Friday, November 11, 2005

Some of the Top 10 Reasons Why
John Schuerholz' Team Keeps Kicking Axe  

In competitive endeavors, managers who can't adapt to change or who see it as an unpleasant reality they have to make alterations to face are always going to be at a disadvantage when competing with those who see it as one of the aspects of their job about as challenging as having to decide what to do about running out of coffee in the corporate break room. In all competitive endeavors, change is a given, and baseball is the lens through which you can see what happens if you don't change, what kinds of adaptations work & which ones won't.

One of the top masters of change in any endeavor is the Atlanta Braves' GM, John Schuerholz. At the GMs' annual meetings this week, I got to join an informal press conversation he held and later got to chat a little with this most successful U.S. executive. Here's the Braves record since he came on as GM in 1991 (courtesy Baseball-Reference.Com).

Year League Record Finish
2005 NL East 90-72 (.556) DIV 1
2004 NL East 96-66 (.593) DIV 1
2003 NL East 101-61 (.623) DIV 1
2002 NL East 101-59 (.631) DIV 1
2001 NL East 88-74 (.543) DIV 1
2000 NL East 95-67 (.586) DIV 1
1999 NL East 103-59 (.636) NL 1
1998 NL East 106-56 (.654) DIV 1
1997 NL East 101-61 (.623) DIV 1
1996 NL East 96-66 (.593) NL 1
1995 NL East 90-54 (.625) WS 1
1994 NL East 68-46 (.596) 2
1993 NL West 104-58 (.642) DIV 1
1992 NL West 98-64 (.605) NL 1
1991 NL West 94-68 (.580) NL 1
1990 NL West 65-97 (.401) 6

I included 1990, the year before he started being in charge, to show how quickly his front-office team helped power improvement, in this case, 29 games worth.

Moreover, there's not a single National League team against which the Braves have a losing record during his tenure. Not a single one.

Atlanta Braves 1991 - 2005

TeamIDs Games Wins  Losses  Win%     RS     RA  homeW-L   roadW-L
ARI        59    36    23  0.610    288    230    16-12     20-11
CHC       133    81    52  0.609    625    515    43-25     38-27
CIN       154    96    58  0.623    827    640    48-26     48-32
COL       116    75    41  0.647    711    551    38-19     37-22
FLA       193   110    83  0.570    884    774    64-33     46-50 
HOU       145    90    55  0.621    663    523    39-31     51-24
LAD       146    84    62  0.575    606    491    46-29     38-33
MIL        55    37    18  0.673    282    194    17-10     20-8
NYM       215   130    85  0.605    985    853    71-34     59-51
PHI       215   122    93  0.567   1058    889    64-45     58-48
PIT       136    85    51  0.625    625    458    46-22     39-29
SDP       145    95    50  0.655    681    521    48-24     47-26
SFG       145    87    57  0.604    700    568    51-23     36-34
STL       139    84    55  0.604    617    521    47-24     37-31
MON-WSN   216   133    83  0.616   1032    838    67-43     66-40
Total    2363  1431   931  0.606  11341   9236   743-436   688-495 

That's excellence -- not just the consistency to have a winning record every year, not just the consistency to win the division every full year, but the consistency to have a winning record over every single rival over the long haul. Only one franchise has been able to attain a winning record against the Braves even in their own ball park (the Fish); the Braves have a winning road record against every team but one. How frelling incomparable is that? It's a remarkable achievement and a remarkable tribute to the front office team's ability to adapt to the changing environments, opponents' strategies.

It's no wonder at all that the GMs this year decided to name an award of their own after Schuerholz.

Among his explanations and our short dialogues, it was never directed at why he was successful, but several success factors erupted from the conversation. Without suggesting these are the only reasons he's been such an extraordinary winner, I assert that his background set him up for success in several ways.

Success Factor #1 -- Schuerholz had a diverse set of experiences and jobs before he entered baseball
"I held a ton of different jobs," he said. He was an 8th grade school teacher, a counselor at a Boys Reformatory, he worked on the floor in steel mills and was a shoe salesman. He learned to adapt, deal with many different kinds of co-workers and bosses and customers/stakeholders, and work to changing rhythms.

Success Factor #2 -- Schuerholz gathered knowledge of methods in all his work
"I learned from every job I ever had," he said. Schuerholz did not say the following, I'm telling you what I believe right here: the kinds of jobs he did gave him tools he was able to apply.

A shoe salesman learns that every customer is going to take a different shoe, a different size. While the guidelines for customer satisfaction stay the same, the conditions for success change with every new customer. One size doesn't fit all, just as no single approach to winning baseball can succeed in 1991, 1995, 2001 and 2005. Changes in what constitutes optimal roster-building, changes in personnel, changes in ownership and finances never phased the Braves' winning ways.

An 8th grade school teacher learns that education is paramount but that the learners come in many kinds, with different foundations of knowledge and coachability, different personalities, different motivations, and day to day changes in how well every individual's hormonal chaos will permit her or him to focus & learn. And, as one reporter suggested to the GM, that experience equipped him perfectly to deal with John Rocker.

A steel mill hand learns to read the patterns in the equipment and the product, using all senses to acquire the knowledge of how fast to pull wire, what metal at the right color and smell and viscosity is ready for the next twist or pull or cooling. It's hard dangerous physical work, but there's a strong mental and sensory component, too, that requires intuition, observation and quick decisions. Pattern recognition and decisiveness are two of essentials of a baseball, or any, management job.

A counselor at a reform school needs to empathize without becoming emotionally involved, needs to coddle some days and be unyielding most others. Every individual changes, like an 8th grader, every day, but in much more unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.

I can promise you that if you had to choose between an MBA without this kind of job experience, or the opposite, an aspiring manager who wants to be successful with dynamic competition is significantly better off with the background Schuerholz has.

Success Factor #3 -- Schuerholz is not a Methods Bigot
While "the" story of this year's GMs' meeting was how young and business school-y the new GMs were, and while the Bitgods railed about computers and stats and Clearasil, Schuerholz has perfect equanimity about it. He sees the young GMs' various approaches (the young GMs are not uniform in any way, except perhaps all having an appreciation for business-oriented analysis) as worthy competitors to his own front-office team's set of tools which are updating and adapting themselves every year. Of course, Schuerholz respects numerical analysis but he respects the different environment in which the young GMs cut their teeth and sees that it has advantages (and disadvantages) of its own: "There's a universe of information accessible over the Internet now. So any young person with an affinity for it can find about anything they need to do an analysis".

He realizes there are a number of ways to get to the finish line, in baseball and beyond. Any manager in any field needs to be flexible and respectful of alternative approaches -- if they're not, they're not going to able to (a) learn how their competitors' behaviors are shaped and therefore will be less able to counter or predict them, and (b) find the useful nuggets inside their competitors' approach, no matter how many or few there might be. Adapting to change requires adoption of new tools, methods and techniques in a never-ending march. It requires respecting, not dismissing, one's adversaries.

Success Factor #4 -- Schuerholz is not afraid of internal competition
From one of his early mentors, Harry Dalton, the Atlanta GM learned you should never be intimidated by ambitious or brilliant contributors who are your peers or on your staff. "He was never intimidated by talent. He was comforted by it," Schuerholz said.

In healthy organizations in all professions, that's the case. It's a pretty tiny minority of American corporations, government agencies and professional practices where that healthy setting has taken hold. It's close to zero in academic and non-profit organizations. Back-biting, zero-sum politicking, undermining "competitors" is the avocational blood sport that cripples large organizations.

Not the Braves. Schuerholz is more concerned with the organization's everyday success than he is about the possible threat from excellence internal contributors who might represent an opportunity for his employer to replace him. Excellence stands on its own terms and doesn't shrink from other excellence.

That's just as true outside baseball. In any endeavor, anyone who's gaming in ways that undermine the absolute maximum chance to win to further her own career cannot achieve extraordinary winning streaks the way Schuerholz and his front-office team have.

Excellence is consistent achievement in varying environments, and the only way to reach Home Plate in the MBB Model. John Schuerholz has crossed home plate with a lot of key runs in his career, and there's nor shortage of lessons we can learn from his approach and the record it hammers out. It's a chain of accomplishment we should all aspire to.

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