Meulensteen: Ferguson's lessons in leadership
Written by Simon Austin — August 4, 2017
RENE MEULENSTEEN was a key member of Sir Alex Ferguson's first-team staff at Manchester United for six years. During this time they won four Premier League titles, the Champions League and a Club World Cup. Meulensteen told TGG about the attributes that made the Scot such a great leader.
The ultimate aim was to win, but Sir Alex wanted to win in a certain style. I can remember him bringing me into his office when he’d made me first-team coach. He had a flipchart and said, ‘listen, Ren - I don’t need to talk to you about how to run your sessions, you know all that. But I’d like to reiterate what I want to see. Possession is important, but always possession with a purpose. When we attack I want to see pace, power, penetration and unpredictability. These are the four things you must instil in the team in every single training session.’
And he was always a big advocate of youth. That meant investing in youth facilities and policies, but also giving opportunities. If ever he had chance to bring a homegrown player into the first team, he would do it.
In my first season with the Academy , he showed a keen interest. He came up to Littleton Road at least three or four times to see what we were doing. At the end of the season I had a real long chat with him about what I was doing and how I saw things progressing. What we were doing was trying to develop these kids, the Lingaards and Rashfords, for 10 years’ time.
To be a good manager, you need to be a visionary. First, ‘what do I want to achieve?’ Then you devise a strategy, ‘how am I going to put this in place, over the short, medium and long term?’ Then you identify the right people to do it. This is what he did.
We had experts in every position - technical, strength and conditioning, medical, analysis. It was like clockwork.
The manager achieved the highest level of management - he delegated. He was overseeing it all, he always stayed in control, but he gave us the freedom to do our jobs as well as we could. He trusted Steve McNally on the medical side, Mick Phelan, myself and Eric Steele on the coaching side, and so on. That created for him a lot of space, so he could really focus on achieving the vision.
3. CREATING THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
There was something else, which I only really realised afterwards: not once did I ever feel any level of pressure, not in the six years I worked for him. I never felt ‘I’m under the cosh here’ or ‘the manager’s not happy with this’. That takes top-drawer management, to make everyone feel that comfortable. We had some tough moments but never got carried away. We were able to very quickly see it in perspective and move on.
Man-management is about making sure people are comfortable and bringing the best out of them. That applies in any company, in any walk of life. To work for a club the size of Man United, that wants to win the Premier League and Champions League every single season, and never to feel one day of pressure, wow.
4. ALWAYS ADAPTING
Things change. Technology came in - video analysis, Prozone, laptops at training - and he managed to use it all to his advantage. Tony [Strudwick] would come in with great ideas and Sir Alex would always listen and often say ‘yes, do it’. Or me with my skills development. He had this ability to adapt and evolve, which is rare, maybe unique, when you think how long he had been there and how much success he had had.
That’s the measure of the man and the level of his capabilities, to not get stuck in what he already knew. He always said ‘when I started here I had four staff, now I’ve got more than Marks and Spencer’s.’ His role as a manager was evolving and changing all of the time and he embraced it.
5. BEING DECISIVE
If a difficult decision had to be made, he would make it - so long as it was in the best interests of the club. He could be swift and bold. We saw that again and again - if it was dropping a big name or moving one on or bringing someone in. He was never afraid to make the big calls.
He always said, 'our approach is 75/25 -75% about us, 25% about the opposition. Because we are Man United.' It was about always reinforcing how good we were, how strong we were. A lot of teams do the opposite, showing clips of the opposition and making them look so good that you think ‘wow, what are we up against here?’
A lot of the time people come to me and say, ‘I bet Ferguson wasn't an easy man to work for.’ Listen, nothing could be further from the truth. He was an absolute a delight to work for, every single day.
It was the flow we were in - and the players felt that too. That disappeared after he went. The key to working with such high-profile players is to inform and facilitate. In training, you’re not telling them every step they should make, you’re showing them the options. You back it up with video footage – ‘this is what I talked to you about, this is what I meant’. And you let them evolve it.
If one thing stands out from my time at Man United it was the amount of laughs we had. We laughed every single day. Sir Alex had an unbelievable sense of humour. After he left he had a hip operation and I went to see him at his house. He said, ‘it’s only now I realise how unique it was.’