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Alex Ferguson: Lessons for Succession Planning – Oliver Donovan

Today Sir Alex Ferguson announced his decision to retire as manager of Manchester United. United’s dominance over the past 20 years has been due to the leadership of this one man. But whereas Ferguson has been a master of replacing world class players with other great talents, or by producing an even greater team dynamic to compensate for the loss of a standout player will the same be said for the way Manchester United replace Ferguson?

The two names most strongly linked to the role are Jose Mourinho and David Moyes, both strong personalities and hugely respected, although with very different CVs. However the problem may lie in the intangible aspects of succession – an individual trying to stamp their mark on a team (particularly with Ferguson still being at the club as a Director), bringing in new ideas, new faces (including the coaching set up) etc.

Football is littered with stories of great teams that fade once a successful manager departs. However the most pertinent example may well be with Manchester United’s biggest rivals – Liverpool. Liverpool’s success in the 70’s and 80’s equals Manchester United’s since, but whereas United have had the one manager Liverpool had four. From Bill Shankly, through Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan to Kenny Dalglish, the legendary boot room ensured a continuity in ethos, tradition and vision that kept Liverpool at the top. It failed when they stepped from that model to replace Dalglish with Graeme Souness. Souness, a famously strong personality, tried to change Liverpool overnight into the kind of outfit that he played with in Italy. In changing too much too quickly years of tactical integrity, coherent tactics and direction were lost. Liverpool went from perennial favourites to also rans in the space of one season.

Manchester United do not have “a bootroom” to fall back on. The fans will demand a big name successor, but for that man to succeed they are going to have to be extremely strong willed. Every failure will be polarised, and without the money of a Chelsea or Manchester City staying at the top will become increasingly difficult.

Even the biggest corporations can become also-rans in the way Liverpool did by the wrong appointment and the wrong decisions at the top. The Banking industry is an obvious place to look.

Succession planning is absolutely crucial, ensuring that those at the upper echelons have grown to appreciate the nuances, ethos and culture of the company; have the respect and relationships both internally and externally with clients and investors. Who can lead the management team and understand their need for progression – a leadership that combines vision, innovation and management. Succession should not always be about change; in fact the best example of succession done the right way is when nothing changes at all particularly the success. Succession with change is the hardest thing to manage but is crucial if the company is stagnating or being superseded by competitors – again Ferguson was brilliant at ensuring his squad did not stagnate nor rest on reputation and past achievement. Graeme Souness highlighted that Liverpool needed to adopt a more continental approach to professionalism and was, in hindsight, ahead of his time – Gerard Houllier 10 years later was credited with doing that. It is about highlighting if change is required instantly to avoid terminal decline or can be managed over time in light of the competition and the industry and that is a function of leadership.

History, business and sport can all give numerous examples of empires crumbling after the end of charismatic leaders – the latest example may well be Apple without Steve Jobs. It would be extremely sad if for all Ferguson’s achievements Manchester United crumble into being also-rans after his retirement,  in the way that Alexander the Great’s empire did not survive his death – because that is what his legacy would be to the club. And that from a Liverpool fan.

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