Journey to Greatness Part 2: Dare to Rebuild Your Team

Harvard Business Review

Managerial Advisory

Sir Alex Ferguson

Journey to Greatness - 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.

View Journey to Greatness Part 1: Start with the Foundation

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

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Even in times of great success, Ferguson worked to rebuild his team. He is credited with assembling five distinct league-winning squads during his time at the club and continuing to win trophies all the while. His decisions were driven by a keen sense of where his team stood in the cycle of rebuilding and by a similarly keen sense of players’ life cycles—how much value the players were bringing to the team at any point in time. Managing the talent development process inevitably involved cutting players, including loyal veterans to whom Ferguson had a personal attachment. “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future,” Ryan Giggs told us. “Knowing what needs strengthening and what needs refreshing—he’s got that knack.”

Our analysis of a decade’s worth of player transfer data revealed Ferguson to be a uniquely effective “portfolio manager” of talent. He is strategic, rational, and systematic. In the past decade, during which Manchester United won the English league five times, the club spent less on incoming transfers than its rivals Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool did. One reason was a continued commitment to young players: Those under 25 constituted a far higher share of United’s incoming transfers than of its competitors’. And because United was willing to sell players who still had good years ahead of them, it made more money from outgoing transfers than most of its rivals did—so the betting on promising talent could continue. Many of those bets were made on very young players on the cusp of superstardom. (Ferguson did occasionally shell out top money for established superstars, such as the Dutch striker Robin van Persie, bought for $35 million at the start of the 2012–2013 season, when he was 29.) Young players were given the time and conditions to succeed, most older players were sold to other teams while they were still valuable properties, and a few top veterans were kept around to lend continuity and carry the culture of the club forward.

Ferguson: We identified three levels of players: those 30 and older, those roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in. The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards that the older ones had set. Although I was always trying to disprove it, I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years, and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualize the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly. Because I was at United for such a long time, I could afford to plan ahead—no one expected me to go anywhere. I was very fortunate in that respect.

Analyzing player transfer data reveals Ferguson to be a uniquely effective “portfolio manager” of talent. He is strategic, rational, and systematic.

The goal was to evolve gradually, moving older players out and younger players in. It was mainly about two things: First, who did we have coming through and where did we see them in three years’ time, and second, were there signs that existing players were getting older? Some players can go on for a long time, like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Rio Ferdinand, but age matters. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy—but all the evidence is on the field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to ask yourself what things are going to be like two years ahead.