Inside the success of Sir Alex Ferguson's Harvard Business course

Upon entering the office of professor Anita Elberse in May to discuss her groundbreaking course at Harvard Business School, titled the Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports, I immediately noticed that she has not one, but two framed Dutch national team jerseys by her desk.

Naturally, one of my first questions was "so, what do you think about Louis van Gaal taking the Manchester United job?"

Without missing a beat, Elberse, who was born in the Netherlands, made it clear in no uncertain terms that Van Gaal, who went on to lead the Dutch national team to a third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup, already had a job to focus on. After all, the professor knows more than most about what it takes to manage Manchester United. In a smaller frame, sitting right next to the jerseys, rests a two-page handwritten letter from Sir Alex Ferguson to Elberse.

Elberse, one of the youngest women ever to earn tenure at Harvard Business School and the author of "Blockbusters," a best-selling book on the entertainment, media and sports industries, first crossed paths with Ferguson after deciding to create a case study on Ferguson's management techniques for the class she teaches to MBA students.

She was granted plenty of time with Ferguson and his staff during the summer of 2012, when Ferguson was laying the groundwork for his final season at Manchester United. Ferguson and Elberse kept in touch, and when she invited Ferguson to guest lecture her MBA course during the fall of 2012, the manager gladly accepted.

While the case study itself was a hit with her students, Elberse explained at the time, "To have [Ferguson] there and for students to be able to see him in action, see how he addresses a group and see snippets of his personality, there's no replacement for that live experience."

Based on conversations with his students -- Ferguson's class lectures were not recorded or documented -- Ferguson appeared very comfortable in a classroom setting and was happy to provide unfiltered access to his experiences. Without having to worry about whether something would be repeated in the press, he would share private stories from the training ground if it would help his students better understand a point he was trying to make.

A course extending far beyond soccer

On 3 April 2014, HBS announced that Ferguson would be joining the faculty on a long-term teaching deal. (The length of the deal was not specified and is apparently open-ended based on his schedule.) Ferguson spoke about his decision to guest lecture in Elberse's course back in 2012, and it's easy to see why he decided to pursue a more permanent position at HBS.

"When you're approached by an institution like Harvard, you know you are dealing with top quality," Ferguson told the Harvard Gazette at the time. "I had to consider that I was opening myself up to something I've never done before. But at this stage of my life, I felt that if I'm helping young people progress through their own routes to management, then ultimately that was an important and compelling factor for me."

Fifty-eight students attended the four-day course and just as football brings people from all over the world, so too does the promise of learning from Elberse and Ferguson. The program comprised students from 23 different countries travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend the course, and most of the students were sports and entertainment executives. However, there were also students involved in modelling (supermodel Karlie Kloss), acting (Cody Horn, of "Magic Mike" fame) and the NFL (five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall).

While the students, many of whom are involved in football in some capacity, were thrilled with the prospect of learning management techniques from Sir Alex Ferguson -- notably, his constant quest to balance youth and experience within his title-winning Manchester United squads -- make no mistake, this course is Elberse's brainchild.

In football terms, Ferguson was the Mike Phelan (the Scot's long-time assistant manager at Old Trafford) to Elberse's, well, Ferguson. The program was created after Elberse saw the demand from executives to learn about the material in her class for second-year MBA students at Harvard on the business of entertainment, media and sport, entitled "Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries" -- one of the school's most sought-after courses).

Adam Zimmerman, president of marketing at CSE, a fully-integrated, multi-dimensional marketing agency and one of the students in the program at HBS, reached out to Elberse directly after reading her book and implementing some of the marketing strategies she discusses when he and his firm were hired to help launch Atlanta's new Major League Soccer franchise in April.

Zimmerman shared that the strategy was influenced by Elberse's book in that he wanted to turn it into a blockbuster event. Former USMNT star and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas emceed the announcement and said "they wanted to make this special; they wanted to drop in here, literally, in an unprecedented way."

MLS commissioner Don Garber was flown in via helicopter, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Richards was in attendance, local and national media were on hand, and CSE created an entire street festival around the announcement, which was attended by hundreds of supporters. CSE also arranged a meet and greet with Garber and club owner Arthur Blank (who also owns the NFL's Atlanta Falcons).

As a result of the excitement surrounding the launch, the new Atlanta club has already sold thousands of season tickets, no small feat for a club that still doesn't have a name, a manager, a roster and won't even take the field until 2017.

Aside from the natural demand for the course, Elberse wanted to take on the pedagogical challenge of transforming an MBA course into a four-day executive education program. "It was really the challenge more than anything. I thought it would be fun," she said. As Ferguson told Elberse when she visited him at Old Trafford, "There are always challenges; that's the beauty of sport." So too, it seems, is the beauty of teaching.

What Ferguson shared

On the benefits of learning from Ferguson, Elberse writes in her book, "Most executives in other entertainment businesses would be thrilled if they held a high-level job for half [as long as Sir Alex]. No matter what their sector, they would do well to follow [his] example in their own efforts to compete in winner-take-all markets for talent."

Said Elberse, "He could speak very clearly to the idea of how to manage teams and how to build for the long term."

For example, Ferguson revolutionised Manchester United's youth program by investing significant resources in the scouting network and training facilities. In addition, "he ensured that academy players warmed up alongside senior players every day in order to foster a 'one club' attitude," said Elberse.

Elberse explains that "finding the right balance in the team between younger and more experienced players was a constant focus [for Ferguson]." The manager views his talent in three distinct layers of players, "the players from 30 and above, the players from roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in."

As Ferguson explains it, "the idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before."

He also stresses the importance of building a foundation and planning with the long term in mind. "The first thought for 99 percent of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win -- to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club -- not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team."

Said Adam Zimmerman, "There were some stunning managerial lessons that came out of that presentation." He shared that the way the course was able to apply Ferguson's coaching career to business management was his "main takeaway."

For example, when speaking about how an organisation can create loyalty, Ferguson shared that if you give a young player his first big chance, he's most likely going to be loyal to you forever, which is incredibly valuable and also a ruthlessly practical approach. As a result of that lesson, Zimmerman has begun giving small but vital roles to his younger employees in big presentations and meetings.

In addition, Zimmerman embraces Ferguson's philosophy that no one person is bigger than the team; Alex Ferguson was famous for removing problem players from his Man United squads regardless of their quality, with the likes of David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud Van Nistelrooy all moved on from the club when they were deemed surplus to requirements.

Applying Ferguson's methods to public service

Brandon Marshall's route to Harvard Business School was likely a bit different than most. The NFL star wide receiver and noted mental health advocate first learned about the course after reading an in-flight magazine on his way to Florida from Chicago. The magazine had an article about Professor Elberse's book and over the course of the two-hour flight, Marshall found himself wanting to learn more. As soon as he got off the plane, he called his assistant asking her to order the book.

After reading the first few chapters, Elberse's lessons made such an impression on him that decided he had to meet her. He contacted Elberse that night and after talking, they scheduled a lunch in Chicago the following month, when she would be in town. It was at that lunch that Marshall decided he wanted to attend Professor Elberse's course.

As Marshall explained to me, "there's so many opportunities out there but if you're not prepared, if you don't have a strategic plan, if you don't know what you're doing, you're going to miss out [on those opportunities]."

Marshall made a conscious decision to take control of his business ventures, explaining that "You can't rely on a marketing guy or agent to run your brand. Any athlete or entertainer trying to establish themselves as a good brand or trying to separate themselves from the pack has to approach the situation like an executive. We're very curious, and I think that's the number one characteristic you need to be a top executive: curiosity."

"I'm not a huge soccer fan," said Marshall, "but I'm now a fan of Sir Alex Ferguson."

He was particularly influenced by how Ferguson had a hand in just about every facet of the Manchester United organisation. This re-confirmed Marshall's own commitment to taking charge of not only his personal branding and marketing, but also his mental health foundation.

"[Ferguson's] story and the blueprints he created are things that all corporations can use. When you look at team building, building a corporate culture and projecting the future, his case presents all the things that you need to build a great organisation, and then maintain that level of greatness."

"Everything Ferguson accomplished at Manchester United, he did it by serving others. He made everyone in the building, from the groundskeepers to David Beckham, feel special and also got them to buy into the ultimate goal. Everyone had a place and everyone played an important role; the results proved it."

As a result Marshall and his wife Michi have set some ambitious goals; for example, they want to make $200 million-worth of deals over the next 10 years to help raise funds and awareness for the mental health community.

While Marshall learned a lot from Ferguson, it was Elberse that made the biggest impact on him. Marshall found the course to be more challenging than trying to score against the Green Bay Packers defense in front of 70,000 people in the stadium and millions watching at home, but it was an extremely worthwhile experience for him.

"It was life-changing for me and changed the course of our [mental health] foundation. Not only does it give you tools and skills to be successful, but it also opens your mind up to different ways of learning and thinking."

Ferguson's next steps at HBS

It took one day of classes back in May for HBS to announce that the course would be offered again next spring. Elberse naturally sees this as a good thing, explaining "the more applicants we have, the more selective we can be. The fact that the program will be getting more interest will only help us get better."

Elberse plans to add to an already impressive roster of guest lecturers, which includes Henry McGee (former president of HBO Home Entertainment), John Quelch (an distinguished professor who, like Ferguson, has been knighted) Felix Oberholzer-Gee (winner of numerous teaching awards at Harvard and Wharton) and Misiek Piskorski (a digital strategy expert who began teaching at HBS when he was 31).

In addition, Elberse plans to invite superstar talent to participate -- she has previously written case studies on the likes of LeBron James, Maria Sharapova, Jay Z and Lady Gaga, all of whom worked closely with Elberse -- incorporate different case studies and, above all, wants to "make sure we have a good team in place."

As for Ferguson, Elberse "very much hopes that Sir Alex is willing to teach [with her] again next year, because his sessions were phenomenal," but "he'll also make an appearance in other executive education programs."

"We'll absolutely make changes," said Elberse. "As Sir Alex says, he never stops adapting. I feel that the moment you think you've got it figured out, then you should tell yourself there's something wrong. You always need to keep innovating."