Saturday, November 22, 2003
One of the most damaging bad habits in American organizations is cronyism, the selective hiring and/or promotion of people based on a false karass. Surprisingly, there are specific cases where a level of cronyism can help (I'll get to those a little later). Baseball is a great looking-glass into cronyism. It's no more prevalent in baseball...in fact it might be a little less so, because performance is so measurable and that creates a gravitational field that reinforces the opposite of cronyism: merit-based personnel decisions.
An obvious bit of baseball cronyism took place yesterday: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays traded for first-baseman Tino Martinez, a Tampa native who will be 37 years old by the time the season starts. The driving force behind the D-Rays personnel moves has been Lou Piniella, a crony-lover of major proportions. (His cronyism is compounded by his managerial equivalent of borderline personality disorder -- players are either totally in his dog house or he's in love with their play, and he's slow to let actual results undermine his passions -- though not immune to reality). Half his coaching staff are men he brought with him from his last managerial assignment (Seattle), and that was more than half, but his drag-along pitching coach resigned. Tino Martinez is from the same neighborhood as Tampa native Piniella, and Piniella knows his family. When Piniella was in Seattle, he leaned on the front office to trade for his cousin Dave Magadan, an adequate, if not effective for Seattle, utility man. (A Dali-esque note about this -- the Ms got him mid-season from the Marlins for Jeff "Unnatural Selection" Darwin and a player. At the end of the season, they traded Magadan. To the Marlins. For Jeff Darwin and a little cash).
There's another kind of baseball cronyism going on here, and Piniella is not responsible for it. The Devil Rays and other teams seems to like to accumulate home-town or home-region guys, from Wade Boggs at the early part of the franchise's existence, to Martinez now. The press likes it (lots of human interest stories), it seems to sell a few extra tickets, it's easier to get the players involved in community activities and it's probabalistically likely the player will be more "at home" at home. Finally, front-offices know they can get a bit of a price discount in most cases from a player who's coming home. I suspect that final motivation is the primary one. The Seattle Mariners, for example, traded for the most inappropriate back-up outfielder they've, perhaps, ever had, Brian L. Hunter, and it was apparently because he had come from southern Washington state. But acquiring players for the feeling you get from the discount is almost guaranteed to undermine your overall talent quotient. Giving affirmative action points for home-town or genetic tie to someone inside the organization is not a guarantee of failure but in a highly-competitive system like baseball or business where failure is a much likelier outcome than success, who can afford to undermine productivity for the name of the state on Dude's driver's license or his frat pin? And it gets worse. As I mentioned in the previous entry on Giants' trade, when you have multiple decisions to make and you need to fit them together, blend them as a recipe (like a baseball or other organization's team), every decision tends to limit options on the others, bending them to fit the crony's attributes.
In non-baseball organizations, like I said, the cronyism is just as rampant, just less obvious, because the affiliations might be less obvious. I've consulted to organizations where all the managers were male, or where all the managers were women, or where all the managers were "white". I worked for an organization where the president put into place by outside funders started purging managers who were of a different religion than he was, replacing most of them with people who were of the same religion he was. I know of a Western U.S. city government that hired most of its upper managers from one of two Ivy League colleges. The most blitheringly incompetent company I ever worked for was run completely by MBAs from Wharton and Harvard, and that wasn't affirmative action -- where individuals who meet certain criteria get preferences, it's what I call deformative action, where only individuals with specific criteria get to make the cut, regardless of merit.
In general, this degrades the performance of an organization. Any time you winnow the recruiting pool by some non-merit consideration ("race", gender, religion, et.al.), you condemn yourself to fewer meritorious choices from which to select and unless you're also really excellent at recruiting, by odds, your talent quotient is going to sink. Perfect baseball example: the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950s became brutally competitive quickly by cherry-picking "black" players. They didn't have serious recruiting pressure, so had more good talent from which to choose from, a classic Branch Rickey technique (more quantity will yield more quality options).
The Wharton/Harvard MBA-run company I worked for didn't fail because Wharton and Harvard are bad business schools. It failed first because the graduates they hired they hired because they were cronies of each other and because no one was hiring on merit; they were, as my friend Alexis Laris says, "not exactly the best and brightest". It failed also, though, (and this is critical) because there was a monoculture of thinking and because when bad decisions are made in a crony environment, the monocultured peers find it harder to see what's wrong (they tend to approach problem solving with the same tools and biases and cultural presumptions), and as the "us" in an "us versus them" crony view of the world, they are less likely, even if they see the flaw, to call a fellow-crony on his mistake.
Some Exceptions: Tino Martinez and Beyond Baseball
In spite of the almost uniform disdain for him among my sabermetric brethren, Tino Martinez is likely to be one of those exceptions I mentioned earlier. I think he'll be adequate for his situation.
In general he's a medium hitter; this year he was medium-low, a slightly better than average defender (which belies his appearance -- he must have the most ungraceful moves I've seen in a first-baseman since Dick Stuart). He gets more than his share of "big hits" in games. He is a senior guy with a relatively benign, steady-but-determined attitude who has been on winning teams, and I believe if you line this up, you do actually get the oft-cited (less oft-delivered) "veteran leadership". Martinez' veteran leadership has higher value on the Devil Rays, one of the youngest teams in the Majors, than it would on many teams. And the coup de grace is the team he played for last year will pick up all but $500,000 of his salary this year, and that has additional value for the D-Rays' tight approach to money..
In sum, Tino is an aging but not bad, inexpensive contributor to a bad young team that's trying to get better longer-term. He's a crony hire, but he'll be gone before he's clogging the roster or blocking some good young player from getting there.
Beyond baseball, there are some places where cronyism and the resulting unidisciplinary approaches can actually benefit an organization - they're rare, but there.
In large organizations with no direction, it's most frequently true that any coherent, cohesive direction is better than none at all (even if the direction isn't very good). And there's a subset of these organizations that have been in this zone for so long, they resist any direction because the players have come to feel justified in the inaction by coming to believe action is dangerous. In the former, and especially the latter, getting a team on-board with a unified, or easily unifiable direction, common vocabulary and grammar of problem solution, trust (even based on false karass) can be the only thing that will jump start the process of a big org taking a direction and working at it. Once a management core starts that process, some people who were resistant peel off immediately (not wanting to be left behind). That puts pressure on the remaining passives, and as they become fewer, the pressure to participate, appear to participate or leave builds. Resistances diminishes. People realize the organization can take a direction and that means a bad direction is something you might change.
Most cronyism is destructive, especially when it's based on deformative action. But it has spots where it can work. Like Tampa Bay.
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