Mourinho, Manchester United and Organisational Change

As speculation rises over Jose Mourinho’s appointment to Manchester United, it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on some of the principles of organisational change and why successful organisations so often struggle with the loss and / or replacement of a new CEO or figurehead.

Following In The Footsteps Of A Genius

Time Magazine put it like this –

“How does one follow in the footsteps of a genius?”

That’s the question Apple CEO Tim Cook has faced in the two years since his predecessor, revered Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, died after a long battle with cancer. Cook, a 52-year-old operational wizard from Robertsdale, Ala., took over as Apple CEO a few months before Jobs died on October 5th, 2011. His challenge has been to maintain the momentum at the world’s largest and most famous technology company, following a decade-long period of turn-around and innovation with few parallels in corporate history.”

It’s now three years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired from Manchester United, but success has resulted in a similar problem.

“After leading them to their first Premier League triumph – and their first league title in twenty-six years – at the end of the 1992-93 season, Ferguson’s Manchester United have gone on to claim thirteen Premier League titles in total across twenty Premier League seasons … To these league titles Ferguson added two Champions League victories – in 1999 and 2008; five FA Cup wins; four League Cups; a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup; a UEFA Super Cup; an Intercontinental Cup; a FIFA Club World Club; and ten Community Shields.”

It can take years of investment in time, energy and money, to become successful in a way which, whilst no organisation can take for granted, seems for a time to be self-sustaining. Manchester United’s success under Ferguson for over 25 years may even have continued had he not felt it was time to retire. He and the Club had seemed inseparable.

So often where there’s an individual at the forefront of an organisation who closely embodies its culture and values, the organisation becomes shaped around that person, so that they become an anchor for the company. What results can be a hugely successful partnership between a leader and organisation. Until it’s time for a change.

When There’s A Failure of Leadership

After growing Starbucks from 11 stores to many thousands, Howard Schultz stepped aside as CEO and took the role as Chairman. However by 2008, after years of rapid expansion, the company’s very survival was at risk. At which point Shultz surprised everyone by stepping back in and Starbucks returned to sustainable, profitable growth. His book Onward tells an intricate story of organisational change.

Having Ferguson step back in at Manchester United isn’t an option. Whatever the reason for change, when a figurehead steps down, the organisation can experience a set-back.

After Ferguson left, the club failed to defend their Premier League title and failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 1995–96. They also failed to qualify for the Europa League, meaning that it was the first time Manchester United hadn’t qualified for a European competition since 1990.

Sometimes someone new steps forward, who is able pick up the reins and continue on, largely as Tim Cook has done. But it takes someone who not only identifies with the organisation but with whom the fans, employees or customers equally identify with.

A great leader is able to step into those shoes, assess the challenges faced, discern between the urgent and the important, and navigate the organisation through what will inevitably be a difficult transition. Something David Moyes, Ryan Giggs and Louis Van Gaal, were unlikely to be equipped for. After all, despite various losses along the way, Van Gaal was sacked only two days after winning the FA Cup. It just wasn’t enough.

Three Guiding Principles for Organisational Change

Can Mourinho do it? He’s a huge personality, capable of making hard choices, but it’s those same strengths that have got him into trouble in the past. So what are some of the vital principles for stepping into a new role in the midst of organisational change?

Culture is Everything

Former Manchester United Goalkeeper Peter Schmeichal recognises the significance of the Club’s “philosophy and traditions”, stating that Mourinho “has done things that are not in the way Manchester United wants the football club to run”. However, “All these issues would have been brought up … Therefore if he comes in he is a good choice. He will be prepared and ready to do it but he has to go back to the values of the football club – a very strong team consisting of exciting players which are creating chances and scoring goals. All that has been missing.”

Every organisation has its own culture and it’s the role of an incoming leader to assess what’s healthy and what’s not, whether that culture serves the overriding vision of the organisation, and if not, what needs to change.

Communication is Vital

It’s inevitable that some changes will need to be made and communicating what that looks like in the best way to the right people, especially under a media spotlight, is a huge challenge.

Tim Cook found out that there is no preparation for the scrutiny that comes with succeeding a legend. ““I have thick skin,” he says, “but it got thicker. … the intensity was more than I would ever have expected.” So he developed his own voice

“Cook has differentiated himself from Jobs in myriad ways, and not merely with his willingness to speak out on societal issues. Cook … came from an operations background and had spent the formative years of his career at IBM. At Apple that means he’s not what company executives like to call a “subject-matter expert” on such critical areas as product development, design, and marketing. Consequently he behaves much more like a coach who trusts his players than the manipulative mastermind Jobs was.”

And communication works both ways. Giving people – customers, employees and other stakeholders – the opportunity to voice their concerns as well as their ideas is just as vital to a healthy organisation, especially one in transition.

Change is Good

Organisational change isn’t the enemy. Growing things change and no organisation can remain the same. There are too many variables, especially during times of success.

For a start-up the ‘visionary entrepreneur’ style of leadership generally works best but as a company grows, leadership needs to grow with it. For Daniel – 32-year-old CEO of a fast-growing, two-year-old e-commerce company – “it was a challenge to become a good listener, to set aside time for brainstorming sessions with employees who were two or even three levels below him. However, he’s now a big fan of what he calls his monthly “listening tour” — regular breakfast meetings with employees from across the company. Staff members appreciate the opportunity to connect, and Daniel tells me that he regularly comes away with ideas that might never have bubbled up otherwise.”

In 2012 Manchester United was valued at $2.3 billion, making it the most valuable football club in the world. Recognising its unique culture, communicating well, and embracing the challenges as opportunities, are something its new Manager is going to have to face. Is Mourinho up to the task?

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