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Man United’s Own Goal

Why poor performance speaks volumes about succession planning


With David Moyes’ Manchester United career at an inglorious end, Neil Gibb says that the real problem all along was that the club’s strategists handled Sir Alex Ferguson’s succession badly.

From our partners at SLP Global.

LEADERSHIPManchester United is a name that transcends British sport. If you walk through any shopping mall in Asia you will stumble across their shirts for sale. School kids in Bahrain and taxi drivers in Mali wear them too.

Since July 2013 year, however, United’s fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. After a record-breaking 27 years in charge, Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s legendary Glaswegian manager, stepped down and David Moyes took over, after which the team’s performance dipped alarmingly. Now, less than one year into Moyes’ tenure, the search for his successor begins.

David Moyes

David Moyes has managed Manchester United since July 2013, a period that has seen a major dip in performance.

Of course, the media and football fans always blame the manager for poor performance – it goes with the job. But what is clear is that United could have handled Ferguson’s succession much better. Had they done so, they would have put Moyes in a far stronger position.

Senior leadership succession is critical element of business strategy and, in retrospect, it appears that United didn’t have a plan.

So what is there to learn?

In 2013 Forbes valued United at $3 billion, one billion more than any other sporting franchise in the world. They should, therefore, have handled the succession like the huge enterprise they are.

Triggers for succession

There are only two triggers for senior leadership change and they require very different approaches. The first is when a business is underperforming. In this scenario what is usually required is a leader with new ideas, energy, and the ability to turn things around quickly.

Organisations in this situation usually have a very short-term need: they need to show an immediate improvement to shareholders, owners, or fans. It takes a certain kind of high-impact leader to do this, one who can build quick relationships with the key incumbent personnel and who has the vision and chutzpah to shake things up. Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 is a great example of this.

The second trigger is when a senior leader wishes to retire, move on, or it just seems like the time for orderly change. In this situation there is no burning bridge, no crisis to solve, and the challenge is to hand over the tiller with no dip in performance. This was the scenario at United and they handled it very badly.

Again, we can look to Jobs for a steer. The reason for his succession was genuinely extraordinary: he knew he was dying. And it is a testament to the resolve of the man that even though that was the case he made sure that a succession plan was in place. Tim Cook was groomed for the role.

Chief operating officer (COO) is perhaps the best place to have a future leader in development; it is a role that provides a very broad view of the organisation, as well as a place at the executive leadership team table. Cook, like Moyes, had no track record of building a great business. He was a very capable executive, but also like Moyes, had no reputation for delivering the extraordinary. He was chosen as someone who could build on a legacy.

United we fall

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson came to United a winner.

When United knew that Ferguson was going to retire they had two choices: one, to replace him – a man who came to the club as a winner, having steered the small Scottish club Aberdeen to the heights of a European Cup win – with another known winner, someone who would bring in a new order, his way of doing things; or two, to find someone who would build on Ferguson’s legacy.

They chose the latter. David Moyes had a very similar background and demeanour to Ferguson’s, albeit less feisty and without the halo effect of having delivered something extraordinary in the past.

But what United should have done was install Moyes in a role long before Ferguson left, to allow him to build relationships, understand the complex operations of the business, and to be part of the team before he stepped into high office. United should have found a COO-like role for him. This would have cost them money, but they had the resources to afford it and it would have been far less costly than this year’s disastrous performance.

Neil Gibb

SLP Global’s Neil Gibb.

Leadership succession is a strategic issue, just like any other that affects the long-term wellbeing of a business. It takes forward planning, senior team alignment, and some humility from the top dog and the heir apparent.

It is hard to hand over the keys to someone new, especially when you have been at the helm for as long as Ferguson had, and hard for someone who has led an organisation to come in to listen and learn rather than lead and change. But really, that is the ultimate sign of a great leader: putting aside ego for legacy.

The root of the word ‘succession’ is ‘success’ for a reason. Now, Manchester United need to plan for Moyes’ succession. Let’s hope they make a better job of it this time. TS


Neil Gibb is a writer, adventurer and director of performance management consultancy SLP. Originally from the UK, in recent years he has spent a lot of his time working in the emerging economies of East Asia.



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