What Sir Alex Ferguson could learn from David Ogilvy

Who am I to add to the extraordinary volume of news articles about the sacking of David Moyes as manager of the Manchester United football team? On the Telegraph website alone there have been over 60 articles on this subject in the four days 22-24 April.

David Moyes predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, is universally acknowledged to have been a master of his craft.

However, as someone who is not ‘a football man’, my abiding image of Sir Alex Ferguson is of him, after a game, gobbing a huge wad of chewing gum onto the revered Old Trafford turf before strutting into a post-match interview to complain about the ref. Couth? Not.  

Having said this, it seems Sir Alex was hero worshipped by all the staff at Old Trafford where, we are told, he always had a kind word for the humblest of the staff: ‘He possessed a compassionate side‘. So who am I to judge?

In my observation, people who achieve great things do not always make brilliant decisions. Just like mere mortals, such as you and me, they can be stupid, unkind, boorish and pig-headed. And, because of this, they tend to polarise opinion. Think Mrs Thatcher.

Yet, having retired from a career in which he was undoubtedly successful, how brilliant has been the behaviour of Sir Alex since he retired?

1. He published a book in which he upset former players. Why did he do this? Surely not for the money.

2. He continued to watch his beloved Manchester United from the stands. Did he have to do this? Did it help David Moyes to have the club hero watching his every move?

At my old school, there is a tradition that retiring headmasters do not set foot through the gates for seven years after they have left. Why couldn’t Sir Alex have kept out of the way like this? Why not pour himself a glass of wine, relax in his favourite armchair and watch the game on TV? Isn’t this what retirement is all about?

3. In many the newspaper articles and online comments, it has been observed that it was Sir Alex who appointed (annointed?) Moyes as his successor.

How was this appointment conducted?

How professional was the process?

With what rigour were the candidates examined?

Whatever happened, it seems one crucial question may have been ignored:

‘David, if you get this job, what will you do? How will you go about it?’

Surely, if he was asked this, Moyes would have had to declare that it was his intention to dismiss the incumbent senior management team and replace them with his own people?

In my own career, I saw this happen at Ogilvy & Mather.

David Ogilvy, the founder of O&M, urged senior managers to ‘grow your own successor’. To encourage them to do this, with characteristic creativity, he sent each new company manager a Russian matryoshka doll – you know, the one you separate to reveal a smaller doll within, and then again, and then again.

With each doll came the message:

‘If you hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If you hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.’

Sadly, when I was working for Ogilvy & Mather, an unusually talented Chairman and CEO team were prised away from us by a competitive agency. In a break with tradition, it emerged that their successors had not been grown from within O&M, but had been imported from another competitor.

In due course, the new, imported management team decided that it would be an idea to leave our iconic building overlooking the Thames to Canary Wharf. Unfortunately, the infrastructure at our new home had not been developed as promised and a whole generation of us, including me, left the company.

Last week, I returned to the Ogilvy office in Canary Wharf for the first time in 20 years and am delighted to say that it felt like the old Ogilvy culture seemed to be back in place – albeit, as far as I am concerned, in the wrong part of town.

David Ogilvy bequeathed numerous other words of wisdom which have helped to ensure the future success of a business he founded in New York in 1948.

Former employees of the agency continue to remind current employees of David Ogilvy’s legacy:

The house that Ogilvy built

What David Ogilvy meant to me

David Ogilvy and me

All of these are well worth a read.

One cannot help but feel that if Sir Alex Ferguson, and other leaders, studied the David Ogilvy template they would enhance their reputations and leave the world a better place.

Remember: It’s not what you achieve. It’s the legacy you leave.

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