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Listening: The Alex Ferguson Way

Source | LinkedIn : By Vishal Kataria

On 8th May 2013, Sir Alexander Ferguson stepped down as manager of the football club Manchester United. The sun set on an illustrious 57-year career in football. Of them, seventeen were as a player, and thirty nine as a manager. In those thirty nine years, Ferguson won forty nine trophies. No surprises then, that he is regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time.

Did Alex Ferguson listen to people? Yes.

Did he need to?

In an analogue world, the typical answer would be “no”. Successful people know their ropes better than others. People should listen to them. Everyone hangs on to each word the successful folk utter. That’s why, the latter launch into monologues like they know everything. But Alex Ferguson listened. And he listened well.

Ferguson didn’t listen to people despite being successful. He was successful because he listened to people. He attributes a large part of his problem solving abilities, communication skills, and success to listening.

“It always pays to listen to others. It’s like enrolling in a continuous, lifelong free education, with the added benefit that there are no examinations and you can always discard useless comments.”

How did he benefit from listening? Some terrific instances are narrated in his bookLeading.

Making A Pivotal Decision

After a game in 1992, Alex Ferguson did something unusual for him. He hung out with the players in the bath, listening to their analysis of the match. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were raving about French striker Eric Cantona, whom Leeds had signed. The comments planted a seed, which would soon lead to Manchester United signing Cantona.

Cantona came with a reputation of being unmanageable. While the club bought him, Ferguson sought advice from French manager Gérard Houllier and French sports journalist Erik Bielderman – people he trusted. He also spoke to Michael Platini who encouraged the decision. Platini believed Cantona’s character was underestimated and that he needed some understanding. They all offered Ferguson insightful tips.

The decision to sign the French player proved pivotal – arguably for the whole decade. Before Cantona’s arrival, United scored four goals in six games. After his arrival, they scored fourteen in six.

Listening with His Eyes

Alex Ferguson didn’t just let his ears guide him. He placed equal emphasis on observation.

“For me there are two forms of observation: the first is on the detail and the second is on the big picture.”

A specific instance where observation made Ferguson a better team manager is below.

More Powerful Practice Sessions

In 1969, Ferguson watched a practice session of the German football team. They practiced without goalkeepers, focussing on possession of the ball instead. In those days where managers stressed on long-distance running, this was unusual. It made an enormous impression on Ferguson.

As soon as he became coach at St Mirren, Ferguson started doing ‘boxes’. They would pit four players against two in confined space. As players’ skills improved, the boxes tightened. It helped with everything: awareness, angles, touch on the ball, and more. Eventually, players were able to play one-touch football.

Ferguson employed this technique for more than fifty years till his last training session at Manchester United.

Read On…

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