The baby faced “employee engagement” assassin - how the Manchester united legend is leading the way


Looking for a simple way to explain the much talked about “employee engagement” concept to your colleagues? Look no further than soccer team, Manchester United, and their remarkable transformation in performance since the arrival of former club legend Ole Gunnar Solksjaer to the management hot seat. Under his stewardship, the team claimed 26 points in their first 10 games, no other manager in premier league history has matched this achievement and while there been a few set-backs since then , there is a mood of optimism and positivity around the club that has not been seen since the golden years of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Just to remind ourselves, this is the same set of players that only weeks previously had languished under Jose Mourinho’s leadership. That group seemed disinterested, uninspired and lacking the confidence and belief to perform at their best. Some of the best players in the world looked like Sunday league footballers. Was this all down to Mourinho’s leadership style, had the culture become so toxic and team engagement so low that failure was the only obvious result?

We face the challenge of disengaged employees across every organisation. A combination of personalities types, work styles, work culture etc create a complex workplace environment with which to motivate and empower employees to perform to their potential. How did a manager with very little big club management experience transform the fortunes of their season seemingly overnight? The fundamentals are grounded in some of the key fundamentals we know on how to engage and empower employees:


A recent study in the Harvard Business Review, based on research done at Facebook summarised that employees want three things from their jobs. These could be summarised around three headings : 1. Career 2. Community 3. Cause. For our purposes, let’s examine “cause”, which is fundamentally about purpose. The feeling that you are making an impact and identifying with an organisation’s ethos and mission.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a former Manchester United legend, most famous for scoring the winning goal in the Champions League Final of 1999. He therefore has a unique understanding of the DNA of the club, the standards that are expected, the way team should play. In the Mourinho years it appears this sense of purpose had been lost. Following their dramatic win against Paris Saint Germain, Solksjaer talked about “You always know it is possible, with this club this is what we do. It’s Man Utd. It’s the Champions League. That’s what it does”. The words could just as easily have been spoken by Solskjaer’s mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed with the grain of a football club’s culture. The Scot, explained Jorge Valdano, the Argentine player-turned-football thinker, “bleeds the club’s history, can interpret the sentiment of the support”.

As leaders how we do communicate the sentiment of our organisations. The fabric of what makes us unique, different. How do we become storytellers to communicate why our organisation is special, why it is worth staying around for and doing the best work of your life. “This is what we do. It’s Man Utd” has been the mantra that Solskjaer has no doubt communicated to the to the group repeatedly since taking charge. We are Man Utd. This isn’t just any football club. It’s a special club, with a unique history. It’s the heartbeat of the city. This narrative creates a motivator and inspiration for players than transcends football. Now they are playing for this historic club and everything it represents, the players, staff and the people of Manchester. That is transformational.


At PepTalk we are working hard to recognise and build a set of behaviours and skills that will represent our values. Those things that we will be prepared to hire , promote and if needed, fire on. Values aren’t words on a wall, there every day actions and behaviours that make up your culture. We are a young company with pretty much a blank canvas on what we want to create to fulfil our ambition. At Manchester Utd Solskjear’s faced a difficult task in entering a new job where the culture was toxic, behaviours were likely to have been sub-standard and influential players seriously de-motivated.

Solksjaer has spoken at length of his great admiration for Sir Alex Ferguson and there is no doubt he has shaped the manager he has become. When Ferguson first joined Manchester United, there were huge cultural problems at the club. They hadn’t won a trophy in 19 years and the infamous liquid lunches were the norm amongst the players. However rather than any knee jerk reaction, Ferguson set about building a club where foundations would endure. So he spent time talking to everyone in the club from players all the way to the catering teams, on understanding the values of the club and what they meant.

Solksjear has taken a similar track, when he turned up on Thursday, 20 December, his first day as temporary manager, he re-introduced a routine that he had adopted in Norway. He provided chocolate bars to those staff members whose hard work at the club largely goes unseen. Receptionist Kath Phipps, who has worked at United for over half a century, was the first recipient. It was a small gesture but she understood the meaning. Solksjaer would be about people. He understood that culture, like that of company, doesn’t just start or end with the players on pitch, it lives and breathes through every person in the club.

There has been other more direct initiatives such as the re-installation of the team’s pre game dress code. He has already attended numerous charity events in Manchester, has spent time in the Academy. He has embraced the role and sought to re-establish the values that made Man United such a powerful force in football.

Do we spend time with our colleagues to understand how connected and engaged they feel to our values? How representative are they of the company right now. Do your employees truly know what they mean? Moving forward could your employees be part of the value setting process?


When Solksjaer took over, he spoke about putting a smile back the faces of this players. Why was this important? The statement immediately set the tone for his leadership style, it would be player centric with a focus on allowing his players the freedom to do what they do best. Players would be allowed to express themselves and in fact this has led to some of the most dis-engaged players such as Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba and Luke Shaw thriving in recent months. Pogba recently described himself as always smiling within the new set up while Luke Shaw was also glowing in his praise “Ole is a really positive and friendly guy and knows this club really well as he was here for many years and he knows what the club needs”

Yet the success of creating a culture of creativity and expression shouldn’t surprise us. A study by Report Linker survey found that 78% of employees who say their company encourages creativity and innovation said they are highly committed to their employer.

Coupled with the above research is the increasing desire of employees to be coached by their managers. To have that person in their corner working with them to achieve their goals. A Gallup study in 2015 showed that good coaching can help enormously with employee engagement and happiness. Great managers encourage employee engagement and coaching is proven to improve managerial skills including communication, trust building, problem solving and feedback. Speaking on his management style, Soksjear said “I like people, speak to people, engage with people, see them express themselves, wherever they work. We just want to see everyone express themselves. That makes me happy”


Whether this period is simply the honeymoon after the disastrous end of Mourinho or more of a revolution remains to be seen. However for now the Theatre of Dreams has been restored. We can only admire the steps Soklsjear has taken to date, his belief in the transformational nature of purpose and values and in trusting his players to deliver the performances on the pitch. These employees are truly engaged, inspired by a manager who is bringing out the best in them.

Sport and business are always intertwined in terms of lessons learnt but the practicalities of implementation can be challenging. As Ole would say, put smiles on faces with a clear focus on :

  1. A powerful, inspiring purpose

  2. A truly authentic set of high performing values

  3. A. renewed focus on listening to and coaching your people.

James Brogan

CEO @ PepTalk

Let's make work better …

At PepTalk, engagement is at the heart of all our wellbeing platform. Our platform is about energy, passion and fun while being grounded in key business outcomes. To find out more about this area and our wider PepTalk offering book a demonstration at or email

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