Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Joe Girardi & Jeffy Loria: When Being Super-Effective Isn't Enough  

The Florida Marlins, with the 30th highest payroll of the 30 MLB teams, came into the season with the consensus of experts not named Don Malcolm expecting them to lose about 100 games. As I've mentioned previously, that's not going to happen; they're not even going to lose 88 games. Their ambitions going into the season, that is, management's plan, were to build a young team for a run in X years, where X is undoubtedly higher than 0 and lower than or equal to 4. What did they achieve relative to their own objectives?

  1. They developed young players and exposed them to the bigs.
  2. They didn't reside in the cellar.
  3. As of today, with 5 games to play, they are tied with the Atlanta Braves for 3rd place (76-81).
  4. They scored roughly as many runs as they yielded.

In a normal year, you'd expect the manager of a lowest-budget team (really really low...like not just 30th, but where the spending of 30th is about half of the team that was 29th) getting that team out of the cellar and playing competitive baseball in a division that includes the National League's best team (they played over .500, 44-41, outside their division), to be talked about as a Manager of the Year (MOY) candidate. The team has been super-effective relative to what they have to work with -- whether Girardi is personally responsible or not, you have to put some of the credit on his shoulders.

Instead, Marlin rookie skipper Joe Girardi is almost certain to be fired, if you can believe this August story or that September story. This Miami Miracle is a Manager of Tears (MOT) candidate instead.

What has, apparently, toasted Girardi's fickle fish fillet is one good thing, his personal focus on team achievement rather than careerist politicking, and a bad thing, his lack of recognition that in the management team his organization has he doesn't have the final authority on all decisions that he might grab.

Each of these two is a common career-limiting move beyond baseball, though like acromegaly & achondroplasia it's very unusual that they appear together in the same individual. Because usually control-freaks who consistently exceed the span of control borders defined for them are incompetents. And while Girardi has critics of his tactical and pitcher-use pattern management, he is not incompetent at his craft. 

Here's a little background.

In spring training, the front office wanted Girardi to test a couple of pitchers (Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson)  in starting roles and Girardi wanted to use them as middle relievers. Translation: Girardi either had less faith in the pitchers or wanted to follow a classic baseball (and should be everywhere) staff application technique of starting in low-risk, confidence-building assignments and then working up the pressure scale. Girardi not only kept them in middle relief, but he (allegedly, according to leaks) "belittled" the suggestions, actually dissing his management-teammates.

During the August 6th game, team owner Jeffrey Loria (who had personally recruited Girardi) was sitting behind home plate heckling the plate ump over a close call that Girardi had chosen not to make a big issue of. After the taunting continued past what Girardi thought helpful, he went over to the owner and told him to zip it. Good idea because you don't want to unnecessarily anger an ump who could have a lot of chances to hurt you during a season. Fair response because it was in-game, and within the manager's tacit job responsibilities. Terrible idea because Loria is the big bos and because he's a very vindictive and manipulative type of executive. Girardi did not have the excuse that he didn't know -- Loria is well-known in and out of baseball for his personal and business behavior (he was sued by fellow-shareholders under the RICO statute...a set of laws meant to control business behaviors the Mafia used). Loria is also very successful at making money, getting his way and, and this is critical, getting winning results when it's his objective (which it isn't always). A borderline Theory XYY type boss who tends to appreciate subservience more than results.

The only thing worse than openly defying a boss like that is to do it publicly, and you pretty much can't do it more publicly than in front of 14,182 attendees and some television viewers.

Girardi is apparently striving to maximize his decision-making authority; he's not doing the usual co-behavior of sluffing responsibility. In fact he seems like an accountability-embracer. He's trying to carve out room to maneuver. 

It's important to remember he's a rookie manager. New managers only have a few weeks, a month at the most, to set the tone they will carry for their stint with an organization, and the tendency is that any authority you surrender early is authority you won't get back. In a truly healthy organization, it's possible, but while Loria's organizations have been good at earning profits and a World Series trophy, to an outsider, they look pretty unhealthy as working environments. Further, you need a balance in this, a balance between carving out elbow room and battering everyone within arms reach like a psycho basketball player. You have to establish yourself, but not shed so much blood doing it you can't hang around to exercise your autonomy.

I find it very surprising Girardi has erred in managing up for two reasons.

First, he played under (and was groomed as manager by) Joe Torre, the world's great expert on managing a totally XYY boss and (remarkably) winning consistently while doing it (worst record in 11 years in that slot is 87-74). How could he not at least adsorb a little of Torre's approach? Or perhaps he decided he didn't want to be treated he way Torre is and set himself up to disabuse his boss of any notion he was open to being abused.

Second, Girardi was a catcher for Lombardi's sake. In the personal choreography of leading without torching one's collaborators, how could Girardi not have mastered that skill. As a catcher, you can't go out to the mound very often and just read the pitcher the riot act -- you might do that once in a while, but overall, it's about cajoling, shaping and occasionally accepting the pitcher is gonna throw what he wants no matter what).

I have to admit that as a young manager, I made choices like Girardi's, and I'm not past it now in situations where I believe the alternatives are doomed to failure. Given that the expectations for the Marlins were very low this year, Girardi could have taken the lazy manager's path and just tried to please the boss and his peer-managers. I'm awed by Girardi's determination. In general, though, these CLMs (career-limiting moves) are things to avoid.

In the corporate world, where much of what goes on is hidden behind legal departments and communications departments, a Girardi would probably get another job easily. In baseball, where all of this is hanging out in the open and there's ink to print all the leaked rumors and organizational jockeying, and where the offended owner is really special buddies with the Commissioner, this may be Girardi's only chance.

If you have a Girardi working for you, I counsel you to balance what that manager provides vs. the extra work and suffering of managing the contributor is. Many high-performers are much more effort than mediocrities are so extra work comes with the collaboration, but, of course, better results come through that, too. If the contributor is smart and good, she can learn from her mistakes. If he's smart but not good, and doesn't learn from his work-content mistakes, he's probably more trouble than he's worth.

You can take tolerance too far...an staff overpopulated with difficult high-performing people is like the 1979 Texas Rangers...likely to be good but not good enough.

Do you have any Girardis in your organization? How would you have management handle them?

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