Posted on Thursday 13 June 2013 by Ulster Business
Having amassed a haul of 49 trophies in 26 years in charge at what is – love them or loathe them – one of the biggest football clubs in the world and a truly global brand, the man to step into Sir Alex's shoes was always going to be under pressure from day one.
That the Everton manager David Moyes was announced immediately as the club's new boss showed that the retirement had been in the works for some time and that a succession plan was in place.
Rather than promote from within, United chose to appoint an up and coming manager who had enjoyed some success – but won no trophies – at a smaller club and who, as a no nonsense Scot, is very much in the mould of Ferguson (remember the hairdryer).
Moyes was Sir Alex's choice as his successor, which raised some questions about the sort of power the outgoing manager would retain in his new role as a director. But in all, the transition was managed smoothly and with everyone at the club seemingly on board.
David Moyes now has the summer to prepare before the real scrutiny of his credentials to take on one of the toughest jobs in football begins.
Many businesses here in Northern Ireland are family owned and operated, often with their founder still at the helm. That creates a very real challenge when that person reaches an age where they need to hand the reins over to ensure the business survives.
Decisions must be made as to whether the next generation of the same family is capable of running the business as well as their parent, is another candidate from within the company the better choice, or does outside expertise and experience need to be brought in.
Andre Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour from Cass Business School says the retirement of great leaders usually results in great uncertainty for organisations.
"Typically, the retiring leader casts a shadow over the whole organisation for many years. Losing a great leader is like enduring a death. Typically followers experience feeling of profound loss and emptiness – similar to when you lose a family member," he said.
"They also idealise the achievements of the leader, and the more negative part of their tenure airbrushed out of the picture. The result is it becomes impossible for a successor to fill the old leader's shoes.
Often they try by simply imitating what the great leader had done in the past or pushing through radical change to signal a break from the past. Often these two strategies are bound to fail. Instead a new leader needs to accept the old leader's legacy but at the same time slowly and steadily build their own style."
Neal Lucas, managing director of executive search company Neal Lucas Recruitment, notes that beyond winning trophies, David Moyes' biggest challenge is to emerge from the shadow of the former Manchester United number one.
This, he says, is a tough ask in any organisation – be it in sport or business – but says there are ways the new leader can avoid failure and ensure they make their own mark.
"The first task when you step up to the role is to audit what the organisation does well. Understanding how the success to date has been achieved and what the current and emerging changes which need to be addressed are, is vital to making future decisions," he said.
"Identifying the strengths of the business and enhancing those positives is key but covering weaknesses on a temporary basis until a remedial solution can be applied is just as crucial.
"The new leader usually has the advantage of perspective and fresh ideas but this needs to be tempered and challenged through rigorous analysis and injections of expert advice."
In replacing a strong leader it is also important to reflect honestly on your own strengths and development needs, which makes the selection of your management team crucial, says the recruitment expert.
"As it is highly unlikely that you will be an identical character to the person you are replacing you need to ensure that complementary skills are in place. This will inevitably mean having to let people go and bring in other new blood to the team for the good of the organisation. This process will further highlight the need to have a focus with clear targets and a robust deployment monitor," he said.
The importance of never being satisfied with current performance or success is also vital.
"Good is the enemy of great. This is a maxim I think applies to a lot of people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We boast of our education system and talented workforce and it is true that we have a lot of good businesses here and talented people, but the vast majority lack the real drive, passion and commitment necessary that ensure sustained success and growth are achieved," said Lucas.
"It is of course inevitable that you will have to accept some short term losses and make do with circumstance not of your choosing for a period, but always having a plan for excellence in all areas and striving for continuous improvement is essential to making your mark in a new role.
"When the time comes to act in your new role it is the decisions you make that will define your tenure."
Neal Lucas advises that while you should ensure that a decision is based on thorough analysis and you have garnered all the facts and opinions of those around you, it is up to you to use your judgement and be ruthless in its implementation.
"A lot of people struggle with making decisions, particularly when they are new to a role, however as long as your judgement is holistic, strategic and does not compromise your core values or is deflected by emotion then it will inevitably take the organisation in the right direction," he said.
It is important that any personal or team development is done in the context of trying to close a perceived skills gap. Successfully blending the old and new team, processes or cultures to constantly refresh the organisation is the real magic, he adds.
"Accepted wisdom would suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest skill was his ability to continually create new teams, which in truth evolved from one and other. Nothing from the old regime is sacred, so it was for Ferguson so it will continue to be," says Neal.
"With strong bonds and emotional relationships solidified by success and meeting challenges together, replacing people and changing the way things are done is the real acid test for all leaders."