Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Optimizing Player Performance:
Initiating New Hires  

To get the most from the people you manage, you must put
 them in the right spot at the right time. — Joe Torre

A critical area of management I haven't yet discussed is people management, second base in the diamond model I presented the other day (Saturday, August 16 -- In Management, as in Baseball, you score by rounding the bases). If you're in an organization that does anything beyond commodity provision at low margin, virtually everything in people management is critical. Baseball managers and general managers build teams through acquisitions, competitions, and the areas of mentoring, training and teaching. Non-baseball organizations' managers, by analogue, do the same. Hiring the right players is most critical step, but how you break them in once they're on board is vital, too.

After you’ve put your team together, how do you get the most out of them every day to rack up wins? This area is one of baseball’s most fertile sources of wisdom for non-baseball managers.

The noteworthy model in optimizing player performance is the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, starting about a year after the sad-sack St. Louis Browns moved to Charm City and renamed themselves (because, frankly, losing the Browns as a name was not going to cripple their success rate. Never wealthy, the O’s substituted intelligence, organization, technology, and training to overcome a relative lack of resources. The prime mover behind their system was Paul Richards, a manager hired away from the White Sox after he’d set in motion a major turnaround of that franchise’s fate.

The underpinning of the Richards system was open-mindedness, giving chances to a lot of promising young talent, seeing who can (and can’t) do what by putting them in the lineup. The system produced more resolution about individuals’ than other teams' systems. Competitors may have had more money, but they were more likely to judge an untested prospect by his pedigree, so players with fewer credentials got fewer chances to prove their mettle and might never get their chance. The Orioles' system clearly identified more failures, but it also unearthed more successes.

At the same time, Richards focused resources on improving coaching methods for fundamentals and standardizing them across the system. If a player advanced or regressed in the farm system, or if his manager moved on, the player wouldn’t waste overhead adapting to new methods and strategies. As a by-product, this model was effective in testing and rebuilding struggling veterans whom the low-wealth Orioles could get on the cheap from other teams.

I’ve had good, and great, results with Richards’ model. When I was director of the InfoWorld Test Center, I applied it to the staff I inherited. When I arrived, they were terribly underused because the executive management back then didn’t have a shadow of a dream of a clue what their work entailed (and therefore low-balled their pay, too). The typical staffer had only junior college credentials, and the big-bucks sales and journalism execs didn’t respect that kind of paper. The staff and I worked together to provide each one an opportunity to prove what he could do, letting the aptitudes of each become clear through trials. Yes, there were lots of little failures, but lots of successes more than cancelled them out. Three of this wonderfully talented group went on to become test center directors at tech magazines, one at InfoWorld itself.

The Oriole Way didn’t end with Richards' innovations. It evolved through the younger generation of managers throughout the system, Earl Weaver among them. One key addition to the recipe was easing new players into challenges instead of the hazing ritual where skippers dump them into the deep end and see how quickly they drown. That deep-end dump is usually the artifact of a manager’s neuroses, more often than not an unconscious imitation of their (bad) dominant parent. The rest of the time it reflects sheer managerial laziness. Yellow Cab in Los Angeles used to do this, so did the Soviets' Red Army and currently the Iraqi Fayadeen.

In contrast, the Oriole method involved starting even the hottest prospects in protected situations. The O’s had mammoth expectations for Mike Flanagan, who eventually went on to win a Cy Young Award. But when they brought him up, Weaver used him (alomst exclusively) in blowout games where any performance anxiety he might feel would be dampened. Then Weaver moved him to starting games against easier opponents, ratcheting up confidence with each performance.

When any player, new or veteran, was struggling with some aspect of the game, Weaver, like Connie Mack 50 years earlier, worked to find a player non-critical spots in games. He used those lower-risk spots to let players experiment with abilities coaches were working on with them. When future All-Star Eddie Murray came up, the Orioles believed he could be a star defender at 1st base. They used him mostly at DH, however, because Earl didn’t want a fielding lapse to affect Murray’s relaxation at the plate.

Most baseball organizations are too impatient to use the O’s formula. And most suffer the consequences of crushing the confidence or overusing the arms of young pitchers in their rush to get immediate payback on their long investment. It's the same in business: When non-baseball organizations get someone new, there’s a strong temptation to throw them into the deep end. It’s easier to pretend it’ll all work out than to build a plan to integrate the newcomer; besides, there’s the “new toy at Xmas” rush of wanting to really test out the newbie. But in baseball and non-baseball alike, there’s a high payback in smoothing new employees’ entry.

Who's willing to raise her hand and suggest a new employee failing at the low-presssure tasks is likely to succeed at the high-pressure ones? ┬┐If the new hire is failing at less critical taks, it's costing you less (time, grief, overhead, perhaps even cash) than if he was failing at more critical ones, so why not get new hires acustomed to the less-critical first?


Spot your new or freshly-promoted staff where they can succeed easily. It delivers higher returns from higher-performance attitudes as well as greater trust from their peers, leading to lower effort spent in team-building and higher output.

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