When asked by a student of the Stanford Graduate School of Business (“the GSB”) “what meant most and why”, that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s answer. It was at the end of an hour-long chat between Sir Michael Moritz, chairman of Sequoia Capital, and Sir Alex Ferguson, until recently the man behind Manchester United’s success over nearly three decades. To elaborate, Sir Alex, added that discipline is what his parents gave him in his education and it has been critical in his life and success. He’s given the same discipline to his children.
Alex and Michael recently released a book called Leading, discussing Alex’s take on leadership. It is a fantastic book with many examples from the English football scene to support Alex’s observations. As I grew up in Israel, I am more familiar with English football than American football, so it is easy for me to relate to. I’m not a huge sports person, so many of the names are not familiar to me, but the rules of the game and the forces behind it are clear to me. I will be spending a few blog posts sharing some tidbits from the book and my thoughts. Sir Alex has roughly 40 years more experience than me in leadership, so keep that in mind when reading these posts.
Listening, Watching, Reading
“Listening, which costs nothing, is the most valuable things you can do.” (Sir Alex, in the book). I’m 32 and have probably heard this several dozen times. So it still amazes me how often I neglect to do it.
In the startup world, lack of listening is sometimes celebrated. For example, a couple of years ago, I was meeting a known investor in Israel in a country club just outside Tel Aviv. I came seeking for advice, and his money. Instead, I got a 30 minutes lecture why my idea was the a complete waste of time and why no one will ever buy it.
Naturally, I’m happy I didn’t listen in that occasion. However, looking back at the last two years, I can also list a very long set of mistakes that, had I listened to others, I would have avoided.
Listening, watching and reading shouldn’t be constrained to just advice, though. There are a lot of things you can learn by doing these three things; things that will help you be more successful. Back in the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) I served directly under a Major for a while. A short, chubby, amazingly pleasant guy. He would drink five or six cups of Turkish coffee a day (which contains the most caffeine per amount of liquid of all coffees) and in every meeting we had I would also have one. It kept me quite awake, something I’m notoriously bad at.
Watching this Major taught me a lot about how to communicate with people. Many of his demeanors were very different to mine. People loved him, even when he told them they’ll need to do everything all over again, or when he was pulling the plug on a project of theirs. He was capable of communicating negative messages in a way the recipient was capable of receiving it. At that time, I was completely incapable of doing that. If I thought someone did terrible work, I told them flat out. Naturally, my social scores (where others rate you socially) were very low.
So, after watching this Major and listening closely to how he communicated, I have altered my ways. I still deliver messages in tough ways at times, but I usually try not to. I spend the extra effort to make sure the other side receives the message well. The exception to this is when I think that harsh delivery of the message will be beneficial to both the recipient and myself.
Still, as I’m reading Sir Alex’s and Sir Michael’s book, I can’t help but think about all the situations where I should have done a better job listening and watching. It is good to be reminded of this while reading, as it is a first step in becoming a better leader.