Manchester United - How Culture Killed The Club
Posted on 12th September 2022 at 15:23
‘Gary Neville: From Football Legend To Building A Business Empire’
On 18th August 2022 Steven Bartlett release episode 170 of his Diary of a CEO podcast. The episode is titled ‘Gary Neville: From Football Legend To Building A Business Empire’
I’m an avid listener and rarely miss an episode and was looking forward to this one as a football fan. (I hasten to add that I’m not a Manchester United fan but that’s another story!)
What I wasn’t expecting was to listen to a masterclass in the understanding of the importance of great leadership, culture and values and the impact of recognising and adapting to generational change.
Gary Neville joined Manchester United Football Club in 1994 and spent his entire playing career with them until he retired in 2011. He spent 5 years as club captain and became one of the most decorated English and European footballers of all time, having won a total of 20 trophies, including eight Premier League titles and two Champions League titles. He went on to football management, became a brilliant pundit, is the co-owner of Salford City FC, and has built a successful business empire that most would find enviable.
The way he talks about leadership, culture and values, puts it into a context that is appealing to a wide audience.
So inspired was I by the episode, that I knew it needed to become a Purple Story so here’s my take on what he said about Manchester United Football Club and the impact of leadership, culture and values.
An Environment of Excellence
Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership Manchester United was one of (if not ‘the’) the most successful and biggest football clubs in the world. In recent years since his departure the club has struggled to maintain it’s winning performance on the pitch.
Sir Alex developed an environment of excellence throughout the football club. This was the embedded culture. He led in what might be considered to be an old-fashioned manner today, and this is generational. He’s a Traditionalist and social science tells us that traditionalists value authority and have a top-down management approach. They are hard working with a ‘make do or do without’ mentality.
His ‘old school’ approach meant that when he walked into a room it became quiet. He was a dominating figure in the club and instilled strict values into everyone that was a part of it. According to Gary Neville, Sir Alex had the ability to tap into everyone in the dressing room and find something unique to motivate each individual so that they would never give in.
He understood the importance of culture and believed in having a hard work ethic and being grounded.
Sir Alex was passionate that everyone in the club was equally important regardless of their role, and no single person could achieve success without the input of the team around them. He was proud to work hard, and proud of those who worked hard.
In the dressing room he preached mutual respect. He had a lot of big egos to manage and not everyone got on with each other. But regardless of personalities and friendships, he achieved mutual respect. He would ask his team to look at each other and to understand what they do for each other on the pitch. He’d tell them that no one individual could achieve success without each other.
Gary Neville went on to tell us the story of Wendy, to highlight the respect culture that was expected within the club.
One of Wendy’s roles was to get the charity balls signed. Each week she would stand in reception with 30 or 40 footballs which were to be signed by the players and then given out for charities to use. The players didn’t always believe that they had the time to stop and sign the balls and would make excuses as they walked by Wendy.
On one occasion it was brought to Sir Alex’s attention that Wendy was upset because only a handful of players had signed the balls. The players were brought together for a one of his legendary ‘telling offs’ and he explained that by not signing them they had all shown a lack of respect to both Wendy and to the entire football club. This was a dereliction of their duty as a representative of Manchester United and was completely unacceptable. Everyone in the club was equal and everyone had a duty to look after each other.
The Club under Sir Alex Ferguson had a strong leadership team, embedded culture, and values that were uncompromising.
What did Gary Neville learn?
Gary Neville is Generation X. Gen X are comfortable with authority and will work as hard as needed. They value having a good work/life balance. He now leads teams across his many business interests and recognises the impact of the leadership and culture he grew up with.
Alex Ferguson knew the name of everyone at his club, the names of their families and always asked about them.
Now, when Gary Neville walks into his own businesses, he is conscious to acknowledge everyone. On occasion he will realise that when he arrived, he was on the phone and he may not have said ‘hello’ to some of his team on the way into the building. He will go back, apologise and then do so. He sits in the main office with his team, different to Sir Alex who had his own space. Things move on.
He has a strong work ethic. He believes you should work as hard as you can and never give in – every day – and do it again the next day.
Sir Alex Ferguson trusted his people. He knew they were chosen because they had the talent to do the job they were recruited for. What he expected in return was focus, commitment, dedication, that you give your all and never give in.
Gary believes this is no different in business. ‘You are chosen for a role because the belief is there that you have the talent. To succeed in your role, you need to be trusted, to go for it, give your all, be enthusiastic, and come back tomorrow and do it again.’
He acknowledges that some of his values may be considered old fashioned today and that to drive for hard work could be considered toxic. But anyone that reaches their peak will say the same – they did not get there without an awful lot of hard work.
‘I don’t believe it needed covid to make modern business act properly with the teams they work with’
Gary Neville never works the 1st week of January. He hates it, finds it dark and miserable. He always takes the week off. But he gives everyone else the week off too, on top of their holiday allowance. He doesn’t believe in expecting others to do anything he won’t do.
He offers a flexible working arrangement. He trusts his team to work where and when they are most productive. ‘I do want them to work hard but I want them to have a brilliant time, share in success and if I am off, they can be off.’ He dislikes rigid and restricted work packages, strict annual leave allowances, specified working hours, office seating plans and structured ways of how to work. He has always believed this, long before Covid lockdowns forced it on the world. He believes that there must be leadership, but built on trust.
He operates differently to what he experienced at Manchester United but believes in some ‘old fashioned’ values. ‘We have to work hard, to get the job done but why do you need to say it to people? We need to tap into people, make something unique that makes them want to stay, make it enjoyable – hard work can be enjoyable.
Trust goes both ways. Rigid rules drive compliance but not motivation. You want people to be internally driven. That’s how to get the best out of people.’
Gary recalled another story, relating to his time working with Roy Hodgson. Roy taught him to be very careful with rules stating that ‘it’s always the people you don’t want to break them, that break them’.
He thought this was a clever approach and doesn’t have rules in his businesses that relate to dress code and time keeping.
Roy explained that once you create rules, they are rigid. ‘We all know the rules, they just don’t need to be written down. If you’re asked to be somewhere at a certain time – be there. But if the rule applies every day, what do you do if your star performer is always late because of the school run for example?’ We need to motivate people to make them want to keep to the important rules and have flexibility around the ones that don’t impact on performance and results.
Working with Gen Z – a new approach
By his own admission, Gary Neville responds well to being told what to do. Generationally, this is how he was raised both in the home and in the workplace.
‘You couldn’t live through 70s 80s and early 90s as a child without being instructed because that was the style of leadership. So at my age we still respond to it. But with my children, I don’t instruct. I encourage independent thinking’
Our children are obsessed with social media – and Gary believes they need to be. Social media is now a fact of life and an important tool for future success. Gary believes that everyone, in particular Gen Z, needs to be good at it. They need to have other things, but they need to be good at social media as it will be an integral part of the future fit workplace. ‘They should learn about it in school, how to be good at it, what the dangers are and how to stay away from the bad stuff.’
In Gary’s early days, take the football transfer market for example, he would have to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper to come out to confirm today’s rumours. But now we don’t have to. Information is readily and instantly available. Gen Z grew up having it at their fingertips. They don’t like to be instructed, they want a good reason if they’re being asked to do something. ‘We have to learn to collaborate with them.’
So, how did culture kill the club?
Gary has a strong hypothesis about where it has all changed (or gone wrong) at Manchester United, and I must say that having heard what he’s had to say so far, I am inclined to agree with him.
Put simply, the failure on the pitch can be accredited to a lack of leadership, direction, and vision
There has been a deterioration in belief over a long period of time.
Take a school for example. ‘If a school is consistently under-performing they are put in special measures. We don’t blame the children but look to the governors and teachers to take accountability. The leadership team of the school have not set the standards for the children, and the results become poor. It’s the same at United. It was a high performing school. The head teacher has left, the board of governors left (some of them), and poor standards have meant that over a period of time there has developed an imbedded rot. The kids (players) are lacking direction (not talent)’
Environment, culture, and the enthusiasm to go to work every day has not been created by the hierarchy.
In 20 years, the club has not invested in its stadium or training facilities, it lost 2 key figure heads and, before you know it, you have a club that is really struggling. There is an embedded rot at the club.
‘You can bring the best star players into a bad culture, and they will become poor performers’
‘Signing the charity balls personified caring about values at every single touch point. They come from the top down. You can’t blame a player for not running fast enough.
Values and culture come from the top. You can bring the best stars into a bad culture, and they will become poor performers
If the culture is strong enough, new people become the culture. If the culture is weak, the culture becomes the new people’
Gary Neville stayed at Manchester United until he was 34 years old. In fact, Sir Alex kept many a senior player. He encouraged the ‘mentor role’ and understood the value of having experienced players around his younger team. Their role was not to teach them how to play football, but to embed culture in newer players, to help build confidence in new team members to grow, thrive and deliver.
The current players that are being widely talked about as not being good enough, could be outstanding if the right leadership and culture was still there. Being looked after by experienced people breeds confidence and a feeling of safety to thrive
The best players in the world have had the combination of exceptional talent, and exceptional leadership. One cannot succeed without the other.
‘I had the right combination of good leaders around me when I arrived. Without that, I’m not the person I am today. I’m not Gary Neville - resilient, tough, mentally strong, can handle anything and with a better work ethic than anyone else. That wasn’t natural when I was 10, that developed as a result of influence. I had exceptional people around me. Those lads today do not have that around them.’
How do great clubs fall?
The brand is deteriorating. Great players choose to go elsewhere and the money isn’t there to replace them because the club is commercially less attractive. The relationship between the fans and the ownership of the club has broken down to a place where it could be described as toxic and some would say this will need to change before greatness can be restored.
‘The club has veered away from all 5 or 6 of its key principles and objectives, any business that does that is in trouble.’
Gary is convinced the great Manchester United will return, but only in the hands of a great leadership team.
The Purple Story
Manchester United is a perfect example of a business that did not adapt to change. Their success was driven by a leadership team who lived and breathed the culture and values of the organisation and made it impossible for anyone in their team not to do so.
But when faced with change, they did not adapt.
The modern work force, made up largely of Gen X and Millennials with a new influx of Gen Z, need the leaders of today to adapt. They will not thrive if we expect them to respond to ‘old school’ leadership
Gary Neville has taken everything he learned about successful leadership and adapted it to be future fit, and not past perfect. His modern approach to leadership combined with his own values will undoubtedly embed a great culture within his businesses.
This podcast represents exactly what we believe in at Purple Story – it could not go unacknowledged.
Team Purple are dedicated to working with businesses to enhance their culture and values and to drive operational excellence through people. No business should underestimate the importance of setting a clear vision for the future, having and instilling a set of values and behaviours that assist everyone to achieve the vision and that are shown to be important every day. We must recognise the need for change and be able and willing to adapt.
The way we do things collectively and the belief in what we do is what will drive success.
It’s all aimed at getting the best out of every individual in the pursuit of those clearly understood collective goals, with a professionally rebellious edge!
Want to know more? Contact us for a friendly chat!
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