Monday, November 24, 2003

Constructive Cronyism: Dick Williams' Lesson  

The last entry lambasted cronyism as undermining achievement potential, and mentioned that there were exceptions...where cronyism could work out acceptably or even well.

Dick Williams would tell you that is can make the difference in a political environment between survival and extinction.

Williams, an enfant terrible but with good managerial success already under his belt, was offered the California Angels' managing job by the owner for the 1974 season. The general manager, Harry Dalton, didn't like Williams. In the skipper's words:

Dalton was not a fan of mine, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it was something I'd said in the newspaper one time, maybe something I had done on the field. In this game of constant tightrope walking, one action is all it might take to turn somebody against you forever. Possibly Dalton didn't like me because I'd played with Baltimore back when he was first hired -- as an office boy, by answering a newspaper ad. In disbelief, I had watched him rise meteorically to the top, seemingly through no fault of his own. In other words, Harry knew that I knew he didn't know shit. (No More Mr Nice Guy, HBJ, p.179)

In a situation like that, Williams needed to be able to choose his own coaches. In that era, it was common for a manager to choose his own coaches, though less so now (reasons another time).

Williams later went on to the San Diego Padres where his G.M. (Jack McKeon) started cutting out Williams' chosen coaches and inserted one of his own, Harry Dunlop. McKeon planted him as a spy to keep a scorecard of bad behaviors, sort of like "writing him up" from the day he had started. According to Williams:

A manager should be able to surround himself with his own people, if for no other reason than to protect his back in the clubhouse. [snip] A guy selected by the general manager might not be so willing to protect you. After all, he is your boss's buddy. And soon he could influence the players the wrong way. If this coach is telling the players that his buddy the general manager doesn't agree with the manager, why should the players agree with the manager? [snip] Maybe the coach will be a good guy, but if he's not your pick, you never know. In this regard, Dunlop proved to be a walking worst case scenario. Because Dunlop, I leanred a couple fo years later, was McKeon's spy. (No More Mr Nice Guy, p.245-6)

Williams could never relax in his job because of it. That meant he could never do his best. (There is a perverse streak in American management thinking that suggests only those under pressure/fear can produce excellence, which is about as sensible as suggesting the only way one can enjoy physical intimacy is unprotected with strangers. There are a handful of people who respond to that, but for many related reasons, they cannot be competent managers).

When this happens outside of baseball, it's just as ugly, and this Permafrost Economy exacerbates it. You get a management assignment in a new place, people are anxious and grumbling about the last layoff or pointless re-org, and you're alone. In that case, finances permitting, it's important to have a crony, a person with some of your key points of view you can bounce things off of A person who can listen to others in the ranks and relate some of your past successes (market you a little), and who can get to sympathize with and bring to you issues you're missing.

In a political environment, most managers will need someone to cover their back, or at least take the place of someone who will stab you in it. Ask Dick Williams.

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