Sir Alex Ferguson’s memoirs and the missed opportunity of the exit interview

Posted by Rowland Jack on 23 October 2013

Now free from the constraints which prevented him from voicing his true opinions, the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson has published an autobiography, which will make uncomfortable reading for many. It’s a reminder of an opportunity seldom grasped in sport and business: the exit interview.

In the book the legendary Manchester United manager explains his side of the story concerning several run-ins with his former players, which inevitably grab the headlines. Perhaps more significantly, he reveals a generally low opinion of both the Football Association and of referees.

Any autobiography is by definition self-serving and will tend towards the sensational rather than focusing on the mundane day to day details of the author’s life and work. Nevertheless, readers will look for tips and lessons that they can apply in their own lives. In the case of Ferguson, it’s clear that an individual who has occupied an important role in football with great success will have information and opinions which are worth knowing about.

Most office workers will be familiar with the concept of the exit interview: a rather tedious session with somebody from the human resources department in which the departing employee offers feedback on their job and colleagues while explaining their reason for leaving. Usually, the employee bites their tongue and moderates any criticism, mindful that what they say may eventually be traced back to them and affect their future career. Occasionally, an employee may take take the opportunity to offer a robust critique of their employer with some helpful recommendations for the future (otherwise known as “a rant”).

It is generally understood that the content of the interview will remain confidential with the information used anonymously to aid the understanding of employee attitudes and, ultimately, to improve the running of the organisation. While many office workers will be somewhat cynical about how effectively feedback from exit interviews is used, the concept is surely a good one.

Numerous sports event organisers already work hard to capture information at and immediately after competitions to aid future organisers. The International Olympic Committee’s Knowledge Transfer system is perhaps the best known and most sophisticated.

It seems to me that the exit interview could be applied more widely. Sports organisations often have a mix of employees, consultants, elected officials and volunteers. In most cases, when people leave or finish their terms of office little is done to seek their feedback. For those federations, clubs and other organisations focused on improving their governance and day-to-day operations, the exit interview could be a useful source of ideas.

A degree of judgement and discretion is required: one man’s justified criticism is another man’s personal vendetta, and communication via the media is not always helpful. As the Guardian points out, for David Moyes it must feel as if Sir Alex Ferguson is the father-in-law from hell.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s memoirs and the missed opportunity of the exit interview

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