Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Purpura Reign: Houston Astros'
Revelation for New Managers  

Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It's time we all reach out for something new
That means you, too -- Prince Fielder

Someone who gets a promotion to manage a group she's been part of is in a tough position, but one that affords lots of chances for actions that can deliver quick, visible returns. Sometimes the returns are tangible, sometimes they are more in the realm of morale and staff attitude.

The new (since November) G.M. of the Houston Astros, Tim Purpura, was assistant to the former G.M., Gerry Hunsicker. Whenever you take over a group you've been working in, you have special advantages (you've been inside, you should know what seems to be working and where improvements you can make will help, you know staff and some of their abilities and limitations), as well as special disadvantages (others may be jealous you got the promotion instead of them, people tend to see you as a peer not a boss and for some people that will make your supervisory actions discomforting).

Further, Hunsicker had one of the more successful records among standing MLB general managers, running a medium-budget franchise that scored more than its share of playoffs. That's good for the franchise, but it deprives the new manager of an obvious opportunity to "turn things around". The Astros didn't need turning around, ergo any changes the new manager launches will be viewed with skepticism by some, trepidation by most.

But even organizations that don't need turning around, heck...even the best ones, have plenty of opportunities for non-radical tweaks and process revamping.

So what did Purpura do? According to a story from the Houston Chronicle earlier this week, he did a few things. One, a great idea, I'm going to touch on only lightly here: He made a point of integrating had been an essentially all-"white" front office, hiring a couple of skilled individuals who were not "white". It's not clear that Hunsicker had been the barrier to this before he left, and I suspect he wasn't. It's one of those things most active managers without a mandate to do will let slide in favor of things upper management cares more about. It had been on Purpura's mind for a long time. According to the story,

Purpura understood the Astros needed diversity, but not just for diversity's sake.

{SNIP}The first call Purpura made was to (now assistant GM Ricky) Bennett, a longtime acquaintance on the scouting and player-development circuit that Purpura used to travel. Bennett, an African-American, was respected by everyone Purpura knew. {SNIP} Bennett was at the top of Purpura's "someday" list. Someday, when he was GM, Purpura would cull from this list baseball executives who could help him build a championship club. He kept the list for years as Hunsicker's righthand man. Once promoted, Purpura brought in the likes of Cabell and special assistant Al Pedrique, both minorities, from his list.

I touch this only in passing because not all managers (beyond those in government) are afforded the chance to hire "minorities" or women. In most large organizations not required by law to integrate staff hiring this is a costly first move, and pretty much would use up all the "magic bullets" a new manager has set aside for her. That doesn't mean new managers shouldn't diversify the kinds of people they hire or get their junior managers to hire...it only strengthens an organization to have different life experiences and points of view. I'm just acknowledging a large-organization manager who chooses to do this as an early initiative will too often pay a terrible price in being positioned as a troublemaker by back-stabbing bigots, of which there are no shortage in most large organizations' power centers.

It's the other thing the article mentions that's also positive but far easier to do. According to the author:

As much as Purpura realizes it will be his signature on every move the Astros make now that he has taken over for Gerry Hunsicker, his priority has been to expand participation by everyone in baseball operations.

He meets often with staff and starts every day listening to voice-mail messages from all of the Astros' minor-league affiliates, whose managers Purpura instructed to check in with thoughts and updates.

Purpura ordered the wall between the booths taken out so the majority of the baseball staff could sit together at games, also sharing observations and ideas. Hunsicker, who relied on his instincts with much success, often sat by himself or with club president Tal Smith at games.

During a game in this past weekend's Reds series, which the Astros swept with Sunday's 5-2 victory, to visit the large suite was to see bustling energy personified.

There was Purpura, cheering and encouraging the club while sitting between Smith and director of baseball operations David Gottfried. Nearby were new assistant GM Ricky Bennett, special assistant Enos Cabell and scouting coordinator Fred Nelson. At various times during the weekend, the entire staff came together at the suite.

"I just want to have everyone around," Purpura said. "I just feel everyone in this group adds something important. I want to hear what they have to say."

In your own new gig, you can "tear down the walls" that restrict the flow of ideas, both directly and symbolically encourage people to bring their ideas to you regardless of their rĂ´le in the hierarchy, encourage cross-pollination of ideas and initiatives. There are very few organizational development designs that are more likely to produce solid results than this, especially in one where you inherit a healthy shop that's basically successful.

And when you don't just do it but you talk it up as well, it leavens the effect, bringing borderline introverts into the mix.

Try it as the new manager:

  • Diminish departmental barriers,
  • Encourage people to share their ideas with you and each other,
  • Make symbolic, visible changes, and (mandatory...)
  • Initiate actions related to important issues based on the fruits of this synthesis.

Channel Tim Purpura, strengthen even a good, successful group with more diversity of types of people and types of ideas. You might earn even more hits than the Gerry Hunsicker formerly-known as G.M.

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