Thursday, May 19, 2005

Tony Peña: When Self-Awareness
Trumps Ambition -- Part I  

Tony Peña resigned as manager of the Kansas City Royals last week, early into his third year. There are superb management lessons for non-baseball managers in the event. Tony Pena

In his rookie season as a manager, 2003, he used some clever techniques and environmental advantages to skipper his low-payroll, small developed-talent base crew to a surprise start, a surprise finish and the A.L. Manager of the Year award, which I wrote about here. Last year, with the same roster formula, the 2004 team underperformed to about the same degree Peña's dogged optimism and unrestrained aggression had helped them to overperform in their 2003 campaign. Last year's perfromance, already poor, was eroded by personnel moves, including the trade of the team's best player, Carlos Beltrán. This year, they are already in the tank, with a virtual lock on last place in a division that is not the most high-accomplishment one.

He was always one of my favorite players on the field, an innovator who also clearly was having fun, and now it turns out that, in the toughest of times, he's a bit of an original as a manager, too.

Very few managers ever get to Third Base in the MBB Model: Self-Awareness. As I've written before, a lack of self-awareness can lead to damaging limitations, distortions in decision-making processes and decisions themselves. And because humans' motivations are frequently invisible to them. To realize either you are not producing success through your management anymore, or that you're not having fun enough to continue with the passion required to be effective.

Peña knew. According to this Murray Chass story in the New York Times:

Peña resigned as their manager after another loss last Tuesday night.

"It was his decision," General Manager Allard Baird said. "We were talking after the game, as we do after maybe 80 percent of the games on the road. We started talking about some of our players and then he told me. I was surprised, to say the least. But I understood where he was coming from. For a couple days before that, he was beat up.

"This is a tough gig. When you're going through this process, it's not easy. Losing is losing, young kids or not. We talked through a lot of things, and at the end it was the right thing for Tony and for the organization."<SNIP>

Baird had been a big fan of Peña and his high-energy approach to the job, but in the end Peña himself said he had lost his energy. Efforts to reach Peña by telephone were unsuccessful, but he told The Kansas City Star the day after he resigned that he was no longer having fun.

Managers in baseball and beyond rarely, if ever, resign...they usually get carried out on their shields, fired, dumped, spitcanned, deep-sixed. But Peña went out under his own steam. A quick search for the previous instance of a manager resigning that was about team performance and not personal behaviors (gambling, lying about one's resume, anger management failures). I can't find the previous instance of a manager resigning rather than hanging on for the hubris or the paycheck.

He knew he wasn't being effective, or at least no more effective than anyone else. At 8-25, the Royals' record was unarguably bad. Certainly anyone remotely professional at the job could do that "well". And the special attributes that Peña brings to the table, optimism and unrestrained passion/élan clearly weren't doing anything to make this denuded of established talent team significantly better. So why stay? Why not do something else where perhaps he could make a difference?

Further, he wasn't having fun. Very few high-performing managers are high-performers when they're not juiced by what they do. They can be adequate, perhaps even pretty good, but it's a very rare manager who can achieve outstanding results while being more frustrated+bored than in the zone. To know yourself well enough to know the environment is not going to suddenly develop attributes you can grab on to and ride to the fun zone is pretty fine.

It's an important element of self-awareness to not be so hyperfocused on the quotidian Brownian motion of one's work and job that the essence of why one's there, to make a positive difference, disappears under a hillock of not-important+urgent plaque.

Few managers have the courage to resign when no one is asking them to or pressuring them to do so. When appropriate, it helps the high-performer continue to perform well, preserving her self-image. And it helps the organization or (as in the Royals' case where no one is going to turn this team into a wild-card contender this season) at least doesn't hurt them.

Doing just that, pulling a Peña, being loyal to yourself and to those who cut your paycheck even though it can have a short-term economic cost, is one of the marks of a manager who's successful at reaching Third Base in the MBB Model.

There's another lesson in Peña's move, something every single manager should absolutely know and act upon, but few acknowledge. That's the Law of Problem Evolution and I'll talk about it in my next entry.

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