Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Part II: Management Lessons from Terry Ryan:
Second Base Strengths  

Discussion at MLB Center Forums

In Part I, I described a little of the Minnesota Twins' teams that G.M. Terry Ryan and his front office team have developed. In this part, I'm going to share some of what Ryan told me about his background and I'll explain what I think makes him successful at management.

His background is unusual for a successful U.S. manager. In the U.S., most successful managers bring a range of work experiences from different kinds of organizations to their successful assignments. Ryan went straight from college to baseball and has worked only in the one industry.

Did you have some management experience outside of baseball before you got into baseball management? Ryan: No, actually. My first job out of college was as a scout with the Mets. That was all concerned about myself at the time. I was fortunate that the Twins brought me up to the Twin Cities to be a scouting director. That's the first time that I had to manage people. And that was a chore - very much a transition because I'd never had to worry about anyone's schedule but my own. All of a sudden I've got to be worried about other people's schedules, other people's results. <pause>

And you still are, though, right? I am more so now as a general manager. Now I'm overseeing almost every area, almost every area of operation.

So you didn't like it much but you got good at it... I'm not saying I didn't like it. It was a huge transition, because you're worried about making sure that there are 25 guys doing what they're supposed to for the good of the organization. Everybody's on a different agenda…you know that. Everyone has specific strengths and certain weaknesses but it takes all sorts to bring an organization together, and as you go though your relationships with these people you get to know exactly where you are, what you need to do to get the most out of them. Some people you gotta prod, some people you gotta push, some people you gotta beg, some people you can let go on their own and do their thing. It took me a long time to get a grasp on the 25 different personalities and who you should do what with. Fortunately, I knew a lot of them because I'd played in the Twins organization before I worked with the Mets and came back. So I had a prior relationship with many of the staff, I wasn't coming in cold by any stretch (of the imagination).

Note, his talk about the work is very much concerned with the people, not the mechanics. His focus is on Second Base in the Management by Baseball Model, people management. It's not that he and his front office team are not successful at the prerequisite First Base skills (the mechanics of operational management), but he sees the team's success as a result of their efforts in the Second Base skill set. The topics he hits on, blending aptitudes, customizing management techniques to match the personalities, even his mention of knowing his workmates from his previous Twins experience is an indication of his focus on people and the people-management aspects of the work.

One problem organizations outside baseball have is sustaining success or excellence. You've been running one of the few organizations that's done a successful of of it over a four or five year run. Did someone teach you or did you teach yourself how to think about how to make the next year successful? It's nice of you to say that…we're not there yet. We all (baseball GMs) think two, three, four years out in advance, and I do as well. But there are decisions that you make for the day, decisions for the month, decisions for the year and decisions for two-three years down the road. The depth chart changes so drastically over the course of a month, not just over a year. That depth chart is good for planning, it's good for me to take into ownership and say here's who we have at each position. It's just a diagram for me.

What other tools do you use? Like everybody, we rely so much on our farm department and our scouting. They're the ones who ultimately make us successful and sustain any success because we get a constant flow. And that's true of the Twins particularly because you're not going to see us involved a whole lot in the high profile free agents. So our minor league system is probably is more important to us than some. We've made a couple of good baseball decisions that have allowed us to be somewhat successful. We've been lucky a couple of times. We've drafted well over the last 5 to 10 years, and if you do that… I think we've got a manager and a coaching staff that's quite good. We've got a field coordinator who's quite good. I think we've got a pitching coordinator that's quite good. So it goes back to people again. It's not money - I don't believe in that at all. We don't spend the kind of money some others do, but we do pick and choose where we do spend our money. We spend a heck of a lot more money in scouting than a lot do.

{snip} Do you know what your competitors spend on scouting or do you guess? What kind of competitive intelligence do you use? The draft...we spend probably more than any other organization. I'm pretty sure. Of course, I'm not saying if all things were equal (we would have spent more)…we had way more picks than our competitors (therefore more work to do on the draft). We have these sandwich picks, consequently we need to spend more. We're going to have more sandwich pick opportunities than Cleveland and certainly Detroit and Chicago, but not more than K.C.

So you count heavily on scouting. Do you try to innovate in scouting? You seem to have an approach that to a relatively ignorant outsider seems very stable. We take an approach that's not very fancy. We think in terms that goes beyond just talent and ability, but looks at make-up. We draft for make up more than some…I think. I'm not talking like we're ahead of the curve or anything, but I just believe that there's such a low percentage of players who ultimately surface at the major league level…if they're going to surface, it's a little easier to develop a player who's willing and cooperative than it is to have to battle a guy. So we try to get good quality baseball players, and not guys that are raw-skilled.

Ryan values skill and acuity over money, which is probably a healthy world view given the organization he works for. Did he start that way, or is he making lemonade? I don't know, but I don't think it matters in terms of his managerial behavior. Either way, he has a mature approach that helps the organization achieve what it needs to. I suspect if you put him in Brian Cashman's job as the Yankee G.M., he'd be uncomfortable but he'd succeed here, too (and vice-versa, by the way).

THE CRUX The consistent theme here is Terry Ryan bases the team's strategy on his own background: scouting. In part, he was selected for his scouting background; that was and is the Twins' survival mechanism. But for a manager in any kind of organization who doesn't have a broad background in various endeavors, basing one's approach on what one knows is a great foundation, as long as one realizes one has to learn the rest of the job or hire complementary talents to cover those areas, or both. Too many managers, executives especially, foolishly pretend the title gives them some sudden magickal infusion of ability in any area that falls under their authority.

Ryan didn't have a diverse set of managerial experiences, but did choose to work in an organization that based its success on his particular strength and he did use his deep background in what he was successful at as the foundation for his team's progress. That's smart adaptation.

Ryan and his front office team have a very "Midwestern" style the rest of the country sees parodied in Lake Wobegon. When applied diligently, this cultural style can be a special competitive strength, and I believe it is one of the Twins' comparative advantages. It appears as humility, stability and personality, which I'll explain in Part III.

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