Dare to Build a Team

5 Team-Building Lessons From the Great Alex Ferguson

In these topsy-turvy times, where workplaces are fractured and the smallest decision feels like a colossal risk, it’s more important than ever to look for expert guidance. Strong leaders build stronger teams, and nowhere is this more obvious than with the undisputed legend of football management, Alex Ferguson. Here are 5 of his team-building tips, discussed in the Harvard Business Review, that will help you focus your team and thrust them into untold success.

The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.

by Albert Einstein

1) Embrace New Technology

Ferguson’s ability to stay ahead of the curve in science and technology helped the manager keep his entire team in tip-top shape, leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Too many leaders take success as a reason to fear change and instead stick to the ‘tried and tested’ methods. Not Ferguson: by embracing new technology, constantly looking for new methods of development and keeping a finger on the pulse of sports science, he kept his team on the cutting edge. As the man himself put it, “Most people with my kind of track record don’t like to change. But I always felt like I couldn’t afford not to”. Wise words, ones that any leader should take to heart.

2) Hire Based on Potential

Focusing on young talent in football was unheard of in the early days of Ferguson’s career. More than anything, most managers were focused on winning the games that were staring them in the face. Ferguson preferred a longer-term perspective, taking on-board youths whose talents were flourishing: David Beckham and Ryan Giggs being two superstar examples. He knew that by instilling young players with the Manchester United ethos, he’d be planting the seeds of a real team, not just building a collection of skilled players. When building your team, you’re in it for the long run. Look for what applicants can become, not necessarily what they already are. By doing this, you’ll be setting your team up for long-term success and a true sense of team unity.

3) Prepare Your Team for Unlikely Odds

Victory isn’t handed out on a silver platter; Ferguson knew this and prepared his team for circumstances where victory looked less-than-likely. The approach worked. Forging strategies for scoring all-important last minute goals when defeat seemed all-but assured helped the team secure victory. You can do exactly the same thing. When things are looking bleak for your team, don’t be afraid to take risks. Approach the situation with the mindset of “we’re going to win, how is it going to happen?”. That’s what Ferguson did, and it’s the mindset that saw him become a legend of football. In his words: “even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win”.

4) Communicate With Grace

Leaders must put their foot down sometimes. Ferguson certainly didn’t shy away from it; sharp critiques were indeed dished out by the manager when necessary, but they weren’t lengthy and they certainly weren’t spiteful. When punishment stopped being productive, Ferguson stopped punishing. Conversely, he was well aware of the power praise had over a team and tried to give encouragement wherever possible. Nothing hyper-exaggerated; a simple “well done” was an incredibly effective thing. Bear this in mind when interacting with your team. Don’t ignore mistakes, but never linger on them. You’re a leader; it’s your job to boost morale, praise good work and—only when needed—address mistakes. By recognising which of those your team needs at any given moment, you’ll be an unbeatable boss.

5) Don’t be Afraid to Watch From the Sidelines

Watching your team in action, without getting involved, can be a superb way to get a new perspective on how they operate: what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved. When Ferguson delegated training sessions to his assistant coaches, it wasn’t out of laziness—far from it. He was there, watching from afar and keenly observing how his team was performing. Don’t feel obligated to dive head-first into everything your team does. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and observe; you’ll gain a far greater sense of perspective on how your team operates. As Ferguson noted, his ability to supervise was always there, but by stepping out of “the bubble” of direct action, he became aware of intricate details regarding his team’s dynamic and became a better leader for it.

Conclusion - Post-Match Highlights

Think of your team like Mr Ferguson thought of his. When creating your top-notch business line-up—whether from scratch or not—take some lessons from the best. Be an open-minded, future-focused, optimistic leader like Ferguson and you’ll go far. His advice kept Manchester United on top for the long run, and by heeding his advice, your team can do the same—perhaps with one or two fewer Premier League wins!

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