Friday, July 01, 2005

Rick Peterson's Management by Baseball
Lesson #1 - Coaching IS Learning  

"All great teachers are great students"
-- Rick Peterson, NY Mets pitching coach

Most people think that coaching and mentoring in non-baseball organizations is about people management (Second Base in the MBB Model). In reality, it's a lot more about the other three bases.

To get the most value out of the staff you have, you have to reshape job descriptions and tasks to match the aptitudes of the talent you have on your staff, real First Base skills. Where you don't have the skills in place, you have to grow them, picking staffers to expand into those areas based on their available time and existing aptitudes. There are almost no cases where you can escape coaching or training or mentoring and are getting the most out of your team.

But here's the secret: These are all amazingly fecund opportunities for learning as well. As Angus' Twelfth Law states: "Everyone knows some things you don't. Inevitably, a few of those things will be both worth knowing and applicable later".

As the New York Mets highly-successful pitching coach Rick Peterson said recently, "All great teachers are great students". Peterson, as I've mentioned before, infuses knowledge throughout every level of the organization he works with, creating a common set of customized tools to further the craft of the pitching and catching talent, a common set of tools with which to view and dissect the craft.

When the Mets acquired Pedro Martínez, (in my opinion the premier pitcher of his generation, and certainly the best starting pitcher so far this season) Peterson sought him out and tried to acquire lessons from him right away. That part is pretty obvious: Martínez is not only a monster talent, but appears to have a monster ego, too (few humble 'aww shucks' guys seem to make successful major league starters). No matter how great Peterson's standing as a coach, this particular pitcher is coming into a new organization after feeling bruised by his previous one & taking on as his home city one that has shown him a truckload of derision and hostility. The coach coming to the pitcher as a peer and offering to learn and discuss opens up a positive communication channel, stripped of most emotional baggage. Sure, any great teacher can be a great student when his student is such a master of the arts. When the time comes for the teaching to flow the other way though, the pipeline is already open, the dialogue engaged.

Too often in management practice beyond baseball, the manager is afraid to put himself in a learning rôle, but if he does, he's missing out and probably losing much his own chance to grow. One of the best ways to learn about the staffer's learning style and the knowledge and skills she brings to the mix is to try to get her to teach you something. You can ask in a straightforward, not submissive but interested way -- if the new staffer is capable of healthy behavior, you'll benefit every time (and if the new staffer isn't capable of healthy behavior, why are you still cutting that staffer a paycheck?).

Peterson and the Mets have a rigorous, organization-wide system of methods and techniques based on a deep toolbox but with most tools customized to individuals' aptitudes. But it's not static, rigid and therefore brittle. When the Mets bring up or acquire a new pitcher and Peterson starts working with him, he strives to integrate the pitcher into the team's "learning environment", a place where everyone gets to learn and the coach gets to learn from the students, too. The knowledge he acquires is something he may use only to help that individual, but more importantly, he may use it tweak the overall organizational plan to everyone's benefit. On the surface, Peterson's learning environment will appear to some casual observers as a Second Base method as I mentioned earlier, that is, learning about an individual to manage her better or making the staffer feel like part of the group so as to integrate him better. And it certainly leads to those immediate benefits in most cases.

But every bit of knowledge we acquire, whether from the butt-crack idiot savant who maintains the computer network or the woman who sorts the mail in the mail-room is something that can add immediate perspective or be something we can draw on later as part of an overall tack. And by opening yourself up to these kinds of non-traditional information, you have a chance to find out something about yourself and the intellectual or emotional baggage you limit yourself with, that is, the Third Base skill set.

It sounds funny to admit, but the greatest workplace epiphany I ever had about one of my own self-imposed limitations was from a 16-year old U.S. Senate summer intern, one of a group of them I was managing. Because she was an adolescent, was intelligent but inexperienced in the organizational pressure cooker, she hadn't had her observational skill plaqued over with "shoulds" and "can'ts". She just came right out and mentioned to me that I would always be disappointed in my life because I always set myself reasonable ambitions (because when you fail to reach your reasonable ambitions, you feel cheated or perhaps a failure, but if your ambitions are shoot-the-moon, it's easier to take not achieving them in stride because you know they were aiming very high). My Calvinist way of doing things was just programmed, invisible to me, and I couldn't change it until she made it visible. And leaving that behind has been incredibly valuable to me personally and moreso in my management.

If you are open to getting knowledge or insight from the lowliest line worker, you'll be plenty open to getting it from everyone else. It doesn't have to be a Pedro Martínez. Just the fact that he or she is are an outsider and not yet used to your approach gives that newcomer an outside perspective that might reward you.

Finally, the strategic benefit of the Rick Peterson learning environment is at Home Plate in the MBB Model -- Change, and this is completely critical in a competitive field. Because as you accumulate individuals' insights, learn the tools and techniques they have been taught previously or just synthesized themselves, no matter how productive or even award-winning your own systems are, there's a decent chance you can add to or tune your systems.

Every tool in your toolbox is something you might use later. It means your system is evolving. Once your competitors have decoded what you do (and trust me, if you're successful, some will to at least a surface degree), they will start imitating or replicating some of the management DNA from you. If you're a learning organization, you are in constant prevolution and that means what they are imitating is what you did last year while you have moved on and aren't doing that any more. Eighty-five percent of large organizations are incapable of change, and even the 10% that are capable of decoding and replicating in a useful way others' changes are going to have a hard time competing with you if you manage change effectively. There's no bigger competitive advantage than that.

So the approach Rick Peterson and his associates have diffused through the New York Mets' organization touches all the bases like an invigorating game-winning home run. And please note what the learning environment has done for Martínez -- perhaps his second best season ever, and this after many teams considering his free agency were concerned he might be used up. Look at his month-by-month consistency:

Split   W L ERA GS   IP   H R   HR HBP BB K
Home   4 1 2.67 9   64.0   41 20   5 0 15 63
Away   5 1 2.82 7   51.0   31 16   4 1 7 60
Apr   2 1 2.75 5   36.0   18 11   1 0 6 46
May   3 0 2.83 5   35.0   21 12   4 1 6 37
June   4 1 2.66 6   44.0   33 13   4 0 10 40

Not just excellence, but with a consistency that's remarkable -- not that he hasn't had four weaker results spread out over the 16 -- just that the rolling average is very smooth, and he's more than just cashing in on the advantages pitchers have in the Mets' pitcher-friendly home stadium.

While the organization's biggest overall gains from a learning environment usually come from elevating average performers (¿because how much room does someone like Pedro's game have to elevate?), it stands to ratchet up everybody's game.

What do you have to change in yourself to make a Rick Peterson style learning environment happen in your group? And what external barriers are you going to start removing or eroding today?

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