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What Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can teach us about management

3 Apr 2019 By Dr Simon Hayward

The former Manchester United player has turned around the club’s performance in less than four months. Dr Simon Hayward considers what leadership lessons we can learn from the Norwegian’s success

When Solskjaer took charge of Manchester United back in December, the club was sixth in the Premier League and 11 points off the top four. Since then, they have lost only once in 13 league games, and are now only two points behind their victors, Arsenal, who occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot.

Solskjaer’s dramatic turnaround of the club’s fortunes has been rewarded with a three-year contract, which executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has described as being "richly deserved".

Solksjaer himself – who played for the club from 1996 until his retirement in 2007 – is understandably excited, describing the news as "the job that I always dreamed of doing”.

So what can other leaders learn from his success?

Bring a sense of spirit 

Solskjaer places a huge emphasis on creating a renewed sense of the spirit of Manchester United. As a former player and coach, he has a deep understanding of the culture of the club, and has reignited the team’s purpose and drive. Linking up with Sir Alex Ferguson as a mentor has also helped to recreate that sense of ‘specialness’ in the club. Solskjaer has an authentic understanding of what the club is all about and how to inspire the players. 

From the outset, he has not set out to be the hero, but instead to let the players play in the spirit that epitomises the club and to make Manchester United the star – its history, fans, results and team. Solskjaer has also invested time with young players to give them their chance, to express the club’s purpose and values on the pitch. 

This has all resulted in bringing the club back from its worst start to a season since 1990/91 to winning with style, and Solskjaer’s team has since had nine consecutive away wins.

Create an agile team 

Solskjaer has focused on rebuilding a strong team with players wanting to work for each other and enjoying the experience. He has enabled them to play in a system that encourages close interplay and pace, with players knowing how to make it work in the match situation. The front four are now playing closer together, with more flexibility to adapt in each match situation. Early in the season, United were defending in numbers and whoever was up front was finding themselves isolated. Now there is a forward momentum and an intelligent interplay that allows the talented players to get the best from each other. 

Give your team freedom 

Linked to the team ethos is the sense of freedom Solskjaer has created, encouraging players to express themselves and take the initiative within a clear plan. He is consistently encouraging players to play to their strengths. 

Solskjaer has demonstrated strong tactical awareness and made important decisions quickly. For example, he has allowed Marcus Rashford to play in a more comfortable middle role, and has sold Marouane Fellaini, helping to alleviate the internal conflict Mourinho seemed to revel in.

Solskjaer has provided a sound foundation for the team with a clear sense of purpose and values, and a team system that encourages talent to flourish and work together. All of this has led to great results, and team confidence is high. 

The challenge now for Solskjaer is to maintain this momentum and to drive further performance improvement. The indications are that the foundations are strong, and he has already warned about the danger of complacency.

In one of the most competitive sporting leagues in the world, he is building an agile team which can challenge for honours. Perhaps more importantly, the team is now expressing the true spirit of Manchester United, demonstrating in a new way how the values and standards of this historical club can play out in practice in a new era.

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader

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