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Ole’s at the wheel: Can the Solskjaer revolution at Manchester United teach us anything about leadership and mentoring?

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Even if you’re the type of person who would sooner sit in a bath of cold baked beans than watch just 60 seconds of a game of association football, there’s a good chance that since Christmas, you’ve not escaped hearing the distinctively Scandinavian name, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The reason, if you can bear a little footie talk for a moment, is that Solskjaer, having been appointed temporary manager of Manchester United on December 19th, 2018, is leading the club through one of its most extraordinary run of games in years. So extraordinary in fact, that it’s stimulating questions in the professional world about coaching and mentoring in a broader sense.

So, pull on your bobble hat and pour yourself a Bovril, we’re going to have a conversation about football (kind of). Specifically, what it is that Solskjaer is doing, and what, if anything, can we, can learn from it.

Who is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?

When Sir Alex Ferguson relinquished his position of First Team Manager at Manchester United in 2013, following a 27-year stint which saw him become the longest serving and most successful manager in the club’s history, a brief lull was expected to follow. Sure enough, there was a lull, but brief it was not.

David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and of course, then came “The Special One”, José Mourinho, but all to no long-term avail. The Manchester United of old it seemed, was gone.

The day following Mourinho’s sacking, Manchester United appointed 46-year old Norwegian and former player, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Known as “The Baby-faced Assassin” in his playing days, he’d racked up 366 appearances for the club, bagging 126 goals with the most famous, an injury time winner against Bayern Munich to win the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final.

To say things are going equally well in his new role as ‘gaffer’ would be something of an understatement. Solskjaer has achieved the most successful start by any manager in the club’s history and his Manchester United team are chalking up wins in scintillating fashion.

How can leaders in the business world learn from what Solskjaer is doing?

So, now you’re up to speed with the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer story thus far, let’s look at what he’s doing which is proving so effective and how business leaders in other fields could learn from his approach.

He’s embraced philosophy and heritage 

At the heart of what Solskjaer is doing, is a deep and intimate knowledge of Manchester United’s philosophy, having spent 15 years as a player and reserve team manager. This is important because it’s something his three predecessors since Sir Alex Ferguson never really grasped. Decorated and experienced as they were, all three made the mistake of imposing on the club philosophies at odds with its unique history and culture.

It’s a valuable lesson for anyone attempting to release and nurture the potential of professionals, whatever the sector. Impressing approaches and methodologies on individuals, with no sensitivity demonstrated for the organisations and sectors they work within can result in lessons being learnt that aren’t necessarily helpful.

He trusts the players

Two of Solskjaer’s predecessors, Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho, are famed for their forensic approaches to the game with an inclination towards micro-management. Given that both have enough silverware between them to sink a cruise liner, it takes a brave person to claim their approaches are ineffectual. However, an overbearing focus on the minor details can become suffocating and stifle creativity and personality. Evidence of this was abundant during both their tenures at Old Trafford.

Solskjaer has re-introduced a style of play made famous under Ferguson that is fast, attacking and entertaining. He’s done it by giving players the freedom to express themselves and utilise their own strengths. Paul Pogba, for example, sees himself as an attacking midfielder so Solskjaer uses him as one. Romelu Lukaku, despite his size, isn’t a hold-up centre-forward so, likewise, Solskjaer doesn’t try and force this role on him.

Great team leaders recognise the strengths and passions of their employees and encourage them to express themselves in ways that feel natural and to embrace those strengths and passions. It’s not uncommon for leaders  to try and mould their team members into versions of themselves and it is a very dangerous tactic. The moment an individual begins to feel that they are not trusted to be themselves and that a synthetic interpretation is preferable, is the moment they can be permanently lost.

He’s positive

This cannot be overstated enough. Employees can find their one-to-one sessions stressful because they feel they’re constantly being second-guessed and having their shortcomings highlighted to an uncomfortable extent.

Particularly after Mourinho’s reign, one characterised by internal conflicts and teenager-grade stroppiness, reports from inside Old Trafford are that Solskjaer has totally lifted the mood of the place. Happy to mete out constructive criticism where applicable, he immediately follows such conversations by reinstating a positive vibe and relaxed, optimistic atmosphere.

The rejuvenated Paul Pogba on his new lease of life under Solskjaer said, quite simply, “When I’m happy, I play better.”

Likewise business leaders significantly influence the happiness of their leaders. When employees are working in a positive environment they learn more and are willing to experiment – which can help improve performance even further.

He sees humans, not data

The pressures on the modern football manager has meant a certain commodification of players has emerged. They are assets whose functionality needs to be maximised and financial viability protected. Though an unavoidable truth, they are also humans with dreams, worries, ambitions, and insecurities. Whereas Mourinho often appeared to show little interest in the emotional condition of his players, Solskjaer is said to be quite the contrasting figure, listening, empathising, and encouraging.

The job of a great leader is to ultimately enhance an individual’s capability and allow them to become the best version of themselves, however in the corporate world that can mean  metrics and kpis. To achieve the really potent breakthroughs, it must always be kept in mind the person behind the data, Feedback and review sessions may sometimes require a shelving of the figures and for natural conversation to be allowed to flow. The content of such dialogue can be most revealing and provide new development avenues to pursue.

Has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer become a leadership Guru?

It’s probably a bit early to be making claims as bold as that. Plenty of football managers have made stunning starts for it to all fall apart within a few games. The history books may yet present Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as a cautionary tale on how not to nurture talent, his rip-roaring start notwithstanding.

Putting such cynicism to one side for a moment, though it’s much too early to be vaunting Solskjaer as a coaching guru, however building on Ferguson’s legacy Ole has brought a refreshed and modern leadership approach that is paying dividends on and off the pitch and which can be transferred to sectors other than professional football and with little difficulty.

One thing’s for certain, it’s going to be interesting what other lessons appear on the road ahead while Ole’s at the wheel.