Succession Planning: 5 lessons from a fallen giant


Something had to stop Manchester United from continuing their dominant ways and it came from what many thought would be the most likely direction: when it came time to change the leader (manager). We all knew that Sir Alex Ferguson (SAF) couldn’t go on forever, although that is how it seemed for us long-suffering Liverpool fans during the course of the past two decades. Players came and went, owners changed, opposition rose and fell and yet through all this United (for the most part) reigned supreme. And so we all waited for the institution that was ‘SAF’ to pass. It did and the disintegration has been gleefully (for many) spectacular to state the obvious. In a mere 10 months, Moyes outwhat took 26 years to build, has crumbled. Time has shown David Moyes to be the wrong man for the job. Some would argue that he should be given more time but whether one likes it or not, Manchester United is first and foremost, in the eyes of the American owners, the Glazers, a business. As a business it needs to show return on investment and there is a sizable debt of some £389.2 million to be serviced. The servicing of that debt alone cost United £71 million over the course of last year. Dithering while Rome burns is not a viable strategy and something had to be done to save the business and it has always been one eye on the pitch and one eye on the NYSE. It is really that simple and that calculating as unpalatable as it may be to football loving fans, the lifeblood of any club, who are caught up in the romance of the club as an institution that exists beyond the balance sheet.

The succession process was poorly handled. We suspected it at the time and we know it as a certainty now. There are several lessons to be learnt:

1.    The incumbent leader is near-sighted. More often than not the current leader wants to preserve their legacy and what appears to be far-sighted vision, is really more short-sighted vision. They go after someone in ‘their own likeness’ and certainly that is what Moyes appears to be when measured against a younger Ferguson. Both have been cut from the same cloth and it was thought that this would be good enough to sustain the remarkable success achieved by Ferguson. It wasn’t, as we now know. Ferguson was given far too much power in determining his successor and he couldn’t envisage the real change that was needed.
2.    Past success inhibits our ability to see what comes next. Sir Alex chose someone whom he though would be able to replicate that which he had accomplished. The mould need not be changed; it had worked once, it would work again. However, the football world has changed from the early days of Ferguson’s reign. There is far less patience and more pressure to show immediate returns. The operating conditions weren’t the same and Ferguson of all people should have understood this new reality.  At the time of his exit he pleaded for time and patience for his successor but clearly didn’t believe it as he himself approved pulling the trigger on Moyes’ execution. He appointed a person who had never won a trophy and had a CV that was never going to be good enough for the requirements at Old Trafford. Ian Herbert writing in the Evening Standard put it best when he wrote, “It is a scenario United dreaded all through the years that they half imagined a landscape beyond Sir Alex Ferguson and, intoxicated by the taste of success, did little to prepare for it”.
3.    Be careful when the previous driver tells you the tank is full. Ferguson left nothing in the tank. Yes he reached the last chequered flag with consummate room to space but the reality was, the gas tank was on empty. All appeared to be good but deeper investigation revealed a squad that needed major overhaul regardless of who the new manager would be. The man who had successfully rebuilt the team time and time again handed over a team at the crest looking at a road ahead that had an alarming decline in its gradient.
4.    Don’t change everything and then expect continuity. When Ferguson left so too did other key stakeholders in the boardroom as well on the training pitch. I have read contrasting stories as to whether Ferguson’s training staff we pushed or left on their own accord but nonetheless everything changed and Moyes brought in his own team. It is said that some senior figures within Manchester United, in reference to the new coaching staff would ask, “Are Everton in yet?” when arriving at Carrington, the United training ground. The appointment of Ed Woodward left Moyes with someone whose inexperience meant that the critical summer transfer window was bungled in spectacular fashion. It all went horribly wrong from there.
5.    Clear out and move on. SAF kept an office in the main stand at Old Trafford. Apparently Moyes would often go and chat to Ferguson and whilst this might appear to ‘be helpful’ I am not so sure that it was wise in that it must have put the break on Moyes being, and seen to being ‘his own man’. As the legendary Shankley had to be told not to come to Liverpool by his successor, Bob Paisley, someone needed to tell SAF to clear out, for a time at least. His presence around the place was too bright for Moyes and I have no doubt that a more senior and experienced manager would simply not have accepted the situation.

It is always hard to be the ‘man who replaces the Man’. Moyes has found that out to his cost. It is said that the smarter play is always to be ‘the man who replaces the man who replaced the Man’. Time will tell.

So United face a daunting challenge of ‘where too from here’ with no guarantees of a quick-fix solution. It would seem that the managers they really need aren’t available or interested; they have a team that needs serious rebuilding, something that will test the culture and continuity of United even further; are saddled with serious debt and a playing record from 2013/14 that reads like a roll of ignominy complied by a committee made up of Liverpool and Manchester City diehards.

Succession after sustained success is a real challenge. United should have been planning for the exit of SAF long before they did and they didn’t. Most in this industry don’t and the ‘results’ are there to tell a tale of poor succession planning, short-term results and a turn-over of managers that is unlike anything else that can be thought of in whatever industry one cares to think about. Sad really.

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