Sunday, June 13, 2004

Dusty Baker's Management Toolbox:
Channeling Sun-Tzu, Televangelists,
Roy Campanella & the Buddha  

"Whatever doesn't make you stronger
kills you." -- Angus' Eighth Law

Previously, I've written about using past managers' foibles as guidelines for what not to do. It's a great technique to keep in your toolbox, and one I use several times a week. The tool you can use several times a day to great advantage is one Dusty Baker uses and talks about. It's the exact opposite: Channelling past managers and other mentors.

We all face challenges we haven't faced before. If a batter stands on deck waiting to face a pitcher she's seen before, she's going to draw on her own past experiences. But if she's never seen the pitcher before, she's going to watch the action to measure the hurler's approach, velocity, pitch selection, delivery. If she's ambitious, she'll have asked others who have dug in against the pitcher, or asked her coaches what to expect.

What if she's faced the pitcher before but has consistently not achieved good results? She's going to talk with people who have, or think about other batters who have had success and try to decode what they did that she hasn't.

It's the same in managing organizations. You draw on your own experience. If you've been successful, that's easy; you pull the previous successful decision off the shelf, then walk through the circumstances, evaluate the environment in which you're making a decision, and fine-tune it for the moment.


But if it's new or you have had less than excellent results with this kind of decision, you channel past managers & mentors of your own. It expands your experience to include others'. It seems intuitively obvious, but believe or else, a majority of managers don't use this tool, which is absurd given the paucity of useful training most American managers get. Sure, there are procedures manuals and other dictates in hierarchical organizations, but these tend to be inflexible and don't evolve until the status quo has failed more often than Steve Howe's drug tests.

Dusty Baker uses this tool, according to this article from the religion section of the Chicago Sun Times (thank you Repoz at Baseball Primer; do you read everything?). Baker is one of the most successful managers in the game today, and while its popular to diss him for some of his retro approaches, find me half a dozen other managers who don't work for the Yankees or Braves who have compiled finishes as good as Baker's over the last six seasons: 1st-2nd-2nd-1st-2nd-2nd. Obviously, it's not all Dusty Baker that gets his teams into this competitive zone, but if he really was the dud some of my sabermetric colleagues like to make him out to be, what are the odds the success would be so persistent with teams that are not overwhelmingly talented?

Much of Baker's language is couched in terms of his faith, but the technique is pure Western rationality applied to management.

Making the right choice takes practice, Baker says, and he works at it. Like his ubiquitous toothpicks. They're supposed to keep him from chewing tobacco.

On the corner of his desk, amid stacks of team paperwork and piles of light-blue envelopes filled with game tickets, sits a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, its dust cover tucked into the middle of the book. Written by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, the book is a kind of spiritual home-improvement guide that takes readers through 40 days of Bible study and questions designed to jump-start their faith.

"I've read about three-quarters of it," Baker says as he gets up from his chair and begins rifling through a nearby bookshelf topped with unopened bottles of wine, looking for another devotional book he's been reading lately called Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance. [snip]

He finds what he was looking for a few crowded shelves below a biography of Sammy Sosa.

Bible-related literature isn't the only thing Baker reads, he's quick to add, motioning toward another stack of books and papers behind his desk.

"I read Sun Tzu and The Art of War, trying to get some understanding, too. The Book of Five Rings [by a 17th century Japanese samurai] and Attila the Hun, about leadership," he says. "I try to understand, like I said, that if there's a north, there's a south. If there's an east, there's a west. Know what I mean?" [snip]

Fear of being labeled a "weirdo" doesn't stop him from talking about his "grand counsel," a kind of baseball communion-of-the-saints to whom he says he turns for advice.

"I've got some people up there who help me make decisions during the game," he says, pointing heavenward. "A grand counsel of guys I know are looking out for me, guys that help me. Bill Lucas [note: Lucas was the first African-American G.M. in baseball & was in the Atlanta organisation when Baker was]. Tommy Aaron [note: Aaron was a manager & coach in the Braves system]. Joe Black. Roy Campanella, Lyman Bostock . . . Guys that were influential in my life that are gone.

"I can just sort of tell sometimes. I'm at a crossroads here. Now, help me. Tell me what to do. And I know. Most of the time I get the answers immediately."


The Channelling Past Managers tool can be a weakness if the user takes a single mentor or past manager and channels her alone. That's merely imitation. Even bad managers do something well enough to borrow (well, not all bad managers, but most of them). And if a person hasn't had more than one manager in the past, he shouldn't be a manager himself.

And like Baker, you can borrow ideas from other fields. Baker weaves together Eastern military strategies, Western religious theories, and the pattern of one of the best catchers in the history of the game to trigger ideas at moments of stress or challenge. The more tools you collect, diverse the tools in your toolbox, the more likely you will be to come up with the right one when you need it.

Keeping track of past managers' designs and styles and decisions is a vital part of a manager's skill. You can use it to copy cognitive DNA from past successes, or to avoid failures you've seen. Any thread of another's thinking you can bring into your system for use or a determination not to use gives you a perspective you didn't have before, and that makes you stronger.

And from a management point of view, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you.

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