Saturday, August 21, 2004

PART I - Dusty Baker's Cubs:
Loose or Just Unraveled?  

With very few exceptions, successful modern organizations understand that in non-commodity endeavors, the talent is the product. And if the organization doesn't already understand that, its success is likely on the endangered list..

Baseball is a wonderful example of an endeavor where this is crystal-clear. If you could wave a magic Louisville Slugger and remake the game, keeping the uniforms and stadia and announcers and concessions the same but removing the Major Leaguers and replacing them with skilled Rec league players, game attendance (and radio listenership and t.v. viewership) would plummet to perhaps 25% of what it is now. The talent is the product and baseball's openness makes the organizational & management effects easier to decode and track.

The baseball field manager who seems to understand this model best is the Cubs' Dusty Baker. He is both an active tactician (while it's popular among sabermetrically-inclined fans to diss Baker's decisions, others, Leonard Koppett most notably, think he's very skilled both at using "The Book" and varying off of it) and a real "players' manager". As a players' manager, he puts them, their development, their interests, their careers at the forefront.

I recently got a long, intelligent message from Cub fan Phong Huynh noting this attribute as a positive. He also noted challenges that come as a result. The abridged message follows:

As a lifelong, true blue Cubs fan, I am excited about what's going on w/ my team and their overall competitiveness. However, I want to ask you about Dusty Baker's managerial style.

I give him much credit for infusing a sense of optimism that was so badly needed for such a moribund franchise. However, I have huge issues with the way he seems to give a "free-er" license to his players than the typical manager.

For instance, how can you not reprimand Carlos Zambrano (and Latroy Hawkins and Kerry Wood, for that matter) for his juvenile, bush league antics on the mound. And the recent story that Moises Alou publicly criticized the team's TV announcers for being too critical of the team, to the point that some on the team didn't want Steve Stone and Chip Caray to travel with them on charter flights. It seems that the team has drifted perilously towards being a bunch of crybabies.

As a manager, that's not an attitude I'd want my team to have or be perceived as such. It looks especially troubling compared to their archenemy, the Cards who seem to get the job done (fantastically at that) w/o griping. What's your take on this?


In concept, you can create a single scale of how player/employee-centered a manager is in the way he or she makes and modifies decisions. At its simplest, I believe Baker's player-centered approach is the correct one for any organization where the talent is the product.

It is not in execution, however, a simple linear scale that ranges from very player-centered to not player centered. But there is no single pattern for employee-centered management. In reality, there are several specific manager approaches you have to take into consideration. The most important are:

  • Paternalistic/Maternalistic <-----> Egalitarian
  • Inbred team-building (Us vs. Them) <-----> Expansive team-building
  • Results-focused <-----> Harmony-focused

I don't know if we can know all the facts behind the stories Huynh passed on -- baseball reporters get things wrong sometimes though either a desire to get the story into print/broadcast first or because they misunderstood something. And sometimes they distort or even fabricate a story for various business or personal reasons. But the issues Huynh talks about are typical of some of the challenges I have seen both as a consultant and in my own employee-centered management.

In the next few posts, I'm going to go over the aspects of people-management I bulleted above and use Dusty Baker's approach as described by Phong Huynh as an example to illustrate them.

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