Sir Alex, me and leadership

The world's most influential venture capitalist on why Silicon Valley needs to learn from Man U


Sir Michael Moritz is fiddling with his knitted tie, eyes nervously darting this way and that. Contemplating my first question about the effects of his parents being refugees from the Nazis building a new life in Cardiff, he tightens his lips, leans back, crossing and re-crossing his legs, easing the bottoms of his feet out of his well-worn slip-ons so that they swing on his arched toes. His restlessness is, I admit, a little intimidating. Or is it reluctance about being the centre of attention?

"Yes, I've always been an outsider, that's true and, yes, I suppose it has propelled me in some way. I suppose that status allows me to see things in a different way."

It's also allowed the 61-year-old Welsh-born venture capitalist to amass an extraordinary fortune and stellar reputation as one of the planet's most astute and supportive investors. As a partner at Sequoia Capital in Silicon Valley, his business successes are a Who's Who of the internet. Investments in Google, Yahoo!, Link edIn, PayPal and YouTube, among others, have given him a fortune in the low billions. I suspect, however, that - despite immaculate manners and one of the warmest greetings I've ever encountered - it has not given him a fondness for interviews.

But then we're not really here to talk about Sir Michael and his career goals, most of which have been converted with assured aplomb. The point of this interview is to discuss other people's goals and, for a change, not the digital ones of bearded entrepreneurs who view him with God-like status. But the goals of Eric Cantona, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Teddy Sheringham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and, of course, the deity among them all, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Sir Michael has compiled an extraordinarily gripping and insightful book with the most successful manager in the history of British football (2,131 games and 49 trophies in 38 years) looking into how the rules that helped him make Manchester United a global force can be reinterpreted and acted upon by business leaders. Sport, it seems, engenders the tools, attributes and abilities that the corporate world so desperately needs.

wHorrors of the past were part of my family tapestry

And, he believes, Sir Alex embodies the true spirit of a successful entrepreneur. ''Clarity of thought, the ability to communicate clearly, a sense of mission, the willingness to persevere against extreme odds, to make painful decisions, to have extraordinary levels of energy. The quest for perfection and a belief they've embarked on their life's work. That's what the greatest entrepreneurs I've had the privilege of working with have had. And that's what Sir Alex has too.

"Alex and I have talked about this link for some time but he's the more gregarious one so I wanted to get down in print his life lessons, what he's learned from a game that he helped to reinvent, that taught him so much and to which he brought so much. The parallels with business are obvious to me."

Indeed they are. The book they've written together, Leading, is structured around key skills that Sir Alex guarded preciously and looked for in players and colleagues. The importance of listening and watching rather than falling prey to in-built prejudices, ensuring self-discipline and determination triumphs over arrogance and complacency, knowing how to handle mavericks and when to refresh teams, understanding the difference between power and control, accepting that sometimes the decisions you make are wrong and learning from those mistakes.

But the parallel that interests me most is the notion of being an outsider, a status that perhaps Sir Michael is all too aware of but one which, in the bosom of his Silicon Valley bubble - the epicentre of a global societal revolution - he perhaps doesn't often contemplate.

"Yes, being a Welshman in America has made me an outsider. I was even an outsider in Wales, at Oxford and as a foreigner in California. And in the technology world, because I don't have a technology background. And Sir Alex, too, has always been the outsider - son of a shipbuilder, brought up in Govan in tough circumstances and not part of the Glaswegian establishment. He feels that deeply, and always has done. We share that trait and as he and I talked during the writing of this book, what became apparent was that many of the players that performed so well for him at Manchester United were also outsiders and came from tough backgrounds. And many of those that Sequoia has backed have been immigrants from tough backgrounds. They all share a certain drive, a desire to succeed at all costs. In fact, the vast majority in my world have had tough backgrounds."

A gifted student of Howardian Comprehensive in Cardiff (it no longer exists), Sir Michael had a fairly humble upbringing, like his sporting hero. Sir Michael's father, Alfred, was plucked as a teenager from Nazi Germany and given safe haven in London, where he was an academic scholar, eventually becoming a classics professor at Cardiff University. His mother Doris, meanwhile, was part of the Kindertransport. Did that side of his life - family fleeing from persecution and, scarred by the horrors of war, starting again in unfamiliar surroundings - influence him as a child? ''To be honest, those things didn't affect the way I thought or behaved. I've turned my mind to those things far more since, as an adult with my own family and a settled career. Certainly, those were the circumstances of my early life and I was always extremely aware of it, of my grandparents in Germany, of what had happened. It was always woven in to the background tapestry of our life."

Unlike Fergie, he excelled at school, became head boy, and was more likely to be found shivering on the touchline with a damp sponge than finding himself in the thick of the sporting action. He then went to Oxford University where he read history. In 2012, he donated the university £75m to fund a new scholarship scheme to provide financial aid to students from poorer backgrounds.

"I think it is all too easy not to remember those that can be so easily forgotten," he says. He is also a signatory of the Bill Gates-inspired Giving Pledge and will give away at least half of his wealth to charitable causes.

After graduation, a chance encounter with the legendary Bill Deedes - then editor of the Daily Telegraph - persuaded him that his future lay well away from the morose industrial turbulence of 1970s Britain, and he ended up as a journalist in New York, where he became the chronicler of Apple and Steve Jobs before finally forging a path towards the West Coast that would eventually lead him to become one of the world's most visionary investors.

Though sporting greatness never figured highly on his to-do list, one of the core realisations that success has brought him - and which he shares intimately with Sir Alex - is the extraordinary effect that consistently working with younger people has had on both of their careers.

"For any leader, if they are really being honest with themselves, the people they most enjoy being around are the youngest in the organisation because they are the ones who think anything is possible. As we say in the book, young players will run through barbed-wire fences for you whilst older ones will try to find the gate. That's as true in business as it is in football.

"Having youth within an organisation is energising. It has inspired me and it continues to do so. As a football manager, it's essential to have that youthful energy in the pipeline if you want to ensure a good tomorrow. Sir Alex derived a lot of pleasure from the vibrancy and sense of energy that these young men displayed, that they would do anything to succeed within the organisation. And then of course he drew enormous pride from seeing them become essential members of the team. My experience in business has brought me that same thrill, joy and pride when working with younger people - and there are a lot of them in Silicon Valley. You have fewer distractions in your teens and 20s than later on when family comes into play. That obsessive devotion that you can apply to your life becomes more difficult when you're older. And, within the world which I occupy, youth is the essential link to new breakthroughs.

"Youth also reminds you that perfection is possible because the best new entrepreneurs and leaders think that nothing less will do. Although that drive for perfection is not the preserve of the young. Sir Alex had it, just as Steve Jobs did. Alex always came to each new season hoping that this one would be unblemished, Steve that his next product would be absolutely perfect. That pursuit of perfection, that obsession, is what drove them and what made them such inspirations."

Sir Michael is far too modest to attach such descriptions to himself, though his enviable success suggests he is part of that same select club. Even today - married with two children - he shows no signs of slowing down.

The intellectual curiosity that marked his youth is still a guiding force and, like Fergie, he's determined to learn new things, seek new horizons and challenges. And he has more time to scratch those itches, such as a new-found love of painting which he believes has helped provide him with a better perspective on life.

A few years ago, he revealed he'd be stepping back from day-to-day control of Sequoia as he was suffering from an incurable, if medically manageable, condition. It's not something he wants to talk about but, in person, he appears the picture of health.

"When you're a leader you need to constantly adapt, to not stand still. I've always been the sort of person to want to learn new things. I hope that I'm still learning and want to be curious. Painting, if you've never done it, is a very humbling pursuit because it's so difficult to do well. Everyone can paint though we're never going to be great artists. Yet that doesn't mean we should give up. I want to learn to be better and that's a great trait for someone to have. As soon as you stop being curious about things that life brings to your doorstep you begin to die.

"Having too rigid a plan about life leads to cruel disappointment. You need to stay curious and agile - that's as true in the boardroom as it is on the football pitch. I've never really planned anything in life, I'm still the sort of person to say 'Let's just see where this goes…'

"Young people are always asking me for advice so that they can get to where they want to go. But it's very difficult to imagine where you will go in life because when those grand dreams don't come true you can become cruelly disappointed. You need to follow the bread-crumbs that are strewn in front of you, follow your instincts and make the best of your choices that are given to you at any moment. Most people are incapable of doing that."

Perhaps that's what truly bonds the twin knights of Cardiff and Glasgow. An ability to make the right choices at the right moment and follow the right instincts. And to force a smile when under the quizzical glare of the media.

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