Monday, March 22, 2004

The Adaptive Wisdom of Jim Colborn,
Dodger Pitching Guru  

There are managers who know how to inspire beautifully...who then fail to inspire.

If a manager comes to the task of coaching or working with a staffer armed with a single perfect approach, he might succeed, he might fail. When I was a young manager, I had incredibly powerful success with certain kinds of people -- people who wanted to do a good job and to do that were willing both to learn and to teach me, too. When I hired, I mostly hired those types because I just thought they "were the best". This approach helped make me a good manager, that combined with finding it easy to tolerate a wide range of approaches to getting things done.

But there were many assignments I had as a consultant, and a few as an in-house supervisor where I found people in place who simply had to have their butts kicked to perform. In my prejudiced way, I considered people you needed to manage that way inferior, and as far as being immediately useful in a group I ran, they did seem that way. But that was my fault. Because I get much less pleasure kicking someone's butt than teaching and learning, I missed the fact that many of these types could be important & prolific contributors if, instead of giving them what I thought was virtuous, I gave them what they needed to kick-start them.

My single "perfect" approach only worked when I got to hire everyone. I learned from Earl Weaver that to be a great manager, one had to learn to squeeze the most out of everyone. You treat them equally (don't play favorites or grant special privileges without the most extraordinary of exceptions), but at the same time, treat them as individuals. That was a Weaver standard operating guideline.

People are different in what inspires them to give their utmost and a great manager has to be sensitive to what each individual's motivators are and keep a range of behavioral tools at her side to apply the best one for each staffer. I still believe in my gut that people who need their butt kicked to achieve are somehow less healthy than the people who are my preferred type -- I just understand that in the workplace, they can contribute equally if they are managed to their own pattern instead of mine.

Balance is the hard part, because you need to treat everyone equally, but at the same time, with a different set of things you do to help, and with a different set of motivators (what I call "currencies").


In baseball, this is transparently clear because it focuses a lot of light on the way things are set up. If you're a pitching coach, you're going to be coaching right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers, and these don't have mirror-image mechanics. Even if you were an accomplished pitcher, unless you were Tony "The Apollo Of The Box" Mullane, who pitched from both sides, a significant percentage of your charges will throw from the side you didn't. And pitchers fall into about nine basic patterns, so even if you were a very accomplished pitcher with a long career, you would only have applied two or three of them at most (hurlers with long careers usually make a shift when they get older and their fastball is not an overpowering weapon by itself, so they start using one of the other patterns).

Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn apparently knew this intuitively, and it's helping his organization both in producing better talents in his young pitchers, but also in attracting attention from the kind of pitchers who are looking to learn. This profile from MLB.COM, referenced by Baseball Primer, interviewed many of Colborn's charges.

It isn't that he mentored a Cy Young Award winner, although that's pretty cool on the resume.

Jim Colborn said he knows something special is happening with his career when he hears a journeyman pitcher like Eric Knott explain why -- despite knowing he has virtually no chance of making the Dodgers' loaded Major League pitching staff -- he signed with the organization anyway.

"I probably had a better shot making other clubs, but I was wondering if there was something over here, something they were teaching guys that would make me better," said Knott, who now faces knee surgery. "I see things going on here working for everybody. I want to tap into that. I wanted to know what the secret was. I was intrigued. Now I see the way Colborn teaches. That had a big influence on my decision."

Rick White, another roster candidate who has made seven other Major League stops, felt the same. "This guy must have a good idea if everybody pitches well," said White. "It's like nobody ever struggles. It just doesn't happen when the whole staff is good. He knows what he's doing." [snip]

That word is getting around, the way it did with Ray Miller and Dave Duncan and Leo Mazzone, with the legacy of Dodger pitching coaches from Red Adams to Ron Perranoski to Dave Wallace. Colborn has become a pitching guru. They come from far and wide seeking his counsel. Young and old, star and scuffler. He's not too technical, not too theoretical. He's everyman's pitching coach. [snip]

."He's a great teacher and a great motivator," said (last year's Cy Young award winner, Eric) Gagne. "He's a weirdo, in a good way. He has a dry sense of humor. He doesn't take anything too seriously. There's so much failure in this game, you need to be around people who can handle it. He keeps everybody loose and relaxed. He's not yelling, he's not acting crazy. He's good for young guys and old guys. He shows you the path.

"For a young kid, there's a lot of pressure up here. Colby jokes, even if you fail. We're human. It's OK. His strength is that there isn't just one way to do it."

"We have a tolerance for idiosyncrasies that some might find irritating," said Colborn. "We appreciate the bizarre. One reason for our success is that we have an attitude that is supportive of individuals, guys like (Kevin) Brown and (Jose) Lima." [snip]

He treats (the pitchers) equally, yet individually. He offers suggestions, but not too many. "He's got the ability to make it easy," said Alvarez. "Some coaches say you've got to do it their way and they make you think. His way is simple and that way you don't think too much. You just do it. When some guys get technical you just get confused."

"I say as little as possible and make sure to say it one way as simply as I can," he (Colborn) said. "If you have a golf coach give you a tip, it might take you 10 swings before you get it. If he gives you a new tip every two or three swings, you overload. Trust that they are good at it. Give them a tip and let them master it."

In short, you need to learn the adaptive wisdom of Jim Colborn. Great management is not about forcing people to conform to some ideal form you design to. Yes, you need standards, but equally, to deliver the highest vlue from each staffer, form each moment, from each decision, you need to adapt to individuals' needs and what motivates them.

Procrustes never would have succeeded as a major league pitching coach. Neither did Stan Williams. All his grit and wisdom was wasted as a pitching coach because it didn't flex to meet the individuality of his charges.

Colborn had some advantages. His career was fairly long (8 real seasons), and he got to pitch as a starter and as a reliever in both leagues, as well as having some years he was considered successful (20 game winner in 1973, in 1977 he threw a no-hitter), and some years that were far from it (in 1976, he was 9-15, and in 1978 was 3-10 with a putrid 5.24 ERA). He got a wide perspective which seems to be a foundation for teahcing multiple ways of working.

Be like Colborn. Learn not only to recognize differences, but to embrace them as a tool for maximizing your organization's returns from staff skills and attitudes.

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