Friday, November 12, 2004

Detroit Dombrowksi's Director-Demoting Delicacy  

Demoting someone, especially in a graceful way, is challenging. So challenging, in fact, that iut's one of the most universally-botched management moves. It is always unpleasant having to tell someone the job they've been doing has fallen short long enough that it doesn't make sense to try to "fix" their performance. Demotion, keeping the person within the organization in a position where you think they will (or might) make a positive contribution, is so emotionally tough for most managers, they do the lazy thing: just fire the target and avoid the interaction required to work out an alternative that would yield higher returns.

Baseball is peppered with lots of examples of productive demotions and how to handle them. The most recent lesson was in last week's demotion of Detroit Tiger Scouting Director Greg Smith.


In the last entry, I was presenting how Detroit Tiger G.M. Dave Dombrowski moved aside the Director of Scouting he had inherited when he took on the job a couple of years ago, and how his move illustrated several things about the importance of recruiting talent as well as patterns of managerial decisions upon starting a job in a new organization.

Remember, it seems Dombrowski kept Smith on because the Dombrowski had been working in organizations with strong scouting departments where he was expected to delegate that kind of decisionmaking to those groups, or at least rely heavily on their advice.

It became obvious Detroit's drafts, especially in the ultra-premium early rounds, were not measurably successful, and it was time for a change. But Smith owns a a lot of the organization's institutional memory and I suspect Dombrowski isn't sure Smith is a loser.

What the G.M. did to change the Director of Scouting's position is subtle and worth considering in your own staffing moves. Dombrowski didn't fire Smith -- he made use of him.

The team assigned Smith to scout a region the team has not been taking much advantage of: the Pacific Rim. He also has responsibility for countries with no formal position relative to MLB, such as Cuba. The Tigers actually had one of the earliest Cuban exile players, Barbaro Garbey Garbey (The Gratuitous Middle Name Kid, as he was known in Santiago), giving him a roster slot in 1984.

Smith has gotten a chance to apply his skills in an almost no-lose no-pressure situation.

If he comes up with anyone useful, it'll be more than the team had already. If not, hardly anyone will notice that absence of what's already absent. If some of Smith's recent draft picks from his Director tenure work out, you haven't lost him to another organization. If they don't work out, his span of control is limited to areas the Tigers weren't getting much torque out of anyway. Worst that can happen is he collects his salary a little while longer and yields no new gains.


When you start a new management gig, you have staff or lower-level managers on hand. It makes sense to see what they can do before you purge them to make way for your own picks, especially if they have strength in areas that are not your particular strong points. But the highest-reward action you can take is to observe them closely for strengths and weaknesses and rebuild jobs for them to maximize their value to the organization.

Facing them to tell them they are being moved downward isn't easy, but you owe it to your organization to give them a chance to be of value even if that chance is at a lower level than they are currently operating in. Even if you have to suck up the unpleasant task of deflating someone (many people conflate their value or personal worth with the position or title they hold at work), it's part of your responsibility as a manager to parlay the most value out of your resources over the long haul. Part of that effort is finding people jobs in which they can succeed, in overcoming their weaknesses.

I think Dombrowski's niche for Smith was a clever attempt at doing just that. He moved Smith out of the spotlight, but gave him a chance to contribute. He minimized the potential morale hit, and preserved a chance for the ex-director to be rehabilitated if he learns new skills.

Would you have the stomach to do Dave's daring deed? If you want to excel at managing, you have to try.

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