Manchester United Succession Learnings

One of the more fascinating stories in sport right now is the difficulties new Manager David Moyes is facing following the retirement of perhaps Football’s greatest ever Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

From running away with the Premiership last year, Manchester United are now languishing in seventh place, 12 points below Manchester City who have played one game less.

I will be speaking at a Business / Sports Leadership programme at Manchester United in May and I was thinking about what we can learn from the difficulties David Moyes is facing.

  1. The CEO and the Manager both left at the same time. At Saatchi & Saatchi this would be like the CEO and Worldwide Creative Director leaving simultaneously. The stress on the organisation would be huge, clients would be edgy, continuity would be lost, and institutional knowledge would be severely reduced. Manchester United’s Board should have managed this much better and kept CEO David Gill in place for at least 24 months to ensure Mr Moyes was given a safety net of experience and scar tissue.
  2. David Moyes is Sir Alex Ferguson-light and was chosen by Sir Alex himself. Two learnings here.

    i) The outgoing CEO is not the best placed to name his successor. He is too close to the business and too emotionally involved. He should provide advice, counsel and perspective but this is the Board’s decision.

    ii) The Board should resist the temptation to make an incremental like for like change. After a tenure as long as Sir Alex, they need transformation not incremental improvement. The players will not respond to a watered down version of the original.

  3. There was no incumbent on the short list; indeed there was no short list. For every CEO job there should be three horses in the race. Ideally two internal and one external. There was no race at Old Trafford, just a shoo-in.
  4. Finally, given the double change at the top I find it astounding that the incoming Manager would bring in all his own people and remove all the other key staff. I took completely the reverse point of view when I joined Saatchi & Saatchi. I took no-one with me and told the people who were there that I would provide them with a framework for them to step up, perform and deliver. They stayed and did just that. In Manchester United’s case they all walked out of the door, the players were bewildered, opponents ecstatic.

Who knows how this story will play out but I believe a business as big as Manchester United should have managed this key appointment much more rigorously. The Board appear to have abrogated responsibility and should be held accountable.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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