Sunday, September 17, 2006

Even the Kansas City Royals Are Smarter...  

"A C-/D+ baseball field manager or GM is a significantly more capable manager
than 80% of the CEOs Fortune 500 companies." - Angus' Fifth Law.

One of the areas where baseball kicks the axe of every other North American institution is developing and offering opportunities to young talent.

Baseball is SO much better than other organizations that even baseball's very worst organization, the Kansas City Royals, have shown better acuity in this career development practice than almost any endeavor outside of baseball. The Royals acquired infielder Esteban German from the Texas Rangers over the off-season, and while he's not a household name, and while they didn't really have a spot for him, he's produced very well for the American League's Designated Doormat. In contrast, most contemporary organizations neither maintain a pipeline of second stringers or minor prospects to step in when needed, nor do they pay close enough attention to discover if any of those back-ups might be top talent.

As summarized in a piece by the Kansas City Star's Joe Posnanski, the Royals had him on the roster and while he wasn't a part of their Plan A, when he caught fire, they figured out a way to give him a lot of different small opportunities.

German came to Kansas City. He was listed at 5 feet 9. I’m listed at 5 feet 9, too. I’m pretty sure I’m taller than German. He came to town with the reputation of being fast — a base stealer — but he hardly had a sprinter’s body. Old time sportswriters would call him a “fireplug.” But in his first start, he got three hits at Yankee Stadium. His next 10 games, he hit an even .500.

Here was the weird thing: The Royals could not find a place to play him. He was hitting .400 in mid-May, but when they put him in center field, he got hit in the face with a fly ball. When they put him at third base, he seemed frightened by hard-hit balls. They had a team already loaded with big, slow designated hitter types. And they couldn’t put him at second base, because they had Mark Grudzielanek, who was steady as they come and was also getting paid quite a bit of money.

The worst team in baseball got a terrific-looking young hitter and couldn’t play him. That pretty much sums up the Royals, doesn’t it?

All year long, the Royals have used German as a utility player, a pinch hitter, a late-inning replacement. And all year long, he has hit. He’s hitting .336 now, he has a .427 on-base percentage — both of those stats place him in the top 10 in baseball for hitters with 250 or more plate appearances. In limited time, he has four triples and he has stolen seven of eight bases, and he leads the team in sacrifice hits, and so on.

About a week ago, the Royals announced that Mark Teahen would miss the rest of the season. And Little Papi would be in the lineup.

And he hit. And hit. And hit some more. He mashed a homer against the Yankees. He hit two doubles in a game at Fenway Park. He had a Little Papi Cycle in Cleveland — single, double and triple.

The Royals have found a way to get German about 260 plate appearances so far, over twice as many as he'd had in the first four seasons he'd been able to get to the bigs, by using him at four different field positions. And he has been terrific in the selected applications to which they've set him; his on-base percentage has been no lower than .405 since the end of April. As the Royals are trying to rebuild themselves for the future, Esteban German may end up being more important than a utility cog.

In baseball, this kind of process is intrinsic, unquestioned. Even the Royals, an organization owned by Wal-Mart scions and operated at the top with the same staff-as-commodity cognate, the front office and the below-average field manager gracefully eased the young prospect into as much playing time as they thought he could succeed at. 

I have said before that "A C-/D+ baseball field manager or GM is a significantly more capable manager than 80% of the CEOs Fortune 500 companies." 

In endeavors where The Talent IS The Product, it's vital both to have understudies and to be grooming them for future success: chronically monitoring them for patterns of strength and weakness, continuously training them to succeed at more aspects of their work, constantly thinking of how to apply their talents for mutual advantage.

One of my entrepreneurial clients, a data publisher, is good at this. They have had a young man I'll call Esteban working for them off and on for about five years. He's a high-school dropout, very bright, not a lot of experience in the high-tech world, but management has moved him around through various departments and tasks in the organization, and his raw smarts and determination have made him valuable in every nook and cranny they've deployed him to.

When their highly-qualified-on-paper production manager failed fatally earlier this year, they pushed him out. And they have given Esteban a chance to succeed in the position. They are taking a chance with him -- he still is short a few essential skills he needs to acquire to be able to succeed. But they are investing in both formal and informal skill-building sessions so he has the best chance to succeed. 

There are elements of altruism in the move, but in the end, the organization stands to win at least as much as Esteban, in loyalty and in capturing his intelligence and energy.

Bigger organizations, even with their generally greater overall margin to make mistakes, are less inclined to try. Too many of them, even ones with no option but to practice The Talent Is The Product, stick too long with losing incumbents or fail to groom internal talent for promotion. Grooming is not just giving a position to young talent, but to provide mentoring and training, too. 

In 2004, I did work both for a government agency and a national consulting firm that put ambitious, but very inexperienced, people in managerial positions and unintentionally set them up for failure. 

The agency gave the position to the ambitious woman, but her supervisor's belief that a manager's skill made little difference in departmental outcomes meant she didn't get any training, and the supe's office door was essentially closed to her. The supe was a hard case...refused to even allow data-gathering that might have proved or disproved her assumption. The new manager was torched by a mixture of her own rookie mistakes and by the subversion of staffers who saw her as vulnerable. 

The consulting firm had hung onto a failing leader of a high-profile, important group for such a long time they'd lost all the talent on the team who might have replaced him -- they left, choosing to work on other, healthier groups or for other companies. The people who stayed around were those who were unplugged enough from the work they didn't much care whether it was great or even adequate or those who couldn't tell the difference. The consulting firm had no candidates for internal promotion and brought in a recent graduate from a prestigious grad program and let him loose on the team. They expected him to be equipped with everything he needed, they never tested him first, or let him work on small projects before he got to the big one. He was a mess, he screwed up in major ways, the firm lost the chance to bid on a next, very lucrative stage on the client's project. He was a very expensive result of bad management practice, a failure to recognize that when the Talent Is The Product, every personnel decision is a critical one.

The dual trends for large organizations for the last 15 years, both aimed at reducing requirements for skilled staff, are inappropriate automation and offshoring of staff positions. They path to increasing financial success in these shops has been to think of The Talent as overhead, not a way to achieve success. Much of the automation has taken the place of apprenticeship work or entire positions. And when the organization needs someone to step in a contribute, the organization struggles to find someone with actual line experience. The same cognate, the idea that staff is, or should be, disposable, makes executives resist investing in training or mentoring. It's an almost certain way to fail.

Even the Royals know better.

Who are you grooming right now? How could you do better?

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