Friday, March 26, 2004

When the Chiba Lotte Marines Beat The N.Y. Mets:
Bobby Valentine's Critical Wisdom  

When managers meet in a professional way and talk about their work at big social venues such as workshops, seminars and trade shows, there's frequently a subtle pecking-order exercise based on how big or famous the manager's organization is. Bobby Valentine, compulsive outsider, former journey-guy utilityman and New York Mets manager, now at the helm of the Japanese Leagues' Chiba Lotte Marines has some useful insights in how the effort invested in pecking-order is effort drawn away from the real job at hand.

Pecking order overhead has been going on for a long time, but it's picked up in the last few decades. What Americans have based it on has changed subtly, too.

In the Eighties, it was annual sales. In the Nineties, when the Cult of Branding was wilding and stock market ticker symbols were etched into the public memory with a depth comparable only to the names and stories of martyr saints during Europe's Dark Ages, the corporate name recognition of one's employer weighed heavily in establishing perceived mojo. If you worked for a better-known company your words seemed to carry more gravitas

The anthropologist in me never failed to be amused when I'd watch the odd pecking-order dance rituals over institutional sliced-beef lunches, and observe the particpants trying to figure out who was more important based on who they worked for, or how big their budgets were.

There's been an additional factor in this Elizabethan Great Chain of Being since about 1976, (I think resulting from the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter) where as a society we have been marketed the idea that corporate structures were morally and functionally superior to non-profit, military and governmental ones. And that therefore, by some transitive property, the managers who labored for the corporate employers had some functional and moral superiority over their peers who worked in endeavors where profit wasn't the currency. The Cult of Going Public refined this further; it wasn't enough to work for a successful for-profit venture, but to really be a chosen one, you needed to work for a company that traded its ownership in the form of stock that traded on public markets. In another forty years or so, that last bit will trigger the kind of amusement and wonderment with which we view Medieval peasants' worship of minor saints.


As you go about learning your managerial craft, if you keep your ears and eyes open, you'll find you have every bit as much to learn from managers who work a small unknown organizations. Small departments can have big, complex budgets. Big departments can have lots of bodies but only one simple, relatively unchanging function they do over and over.

And, of course, the only difference between managing in a large organization and a small one, is the larger the organization is, the more effort dedicated to politicking and the less to managing. And, almost always, the less innovation desired or possible. Those are powerful gravity fields, not immutable determinants. But you have at least as much to learn from managers who work in organizations you don't recognize from the store or stock ticker as you do from those you do recognize.

The task of management is no more sophisticated at G.M. than it is at Department of Agriculture. It's no better done at Pepsi than at Essential Baking Company.

Valentine is bumping up against this Great Chain of Being assumption right now. Managing in Japan, he's viewed with the assumption that he can't wait to manage in the bigs. Yes, in general the caliber of play in the National League is superior to that of the Japanese leagues, but that doesn't change the skill required to manage a team. The game is the same, as are some of the players.

As he said in this New York Newsday article this week,

"I have a job I'm doing right here that I'm loving and I'm totally into,'' Valentine said. "I do find it insulting for people to say, 'When are you going to get back to the States?' I get it, but I find it insulting.

"I am a major-league manager, whether people think that or not, because of their closed- mindedness. We stay in the finest hotels. We play before 40,000. We have guys that throw 96 mph that have splits and guys run down to first base and hit home runs as well as anyone in the world. Because they don't want to appreciate it, understand it or admit to it, I don't care.''

[snip]Valentine is back in business here, working from sunup to sundown.

"I like the challenge of a new team, of learning the talent and putting it in the right places,'' he said. "I like the language thing. I like learning to drive on the left-hand side of the road. I like all of those things.''

Valentine just gets it. (He always did, btw.When he was a utility infielder for the Seattle Mariners, he was one of the more interesting interviews you could get. There were rare excuses to actually talk to him, but it was always a pleasure, because he was open-minded and opinionated and fairly well-spoken.) It's not the size or brand-recognition of the organization that makes for advancement, it's challenge, coping with changes, managing differences, that build up your toolkit of abilities.

Be open to perspectives of managers in different kinds of organizations, remember that while their challenges might not be as public, or as likely to make Baseball Tonight or The Nightly Business Report or C-Span, those challenges might be tougher, or of more use to you. Bobby Valentine knows that.

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