Skip to content

Search the site

5 leadership lessons for CIOs from Manchester United's Erik Ten Hag

Nurture, Discipline, Analytics...

Whether you’re a “Red” or completely disinterested in football – that’s soccer, of course, to The Stack's misguided American readers – Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag’s turnaround at the storied club has been impressive to witness. As one reporter puts it: “We heard for so long that this club was essentially unmanageable” -- with its six-year trophy drought, its expensive egos, its legacy, its heavy debt and controversial owners.

Manchester United’s Carabao Cup trophy at the weekend may not be the biggest prize in football. But it is nonetheless evidence of what has already been a striking turnaround on the pitch; the club has now won more games this season than any other team in the top five leagues. Manchester United is, of course, also a massive business with a fan base estimated, perhaps somewhat loosely, at over one billion strong globally and with the club set to change hands, likely for upwards of $5 billion, this is also a business transition story.

What could CIOs and other IT leaders learn from the phlegmatic Dutchman?

Here are our 5 leadership lessons from Erik ten Hag...

1) Know what you are getting into…

Ten Hag clearly knew what he was getting into and armed himself well for the transformation before he was formally appointed in April 2022. He won early backing for what was clearly set to be a difficult transition during which he knew he had to impose his will and vision on a fractious set of players and bring in fresh blood.

That board backing for his vision allowed him to ride out early challenges like a brace of bad losses and a failed campaign to recruit a key midfielder whilst slowly executing his vision for the team.

Being able to articulate your vision and ensure buy-in to help shape the role early is critical – particularly for cybersecurity leaders like CISOs, who can face resistence to necessary cultural change.

As one, Veeam’s Gil Vega has put it to The Stack, his “position is set up in a way that reports directly into the CEO, with an independent path directly to our board of directors. I am part of the CEOs leadership team, and the executive team, and that allows me to provide a lot of input and guidance on the company’s strategic plans; where we’re going to spend money, where we’re going to invest, where we’re going to open new business…”

"For CISOs coming through I’d say make sure that you have access to people who control the resources and understand just how important it is to get the culture of the company right; make the business cases for those investments and build a good programme to change that culture" he added.

2) Nurture talent

Ten Hag’s ability to improve players and nurture promising talent is a key strength of the coach. That includes, where necessary, sending players away for external help or training, as has been the case with Jadon Sancho; a sensitive decision that also recognised the huge mental health pressures young high performers can be under.

“Every player under his guidance becomes a better footballer through his training,” winger Antony previously told Dutch press. “Since my arrival, he has given me a lot of confidence and believed in what I can do.”

Space Systems Command CIO Colonel K on turning teams around

This nurturing is supported by a deep interest in analytics to support training and an open mind as to where key players might flourish best. As one of his former players, Steven Berghuis has noted: “The fact that I have been able to develop myself under Ten Hag in several positions is also satisfying. The coach explains most of what he wants to tell his players on the basis of video material, both in the team analysis and also individually.”

This means giving people a chance to flourish, even if they have had a bad season; perhaps by changing where they play. (The Stack has seen more and more CISOs sourcing good security talent from outside of the traditional infosec function with huge success…)  As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at Columbia University puts it: “The two biggest mistakes managers make when they evaluate other people’s talents are: focusing too much on their past performance and overrating the importance of their resume, hard skills, and technical expertise…”

3) Coach with discipline

As professors Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular have noted:  “Companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment” as manager becomes coach.

It is clear that Ten Hag has unleashed fresh energy and given support.

But he has also done it with clear discipline.

Discipline from a business leader is somewhat unfashionable at the moment: “Disciplinarian” smacks of rigidity and punishment that may just drive dissent. Yet discipline can also mean setting high standards and making sure that others are meeting them to the best of their abilities – whilst also exemplifying them yourself.

After being hammered by Brentford early in his tenure, Ten Hag was bitterly disappointed by the lack of workrate by his squad. His opponents had run 14 kilometres more during their win. So the coach pulled his Red Devils squad into training on their day off and ordered them to run that 14 kilometres – joining them to do so.

4) Teamwork and performance metrics

“There’s no ‘I’ in team” as the cliche has it and there were a few big “I”s in Manchester United whose disgruntlements were affecting team morale. In an early Harvard Business Review piece “The Discipline of Teams” Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith describe a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” –  Ten Hag has made that common purpose abundantly clear.

As Smith and Katzenbach emphasise, getting the best out of a team often means “transforming broad directives into specific and measurable performance goals is the surest first step for a team trying to shape a purpose meaningful to its members. Specific goals, such as getting a new product to market in less than half the normal time, responding to all customers within 24 hours, or achieving a zero-defect rate while simultaneously cutting costs by 40%, all provide firm footholds for teams.”

Ten Hag's use of clear metrics of success -- even if they are as crude as running harder than the opposition -- has clearly set standards that the team understands and has bought into as a cohesive unit.

5) A focus on fans -- with deep analytics

In an open letter to fans this Monday, the Manchester United coach said: “When I arrived at the club, we spoke about the challenge and importance of reuniting this group of players with our amazing fans. Believe me, this squad knows exactly how important you are. The bond between the supporters and the team is there for everyone to see and what we experienced together yesterday will only further strengthen that bond.”

The club is supporting Ten Hag with this, using sophisticated analytics and digital capabilities to try to deliver a personalised, but less fragmented fan experience, integrating MUTV into its application for example. As the club’s CEO of Digital Products and Experiences Phil Lynch earlier told The Stack that “Historically a lot of sports clubs were very verticalized. You had your ticketing business over here, you had your digital business over here, you had your CRM business over here, you had your retail business over here. "What we realised... is that it always starts with the fan: it’s one fan experience, regardless of those individual touch points..."

Finally, let a taste of success be a motivator.

"We set ourselves high standards every day" said Ten Hag. "At Wembley we met those demands and got the reward of our first trophy together.[But] We will go back to work today, with full focus...

"There will be no complacency in our desire to return this club back to where we want to be.

Enjoyed our 5 leadership lessons from Erik ten Hag? What would you add? Let us know.

Follow The Stack on LinkedIn