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Topics: Manchester United F.C., Premier League, Ryan Giggs Pages: 11 (5995 words) Published: May 5, 2014
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Ferguson’s Formula
by Anita Elberse with Sir Alex Ferguson

by Anita Elberse with Sir Alex Ferguson

Some call him
the greatest
coach in history.

Before retiring in May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson spent
26 seasons as the manager of Manchester United, the
English football (soccer) club that ranks among the most
successful and valuable franchises in sports. During that
time the club won 13 English league titles along with 25
other domestic and international trophies—giving him an
overall haul nearly double that of the next-most-successful
English club manager. And Ferguson was far more than a
coach. He played a central role in the United organization,
managing not just the first team but the entire club. “Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,”
says the club’s former chief executive David Gill.
In 2012 Harvard Business School professor Anita
Elberse had a unique opportunity to examine Ferguson’s
management approach and developed an HBS case study
around it. Now she and Ferguson have collaborated on an
analysis of his enormously successful methods.
2 Harvard Business Review October 2013

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PHOTOGRAPHY: SEAN POLLACK

Ferguson’s Formula

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October 2013 Harvard Business Review 3

FERGUSON’S FORMULA

ANITA ELBERSE: Success and staying power like Sir
Alex Ferguson’s demand study—and not just by football fans. How did he do it? Can one identify habits that enabled his success and principles that guided
it? During what turned out to be his final season in
charge, my former student Tom Dye and I conducted
a series of in-depth interviews with Ferguson about
his leadership methods and watched him in action
at United’s training ground and at its famed stadium,
Old Trafford, where a nine-foot bronze statue of the
former manager now looms outside. We spoke with
many of the people Ferguson worked with, from
David Gill to the club’s assistant coaches, kit manager, and players. And we observed Ferguson during numerous short meetings and conversations with
players and staff members in the hallways, in the
cafeteria, on the training pitch, and wherever else
the opportunity arose. Ferguson later came to HBS
to see the ensuing case study taught, provide his
views, and answer students’ questions, resulting in
standing-room-only conditions in my classroom and
a highly captivating exchange.
Ferguson and I discussed eight leadership lessons that capture crucial elements of his approach. Although I’ve tried not to push the angle too hard,
many of them can certainly be applied more broadly,
to business and to life. In the article that follows, I
describe each lesson as I observed it, and then give
Ferguson his say.

1

Start with the Foundation

Upon his arrival at Manchester, in 1986, Ferguson set
about creating a structure for the long term by modernizing United’s youth program. He established two “centers of excellence” for promising players as
young as nine and recruited a number of scouts, urging them to bring him the top young talent. The bestknown of his early signings was David Beckham. The most important was probably Ryan Giggs, whom

Ferguson noticed as a skinny 13-year-old in 1986 and
who went on to become the most decorated British
footballer of all time. At 39, Giggs is still a United regular. The longtime stars Paul Scholes and Gary Neville were also among Ferguson’s early youth program investments. Together with Giggs and Beckham,

they formed the core of the great United teams of the
late 1990s and early 2000s, which Ferguson credits
with shaping the club’s modern identity.
It was a big bet on young talent, and at a time
when the prevailing wisdom was, as one respected

4 Harvard Business Review October 2013

television commentator put it,...
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