Zheng Hao Tan

A Couple Lessons From Sir Alex Ferguson

A Couple Lessons From Sir Alex Ferguson

Date published: February 6, 2019

The earlier draft of this post was written close to a year ago, but here it is anyway. For those who aren't familiar with Sir Alex Ferguson, he's a former football (soccer) manager at Manchester United. This interview was done at the Stanford GSB, and he's being interviewed by Michael Moritz, the chairman at Sequoia Capital, a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.

Having worked in tech for a number of years, I find this interview fascinating, not just because I grew up as a MANU fan, but I find so many parallels; lessons that can be transferred to tech. Here's a short list of topics and principles/values that stood out to me in this video:


"I want the players to know, that as soon as they step out of the bus, they have to look the part and have a sense of professionalism that shows they are playing for Manchester United". He made sure the players shaved and wore a nice suit to the stadium prior to the game. Right around the time Sir Alex joined the team, Manchester United wasn't doing anything close to well. There was a strong drinking problem among the players and general lack of discipline, which was an incredibly difficult time for Sir Alex. He still managed to turn it around.

I'm not saying programmers should now start wearing suits to the office, but strong leadership requires some enforcement of common principles/values that every team member adheres to, for its team members to continue to thrive in a safe and healthy work environment.

In the startup circle, we often hear the magic word "Culture" being thrown around. I think it's hard to say that culture can be enforced, cause that's something that morphs organically as the team scales.

I like the word discipline instead. What does it mean to be a disciplined contributor in the team? Or, what does it even mean to be part of team X? Does it mean that sexual harassment is tolerated in the office? What does management think of this? Or the CEO and the board? This is something to think about.

Work Ethic

Sir Alex's take on Cristiano Ronaldo's backstory was amazing. The most interesting traits that led to Ronaldo's success in the field aren't that surprising if you triangulated the same values and work ethic from other industries. Luck will always be a complementary component to one's success, but grit and hard work are the only ones that is deterministic. They give you another fair shot at success.

Don't lie. Don't be late. Don't cheat

Towards the end of the talk, the audience had a more generic question for him: "If footballers were the equivalent of strong engineers here in Silicon Valley, and us (the MBA students) going out there to become their managers, how do you think you can best manage them?" I think Sir Alex handled this pretty well with three simple principles: "Don't lie. Don't be late. Don't cheat". This works all the time.