Winning The Impossible Game: A 26-Year Masterclass In Performance Management

Winning The Impossible Game

Recently, the spotlight was on a man who has achieved perhaps the single greatest talent development, performance management and succession planning transformation in UK corporate history.

For those of us who believe that managing talent drives company performance and valuations, Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United is one of the great stories of talent management leading to shareholder value and growth. One which makes the case for business leaders to do, not just talk, talent management and indicates how this might be applied on an industrial scale.

On the pitch Sir Alex’s 26 year tenure has led Manchester United to win 38 trophies: the Premier League title 13 times, the FA Cup five times and the Champions League Cup three times. One of the greatest achievements in sports history. Off the pitch, the company trades (even after the recent news) at a valuation of over $3bn and at a current P/e (Price/earnings) ratio of 108.

Whilst acknowledging the parallel triumph of marketing and brand, the value of the Manchester United business is based almost solely on performance on the pitch. Management focus has been on building the right team, with the faith that company growth and value will follow. Achieving this, Sir Alex rebuilt the team time and again from scratch, developed new generations of talent from the junior squads as well as acquiring and retaining future stars from elsewhere and building new teams around them.

To drive achievement on the pitch, Sir Alex used an unerring eye for detail to get the best from every team member, and created a broad Manchester United ‘family’ all focused on winning.

Malcolm Tinkler, Vice President EMEA, SumTotal Systems commented: “This personal touch adopted by Sir Alex was one of the ways he created a winning team. It wasn’t just those playing the game, he involved everyone who worked at Manchester United. The key to this success is knowing how to nurture talent and bring out the best in people, as everyone has a different way of working, learning and training. The team ethos extended beyond the pitch and Sir Alex understood how to help people be better at their jobs, whatever role they played in the team.”

This detailed knowledge of what drives and motivates each person in the Manchester United operation meant that Sir Alex could harness his exceptional strategic skills and a healthy dose of aggression into building a sustainable team that consistently outperformed his peers. The result – raising company valuation and growth to an unprecedented level.

Is it an impossible dream to reap these same results, by applying these methods on an industrial scale? Few of us are blessed with teams small enough to allow this type of management to work on the ground; knowing every detail, of each of our team members is an aspiration that seems hard to scale up from the two hundred or so team members and support staff who Sir Alex managed.

The new generation of talent management systems gives us one part of the answer. Talent management on a large scale requires tools for our managers to allow them to manage the detail of each staff members’ performance and aspiration – and at the same time define corporate wide career paths and development opportunities. The tools are now available, but delivering the performance means being clear to managers how these are applied and measured.

Tinkler continues: “Talent management activity shouldn’t be done in a silo, to really be effective, managers need to be able to understand each employee’s individual needs while also keeping an eye on the organisation’s overall strategy. In doing this, they’ll be able to use the talent within their organisations to achieve competitive advantage.”

We need to play the game in our heads before we can win the game in reality, imagine our own businesses working with all our managers developing individuals as a team. What would this look like, and how would our managers behave? We now have the right tools to deploy this approach on a large scale. But winning the game, needs vision of this at work in our businesses.

Tom Holmes

Tom Holmes is a founding Director of Veran Performance, a HCM advisory company that focuses on the delivery of cloud-based HR solutions and the creation of customer value and organisational productivity. Tom has helped clients deliver over 200,000 seats of HR solutions over the past 20 years.