Saturday, December 10, 2005

Part III: Management Lessons from Terry Ryan:
Humility, Stability & Personality  

The constellation of traits that distinguish the Ryan Regime are not exactly absent in other baseball (or non-baseball) organizations. But within baseball, I believe the Ryan constellation is unique as a core foundation. General Manager Terry Ryan's front office leads with three stances which form a core foundation for action: Humility, Stability/Patience, and appreciation for Personality as a selection trait. Like their fellow-Minnesotans, the fictional residents of Lake Wobegon, the Twins' front office is unflashy in word and deed, assuming as much decency as is decently possible, and judging people by their character. This constellation of traits is all connected, annealed together. I'm just going to give you a continuous piece of the transcript and then my elaboration after.

So you care about how the prospects take coaching…is that an explicit concern?
Oh, it's a piece of it. Coachability, off-field habits, work ethic, adjustability….

So given that you have this focus, does this mean that when you're looking for scouts, you're seeking certain kinds of scouts who are good at…
Yes, we spend a good amount of time in our interview process w/a prospective scout. He's got to have a certain mentality as well. Most of it goes to their work ethic and the ability to go the extra mile. In scouting that's appropriate. It takes about 5 years for an area scout to become a good scout. So once you get 'em…it's quite a development process for that scout to get to know the territory & contacts and get a little flavor the places and times, finding the people who are willing to go out of their way to help you out. There's a certain transition for a new scout into a territory. And if you don't have friends in scouting, you're going to be in tough shape. You gotta have a personality that's not arrogant, that people will want to lend a helping hand. Covering 6, 7, 8 states is a tough little racket. You need those mentors. {SNIP}

A couple of years ago, another organization said they wanted to do things the way the Twins do. Do you think anyone else can do that?
Sure. I've been told many times over the last few years and it's very flattering, that people would like to pattern their approach after the Twins.
    Part of that is stability. Same owner, same GM, same farm director, same scouting director we've had for the past 10- 12 years.

So you have no overhead in adjusting to each other.
Occasionally we get someone new, but they adjust to us, we don't have to adjust to them. When you get a new GM, you're probably going to have a new scouting director, a new farm director, and that's a pretty big turnover. If you're going to do it the way we do things, you're probably going to have a lot of continuity and stability at the top. You don't have to guess what others are thinking about, you don't have to justify what you're doing, don't have to worry about people micro-managing and second-guessing. There's a lot of trust and loyalty in our organization. We don't always make the right decision but we're also accountable enough to say "we screwed up" and let's go on and not let it happen again. I've always given our staff…our minor league managers or scouts, we've always given them a lot of responsibility. They're running a club or running a territory, and you're going to have your year evaluated and your results. For a minor league manager we have certain criteria that are important: develop and win, keep your players healthy, no off-field problems, follow the rules, we want a good clean product on the field, we expect you to take infield and batting practice when possible.

Ron Fairly once said to me the reason the Twins are so good is that they're constantly getting really good A and AA players. Whenever they do a deal, they get these young players…
We've been lucky. We've had some turn out so it looks like we know what we're doing. We've been quite lucky. Our scouts have identified players who have turned out. There's an art to that. We've been fortunate that way…some of it has been luck and some of it has been skill.

Has part of that success been coaching, too?
I don't know, I wouldn't say that. If they had stayed in their organization, they would have turned out well, too. Because many of the things I identified early in this conversation (coachability, work ethic), those guys came to us WITH those traits. All we did is maintain their progress.

Humility comes in various forms. There's personal humility.

Ryan is not at all an "I" guy. He is the consummate "we" guy, making it very clear his front office team is a team that he is part of. He dresses and presents himself with a lot of humble gestures. It may be that this is his way and that it disguises that he holds all the important chips but likes sharing credit, and if that's the case, I suspect when things go wrong, he takes all the flak. This is a double-standard that works a bit like the Ray Miller Indirect Percussion technique I wrote about earlier this year (share all credit, take all blame), a little different from the Sparky Anderson technique (share all credit which naturally deflects blame, too).

There's organizational humility. He doesn't claim the Twins made players they acquired from other organizations (like Johan Santana, the AL's best pitcher over the last two seasons) the talents they are today. He suggests, for example, "If they had stayed in their organization, they would have turned out well, too". This works to buffer resentment. Instead of doing the football lineman sack dance over the Houston Astros' or Florida Marlins' front offices (neener, neener, neener, we got Santana you dolts and you don't) or self-aggrandizing over their superior abilities.

There's also intellectual humility. He works very hard to make this look ordinary. That, of course, is a competitive edge...competitors in any endeavor figure anything easy must not be a very important differentiator (bass-ackwards of course, but the erroneous mental algebra is that if it was important and easy both, everyone could/would do it and since they're not doing it and it's easy it, therefore, must not be important. Goofy but widespread thinking. As long as Ryan and his team make this seem like luck or just simple stuff, others won't feel like they're being outfoxed (which is not an incentive to deal with the fox again). And the managers know that they can make mistakes...by acting and being humble, they never get too comfortable with problem --> solution automation, continuing to practice self-examination, continuing to see if their decisions are working. A furthe side-benefit: this knowing-you-can-make-a-mistake diminishes (not eliminates) the office politics of assigning blame -- everyone knows that mistakes will happen and it defuses a lot of the harsher toxicity of office blame.

Stability requires patience. The Twins under Ryan had five losing years, all pretty bad. Ownership didn't carry out any purges or even moderately big turnovers. The owner let this team of people persist, patiently at their craft, applying their theories while the products of the approach bubbled up through the system. The Dodger owners weren't able to do this, in part because the Los Angeles market is very un-Lake Wobegon, but also because of their own impatience. This is very expensive, and encourages more turnover in the future. I call the syndrome Re-Org Addiction. Executives launch re-orgs and declare these are solutions. Everyone below jockeys for political advantage. The ones best at politics get the most advantages. They compaign for re-orgs (punctuated equilibria which disproportionately reward them politically), and this, in turn proliferates more re-orgs which further punish real work and reward politics. A frelling waste of energy and talent as a substitute for getting some actual work done.

Ryan says the whole operation has had this 10- to 12 year run of stable key folk. This lowers overhead, as anyone who has ever worked in a healthy small business. Operational overhead shrivels becaus people learn what others' strengths are, learn to trust and leave people alone to do their jobs. Once it becomes apparent that chronic office politics and effort invested in other overhead activities gets no organizational reward, people look for alternatives (like real work) with which to win brownie points.

But let me restate patience is a mandatory prerequisitive. Look at the way the Twins purged their reliever J.C. Romero. He's been seen as a disappointment since 2003. He had a blow-up this season with his pitching coach and manager over a decision to take him out of a game. But when they traded Romero to the Angels this week and Romero sounded off about his feelings (story courtesy of Baseball Primer), Twins personnel quoted disgareed with his take without being disagreeable about it. They rode his talent for a couple of years, and might have worked with him longer, but when he no longer expressed drive to improve in Minnesota, they moved him. I'm sure there are some Twins fans who wished Romero would have been sent packing earlier, but I'll argue Ryan's team are as good at evaluating talent as any front office. They took the patient approach.

I'm not convinced that stability within a competitive environment is a sure winner. In the Twins' case, it's part of a constellation of behaviors, and because it's such a rarity within the business, it becomes a competitive advantage.

Any large organization is going to have a range of personalities, and the Twins do, too. But they do select individuals (from players to scouts and elsewhere) based on personality traits. They get fewer time-bombs. Very Lake Wobegon. Ryan talks about "work ethic" and "going the extra mile". He talks about taking enough time with prospective hires to assess that, their ability to work with mentors, to make friends.

They care about personality, and they act on it pretty consistently. Clearly, they're not the only baseball organization that cares (Ken Williams and Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox enforce a social contract in Chicago, for example), but this is a reinforcing trait in the Twins constellation.

If you only care about character, you're hosed. If you only draft character guys, you're likely to miss out on talent. But if you are a good judge of talent, and you bias your decisions on that while others let it slide, you can eke out a competitive advantage, especially if this approach isn't being pursued by a lot of teams. Beyond baseball, the Ryan Regime approach can be made to work outside of a publically-owned operation. The participants need to relentlessly root out and strip out office politics and office politicians, understand that they are at risk for "time passing them by". In a publically-owned operation, it's more like the situation the McCourts are in -- the overwhelming need to show progress-of-the-nanosecond makes decisions with four- to six year timelines hellaciously challenging to stick to, and the whingeing of the Lasordas all publically-owned companies are filled with are a siren song that lead the individuals with the power to make strategic decisions to re-org instead of make choices based on enduring benefit/cost.

I don't think the Ryan Regime approach is easy, and it's not one I could counsel many to try, but it is very viable. The Twins' five consecutive years of winning baseball is an indicator if that approach's viability, and to the consummate skill with which Terry Ryan and his front office team execute it.

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