Thursday, October 07, 2004

MBxpO: Two Management Lessons from
Montreal's Skipper, Frank Robinson  

Reader David Lippman asked:

What is your take on the Expos fiasco? It seems like that team was designed to fail, given their lack of talent, "home" games in Puerto Rico, and the continued uncertainty regarding their future. How good has Frank Robinson been in trying to lead his team through all of that?

Frank Robinson's piloting of the Expos holds a couple of good lessons for managers beyond baseball.

Background on Robinson, if you don't know much about him; if you do skip down to the first sub-head. Frank Robinson was one of the top 20 players of the 20th century, a naturally-gifted all-around player, slugger, baserunner, outfielder. He was MVP in each league. In every single one of his 20 seasons of play (leaving out his final season when he was managing the Indians and appeared only 79 times), his offensive output was no less than 27% above his league's composite; this is extraordinary. Half of all players never have even a single full season where they exceed the league composite by his least good year.

Robbie was not just a lot better than almost all his fellow players, he was born that way, with a combination of size, grace, agility and a good brain in his head. And that, oddly, was his Achilles Heel. As a manager, he was not particularly effective in his first eight years, and in his return to Baltimore, where he had many of his best years as a player, he was very uneven. One indicator, by the way, of his ordinary performance is the set of gaps between his assignments; three seasons between the end of his first gig and starting his second, and the same between his second and third..

Here's his managerial record, from Baseball Reference:

Managerial Record (underlined links not live)

 Year    League   Team       G     W    L    WP   Finish
 1975 AL East     Clevelnd   159   79   80   .497      4
 1976 AL East     Clevelnd   159   81   78   .509      4
 1977 AL East     Clevelnd    57   26   31   .456      5

 1981 NL West     SanFranc    59   27   32   .458      5  1st half
 1981 NL West     SanFranc    52   29   23   .558      3  2nd half
 1982 NL West     SanFranc   162   87   75   .537      3
 1983 NL West     SanFranc   162   79   83   .488      5
 1984 NL West     SanFranc   106   42   64   .396      6

 1988 AL East     Baltmore   155   54  101   .348      7
 1989 AL East     Baltmore   162   87   75   .537      2
 1990 AL East     Baltmore   162   76   85   .472      5
 1991 AL East     Baltmore    37   13   24   .351      6

 2002 NL East     Montreal   162   83   79   .512      2
 2003 NL East     Montreal   162   83   79   .512      4
                  Baltmore   516  230  285   .447
                  Clevelnd   375  186  189   .496
                  Montreal   324  166  158   .512
                  SanFranc   541  264  277   .488
      TOTAL                 1756  846  909   .482


Early in his managerial career, Robbie's Achilles Heel was that he was so much better than any player who ever played for him. Robbie seemed to have a hard time dealing with the mere mortals who were just very good. Like many managers beyond baseball who have come up through the ranks based on their extraordinary skills and not just on being the boss' son or knack for smooth inner-circle politics, being naturally brilliant is not a free pass to being a good manager, and, in fact, is more often a wind-drag.

One of the best players who labored for Robbie on that first manager position in Cleveland was Rico Carty. Carty was one of the very best pure hitters of his time, and bounced back repeatedly from terrible injuries including seven shoulder separations, tuberculosis & an ugly car wreck to continue to hit beautifully. His approach at the plate changed after each body-blow, as he adapted to his new, lesser, body and overcame new limitiations to continue to achieve. Carty told an interviewer Robbie was hell to play for because Robbie couldn't help but feel anyone who couldn't, with practice, do what Robbie had done so effortlessly must be slacking or just not very good.

The early managerial Robinson couldn't imagine what it was like to struggle like heck to acheieve at half the Robbie level. Lots of managers outside of baseball have this challenge. Sometimes it's because they were promoted specifically because they were so good at their position. Sometimes, it's because the new manager is just a super-smart person.

What the Mensa person is missing that perfectly-bright but clearly-lesser folk have is a sense of effort it can take to be effective. The Mensa person can confuse natural ability with accomplishment, can confuse what you come to the table with, with what you can achieve. When I was in junior high and high school, the authorities mistakenly assigned me to honors classes a couple of times - they confused my polymathic set of knowledge and my quickness with actual intelligence. So sometimes there were a few of us lesser-talents in classes with the big heads, and it was there I observed how important the distinction in judgment is between most of the smart-enough performers and most of the naturally exceptional.

The exceptional are used to solving problems by catching them out of thin air. They don't always know how they got there. The smart-enough have to work through problems and build knowledge over time. The working through makes it more likely they will see connections in subsequent problem solving efforts. The exceptional are not used to failure, but in life occasional failure is almost guaranteed, and the exceptional get more frustrated with failure and it affects their judgement and subsequent decisions. And because the exceptional Mensa types are, well, exceptional, they're not as used to interacting as peers, so frequently, it makes efforts that require co-operative efforts more laden with the overhead of struggling through team problem solving. In one chemistry honor class I was in, some of us mistakes (we called ourselves the Pensas, because we had to think harder to get comparable results) would combine to work through experiments together, and we could frequently beat the big heads with better or faster (or both) results. And because you worked through every step (it didn't just come to you in a single, coherent vision like a hanging curve over the plate), you could know how to explain it to someone else because you'd already broken it down to a sequence of steps.

Not having to work through the steps makes it very difficult to coach those who don't know them already. And knowing you have limitations can be the first move towards the ability to empathasize with a report, and if you can't empathize & you're not a good coach, it's almost certain you can't manage.

But over time, Robinson has learned to work with lesser talents. His stay in Whipping-Boy Land, owner-free, resource-starved, existential-anxiety-dream Montreal, has exposed him to the most-cobbled together remnant quilt in the majors. Every year it has gotten more challenging because the relative budget has gone down every year and the team's best players have moved on in trades or directly through free-agency. Past an age by which most people with money have retired, he has taken it on with grace and skill, and mostly with equanimity. He's squeezed some good stretches out of his no-name, designed to lose team, and helped develop some of the better players on it. He's not got any hardware to show for it, but it's a management gig he can be really proud of.

In between, he matured, in part because of his management engagements. The Indians were a .500 type team, the Giants, not that good, and by the time he managed the Orioles, they were in a decline phase. In the multi-year gaps between his manager positions, he held other jobs around baseball, coaching for a few franchises and working for MLB as the discipline czar. He learned to cope with more organizational adversity than he had experienced as a player (which did have its challenges, with a bad arm injury and ugly behavior related to race politics).

Frank Robinson learned to overcome his extraordinary talent and become a good manager. Others can, too, if they can distinguish their own extraordinary talents from the efforts of mere mortals.


Everyone knows managing Montreal to a pennant is impossible. Most believed keeping them out of last place would be impossible. But Robinson got 2nd and 4th place finishes for them before this year's cellar inhabitation. No one in baseball holds that finish against Robbie.

It's a perfect situation in some ways.

Beyond baseball, some of the best management positions you can get are those that come on the heels of others' failures, and in dire situations as long as everyone knows how bad it is. If you succeed in such dark times, everyone thinks you're an ace, and if you fail, well, it was a Montreal Expo situation anyway. If everyone with authority knows it's awful, you are likely to get more latitude to experiment, because none of the little men and women who work hard to block change by feeling and saying "if it's not broken, don't fix it" are taken seriously by those on the fence about change.

That said, it's critical people know just how bad it is. Before you start, you'll need to market accurately (don't exaggerate; that backfires too often) the degree of existing failure. You need to get commitment for levels of resources and co-operation you'll need to turn things around. But inheriting an obvious meltdown is one of the most forgiving situations a career manager can get. Your bosses, if you prepare them properly, will be in a position to perceive whatever you reclaim out of the situation as gravy.

I can recommend this kind of management position to anyone with courage who enters a situation everyone knows is frelled. Like Robbie, you successes will be generally regarded as your own, your failures as beyond your control.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter