Replacing great leaders

Football and leadershipThe news that Sir Alex Ferguson will be retiring at the end of the season was greeted by surprise, but the general reaction from 99.9% of people, whoever they support, has been one of admiration for a man who has led, not just the football team, but been the figurehead for the whole Manchester United club for some 26 years. However, with the announcement that Sir Alex is to retire, what will that mean for the performance of Manchester United next season and beyond?

We have seen the demise of clubs over the years when a high profile manager leaves and hands the reigns to another – Nottingham Forest after Brian Clough moved on, Liverpool after Kenny Dalglish handed over to Graeme Souness and Leeds who feel down the divisions after a succession of managers moved on Some of these clubs never recover or it takes them many years and millions of pounds to reach the heights of the Premier League and European trophies once again. Football is a very different animal compared to most organisations and in many ways doesn’t play by the same rules as many businesses. However, there are examples of what the new manager should be looking to do immediately as soon as he takes on the new role, all of which he could learn from business generally and is good practice for all new leaders.

Clarifying the role

The management style of an incoming senior manager is likely to be very different from that of the outgoing manager, but the job specification is nearly always the same. So understanding the expectations of the shareholders and the key members of the board will shape the way the individual makes initial decisions, as will the strength of the management team, the playing squad, and the club staff – employees. Clarifying autonomy will also be important – too little may cramp the style of a manager with imagination and innovative ways of working.

Assessing your stakeholders

Meeting other managers and as many employees as possible in the first few days is important, not only to assess who you have on board, but also to show that you are there to encourage and put employees at the heart of the business. After the recent difficult months for the BBC, the new Director General did just that and it is starting to pay dividends as employees generally support the initial changes he is making.

This is also about engaging with employees: sending out a communication on your first day, letting employees know what you hope to achieve and meeting as many people as possible in their place of work are all ways to make an early mark. Naturally people will be uneasy about a new senior leader, but by talking to as many as possible in person, a new leader can ease the tension and show their human side to employees.

Meeting the fans – customers – is also critical, especially those who have high spend.

Understand the role of the people you report to

In football we see many big personalities and we see managers who are more than just an individual who manage the playing squad – they are involved in many aspects of the club. It could be argued that Sir Alex fell into this category. From the incoming manager’s point of view, they need to clarify and understand how much autonomy they have within the role and what the boundaries are. It might be a very different to the previous incumbent. Also what is the role of the Board? In football it can often be blurred with owners and Chairmen interfering in the manager’s role. In business, that can be a recipe for disaster.

What is the budget?

For a football manager this is about transfers and bringing in new players, but for the business leader this is about the investment they need to make to drive the company forward. David Moyes arriving as the new manager at Manchester United after spending relatively little at Everton in his time there, means that he will be able to think very differently about the kind of player he recruits and the financial strength he has at his disposal. This relative picture needs taking into account.

Look at past performance

Understand from the management team how the company has performed in the past – have we been “winning trophies” or could we have done better? What was their view on that? What is their view on the barriers to success and what will be the emerging threats in the future? Engage work with many senior managers who ask us to analyse past engagement survey data in relation to their current data to see what the critical “tipping points” were in the course of the company’s development to understand what makes the difference. Equally, there can be key indicators in previous data (or “long data”) to help identify best practices.

Who are the opposition?

The more you know about the opposition and the markets you operate in, the more prepared you will be. It will also make you more challenging of your own organisation. Competitor information is important and having an idea of what your USP is in the early days will help shape a managers’ idea of what direction they will take the organisation.

In what style does the company operate?

Is it safe and solid and growing slowly? Does it operate with flair and innovation and take risks? Does it have as many successes as it does failures? This will all be part of developing an on-going culture but senior managers can shape the culture at an early point. Incoming managers may already have a reputation for working in a certain way, they may want to forge a reputation, but it doesn’t always work well. A family manufacturing business we worked with had previously brought in a senior manager with many years’ service in FMCG markets. He quickly implemented a strategy of price discounting and promotions which reduced the product value in the customers’ eyes, from premium to mid-market. Customers switched their buying habits and the manager didn’t last very long in the role.

Be yourself

Senior managers all have the urge to stamp their own mark on an organisation when they arrive. It seems the norm to show that they are different, to do things differently and to shake things up, even if the company has been successful. Very few new senior managers keep the status quo, but it is important that any changes that are implemented, play to the strengths of the organisation as hasty decisions for the sake of change can easily fail.

Football is unique in the way it operates and how it recruits its employees, but for many businesses, recruiting talented individuals makes a lot of sense as a tactic, but not as a long term strategy. From an employee engagement and financial viewpoint, building and developing new leaders from within will always be a better strategy. Promoting people from within energises others and shows that they too can achieve, but the process of development must be in place across the organisation from the top to the bottom. Work requirements must be defined at each level of the organisation, clear succession plans need to be transparent and there must be clarity about what it takes to move from one layer to another.

When new senior managers come into an organisation replacing somebody who has been at the helm for a long period of time, it is always an unsettling and anxious time for all and success (or failure) can happen within the first few months of an appointment. Whether Manchester United get it right, time will tell, but by taking the time to do a few things well, managers can make their introduction to the organisation a much smoother ride.