consequently your action.

Action: What expectations have you allowed to drop that were a part of your original dream and mission. Return to what you are really looking to achieve … not what is easiest to implement. Like water we tend as human beings to follow the easiest path but as Brian Tracy says ‘People who do the easy things have a hard life and people who do the hard things have an easy life’. Revisit your expectations of yourself and take action on them. You will only live this life of yours one time.

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” Jim Carrey

7) Be Able to Say Goodbye to Anyone If Necessary

In 2005 Roy Keane was a powerhouse midfielder and Captain of Man Utd. However when Keane’s actions undermined the club and the authority of the manager, Sir Alex duly sacked him.

‘If all men count with you, but none too much’ Rudyard Kipling

While we need to build other people and help them be the very best that they can be, it is important to be able to let go of someone who is damaging to those around them. This counts for clients and customers as well. Usually 80% of your troubles will come from 20% of your clients. It is important not to be overly emotionally attached to any person in your organisation such that you could not take the right action in the right circumstances.

If someone thinks they are above everyone else this attitude can be felt through arrogance, passive aggression or other means. The energy level in the company and the culture will most likely be undermined by this negativity. If after direct and balanced confrontation as stipulated above the person refuses to change then it’s important to exercise the courage to do what is right for the company as a whole. Procrastination due to fear will lose the company key time and energy and others will be affected in a variety of ways including low motivation, pent up aggression, lashing out or even emulation of the trouble maker since he seems to be getting his own way. Ego fires up ego and you do not want an egocentric culture – it will reflect both within and without and ultimately be picked up on by your customers.

Action: Take stock of all your relationships. Do you feel afraid of anyone in your organisation to the extent that it is compromising your effective management of that person. Realise we are all human and nobody is better than anyone else. Then return to your values with a clear mind and implement them as necessary.

Summary Part 1 – First 7 Secrets (Out of 13)

1) Focus 100% On Your Next Step

2) The Person Who is Most Certain Will Influence the Rest

3) Flex According to Individual Needs

4) Be the Example

5) Direct Confrontation

6) Inspire and Maintain High Standards

7) Be Able to Say Goodbye to Anyone If Necessary

Help me learn from you. Which of Sir Alex’s first 7 Secrets means the most to you? Go ahead and type a number 1 to 7 in the comments below. Thank you!

2 Comments

  • Nathanael Felix

    Reply Reply October 4, 2018

    I am dumbstruck by how simple you make it…

    Thank you,I totally understand the fundamentals now.

    Please make contact I’d like to pickle your brain.

    Nathanael Felix
    072 631 9318

    • David Citron

      Reply Reply October 8, 2018

      You are most welcome Felix and it was great speaking with you this morning!

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