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What can we learn from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

The turn around at Manchester United following the interim recruitment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager has received a lot of attention. Even if you are not a United fan, there is much to admire about the impact the Norwegian has made.

This is highlighted even further in contrast to the attitude of the previous manager Jose Mourinho, who, externally at least, came across with a sulky arrogance that alienated many, particularly as results on the pitch were mixed.

While we don’t know the full inside story, at least from an external perspective there is a lot we can learn from Solskjaer’s approach. Here are six takeaways which other leaders could utilize:

1. Be positive and human

Solskjaer comes across in a positive, purposeful and confident way which is refreshing and relatable for people watching. He also comes across as very personable, at times humorous and typically demonstrating empathy and respect for his staff and players.

This is in contrast to Mourinho’s approach which could be rude or negative in tone and often led to antagonism with the press.

These characteristics make it easy to like Solskjaer and even as a neutral root for him to keep up his successful start. If you are a fan or employee of United this sense of goodwill must be infectious and a powerful driver of putting in more effort for the team.

Its an obvious point, but one missed by many. Any leader should be aware of how they come across as this can be highly influential to a wider organization. Be positive, honest and respectful in a human (non-corporate) way and the chances of creating engagement both inside an organisation and with it externally can only increase.

2. Select your core team carefully

One of the first things that Solskjaer did was to establish his core team. Most notably recruiting Mike Phelan, previously first team coach for Sir Alex Ferguson, back as his assistant.

This and retaining long term player and now part of the coaching staff Michael Carrick, brought together a team who understand the culture of the club and know what is required to be successful.

Often in his language Solskjaer talks about how much he values their opinion and how important the sense of “family” is at the club. Demonstrating externally the sense of this being a team effort rather all about Solskjaer’s management.

Its not a stretch to take from this the obvious importance choosing a core team who brings the talents you need and then trusting and respecting them. Ensuring you select this core team carefully early on in your tenure is the basis from which a lot else will follow.

3. Let others champion you

Solskjaer exudes a high level of confidence but also a humility and personality that comes across incredibly well (he does not describe himself as the special one!). There are also a number of stories that have come out about the effort he makes with employees at the club, charity events and his respect for the club’s traditions.

I was recently in a cafe in Oslo airport talking to one of the waiter's about Solskjaer. The waiter was eager to talk about the number of times Solksjaer had been into this cafe as he commuted through Oslo to the UK and what a nice friendly person he is.

When you start hearing about these kinds of positive interactions from a variety of sources, it can be a powerful indicator of the sort of person a leader (or anyone is) and like any word of mouth can have significant reputational value.

Often these interactions might be instantly forgettable for a leader, but not for the person who has experienced it.

This can be hugely important in larger organisations where leaders can’t have direct interactions with every person. The sharing of anecdotes and stories about a leader can be the basis for forming opinions by people who may never meet that person. In turn this could influence how they behave at work or the respect they have for the decision making at the company.

As a leader it is important to make time for and be natural and friendly in interactions with all the people they meet, from getting lunch in the canteen to sharing a lift. Positive or negative experiences can quickly ripple through the organization.

4. Repeat the key messages

We have heard a number of consistent messages from Solskjaer in his numerous interviews, emphasizing points around his team and the club (“This is how we do things at Man Utd”). This messaging communicates the key points of what he is trying to achieve in his time in charge.

Whether that is referring to the clubs culture, respect for Sir Alex (still sometimes referenced as the boss), changing the perception of key players, or in re-establishing the perception that United is a club with a culture of winning. The messaging helps build momentum, positivity and clarity of what he is trying to achieve.

The use of quotable messages can be a powerful tool for defining what an organization is about and where it is heading. Communicating a small number of key points repetitively early on in a leadership tenure can quickly start the process of change in an organization. The leader should select these messages carefully.

5. Unlock your team’s potential quickly

United’s players aren’t suddenly more skillful or fitter since Solskjaer joined. Potentially he has improved the team’s tactics and made better player selection. But the biggest impact seems to be the mental state of his team.

Where there appeared conflict between Mourinho and certain players, there now appears stronger relationships and a much closer sense of being a team. Performances from the some of the star players, such as Paul Pogba, have been improved significantly.

Arguably this has a lot to do with creating a more positive and fun environment, creating that desire to play, re-engaging the team and focusing on that will to win. It appears just simply a more enjoyable place to go to work, if we look at the reactions of the players. This is potentially one of the biggest impacts Solskjaer has made.

The read across here for any leader is to look at the engagement of their teams – are they happy, motivated, aligned with the organization purpose – if they’re not try and address this quickly. Clearly if people enjoy going to work and are engaged with the organization it will be much easier for them to enhance their own performance.

Making an impact quickly here might be done by engaging with those who are most influential in your organization. Getting these people engaged and performing could see the benefits quickly spread to others.

6. Respect the purpose and culture

As a hugely successful player for the club under the reign of Sir Alex, Solskjaer knows what its like to operate in a culture where winning is expected. United’s trophy cabinet is testament to the success that this bred.

Since Sir Alex retired from management, subsequent United managers have struggled to re-kindle this winning habit and at least from an external perspective the aura that the team once had has since faded.

Solskjaer has been quick to connect back to the glory days of Man Utd and re-establish the link to a winning frame of mind, as an expectation of what United is all about.

As a leader are you clear on the core purpose of your organization and do you communicate that in a clear and simple way. Does it resonate with people and are you or have you demonstrated that purpose through your own actions. Where Solskjaer can link back to the United team of the 1990s, how can you demonstrate that your experience or values are consistent with the organization.

Of course, all of these points need to deliver great performances and improving results. This will in turn create the positive feedback loop which reinforces them. So far so good for Solskjaer and much credit to him.

The challenge will then be whether this is sufficient for longer term success assuming he is appointed on a permanent basis. Or whether these changes are good to make an immediate short term impact and this is just a post Mourinho bounce.

How the team reacts after a couple of inevitable losses will likely be the true test of the difference Solskjaer has made..


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