For those of you who know me, you would know that I’m a bit obsessed with Manchester United. I’ve been a fan of the team since my boyhood when the team was no where near the global phenomena it is today. has been in charge since 1986.
With 25 years as manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson is the longest serving manager in their history. His tenure has seen the club go through an era of success and dominance both in England and in Europe, giving Ferguson a reputation as one of the most admired and respected managers in the history of the game.
The Financial Times published an article about Ferguson’s management. To quote the article: “This is not because he has a brilliant understanding of football. “Ferguson is not a genius,” writes his biographer Patrick Barclay. Brian Clough was a better judge of players; José Mourinho is a better tactician. As Peter Schmeichel, United’s former goalkeeper, said: “There are thousands of better coaches. But management? The handling of men? There’s nobody better.”
The article goes to list the top secrets of Ferguson’s management. I thought I’d modify them a bit to fit what I think applies to CEOs of early stage companies:
Identify yourself with your company brand: for early stage companies, the CEO must take the lead in defining the company aspirations. The aspirations should include how the company will be positioned in the market and what it will be known for. Basically, what will truly differentiate the company, i.e. what the company brand is and how will it manifest itself.
Cultivate every interest group in your company: the CEO must be mindful of all the various groups of stakeholders in the company: the employees, the senior team, the board and the investors. Each group has its own dynamics and aspirations. Herding the various aspirations to all be aligned with the company aspirations is a monumental effort. Many founding CEOs fail at this step. Can’t really blame them though. It’s one thing to be an entrepreneurial founder with a small team of innovating employees. It’s completely another to turn into a managerial CEO of a larger company with a board of directors and VC investors.
Gather information everywhere: early stage companies tend to be very introverted. Not as much so in the startup phase where the founder starts with an idea or a market pain-point and builds the team and product to address it. As the company enters the expansion stage, it tends to get more introverted. The CEO must foster an environment of active market/customer intelligence gathering. Every employee must be encouraged to be actively solicitous of (and aware of) the market, competitive and customer dynamics.
Seek total control, but recognize when you cannot have it: As the early stage company grows, the CEO must build the right senior team to help manage the company. The skill sets required in a senior team will change over time as the company grows in size and complexity. That means that the CEO must contend with constant change in the managers around the senior team table. In doing so, the CEO must learn how to exert control and influence. And must know how to balance these with trust and delegation.
Don’t let others cause you stress: the CEO will never be able to please all the stakeholders. Being the CEO is a very very tough job, requiring a lot of tough decisions. Many will take swipes at the CEO and will question his/her leadership and decisions. When that happens, the CEO must put the blinders on and keep plugging along (preferably with the support of a mentor or the board). But the CEO must also not turn deaf. Sometimes the criticism is sound and its time for the CEO to listen and react. For more, read this.
Remember that crises blow over: no matter what happens, an early stage company will run into crises. It is inevitable. The first rule to getting through a crisis is to realize that it will pass. The second it to be prepared. The third is to react quickly and decisively.
Always be unsatisfied: to excel, the CEO must always strive for more and to inspire the team to be the same. Nothing is more dangerous than complacency and over-confidence. Navigating the expansion stage requires constant evolution of all aspects of company operations and offerings. That means that you must always be striving for more excellence. It never ends.