Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Toronto Blue Jays Lesson in Manager Turnover: Admiring John Gibbons' Institutional Glass Jaw  

On one of my (virtual radio) book tours last summer, I noticed a surprising number of hosts absolutely reveled in baseball's "disposable manager" theory. In a nation where line staff are entirely disposable, managers tend to stick. People notice this and resent the managers...feel like managers should be just as disposable as "the rest of us" are. So when they think Baseball, they think of the managers being at least as disposable as the line talent.

In defense of the managers who survive these mass executions of North American jobs relocated to Red Chinese prison camps or sweatshops, they usually pick up a lot of extra work for no more pay...it's the executives, who do little management themselves, who get to reap the near-term accrual benefits. The quality of life of the surviving managers is somewhat better than, but quite parallel to, the survivors in the cancer wardwatching the latest corpse getting wheeled out -- not generally exhilarated about tomorrow.

Toronto Blue Jays' skipper John Gibbons is a lame duck, under contract for the 2007 season but not beyond. In baseball, where managers truly are at least as disposable as the players, managers are held accountable to a level virtually unknown in First World organizations. It's great, if ownership and the front office are responsible franchise stewards. When they are, I support the radio hosts' enthusiasm for dropping managers with the same alacrity with which organizations usually purge line staff.

A story from Bob Elliott in today's Toronto Sun (via Baseball Think Factory) illustrates both the good and bad aspects to highly-accountable, disposable managers (mostly the down side).

Whether it be Jimy Williams, Cito Gaston, Jim Fregosi, Billy Martin or any manager you can name, millionaire players can smell the scent of the end of a manager's lifespan -- the way an unleashed nasty dog smells fear of a timid passerby.

Players knew who was the boss when Shea Hillenbrand made an attempt at motivational handwriting inside the clubhouse.

Players knew who was the boss when Ted Lilly thought he should stay after retiring one of the first eight hitters he faced against the Oakland A's in August.

Who will be the boss if the Jays get off to a 7-14 start? How many motions will players go through?

The slippery slope will be greased if Gibbons is still on a one-year deal. It will be salted like the QEW if the Jays re-sign him.

In baseball, truly all managers are lame ducks, in the sense that none, no matter how successful historically and right-now, has more than perhaps a year's horizon to an Own Private Event Horizon. Because baseball manager pay tends to be low relative to gross payroll (just as it is for working managers with line reports in most non-baseball organizations), it's relatively easy for organizations to purge a manager and pay off her contract.

BEYOND BASEBALL Lame-duckyness can really undermine the staff of the quacker. I know this from personal experience, too. I was a manager of managers in a mid-size organization, working to provide a transitional path for an entrepreneurial organization that aspired to behemoth corporate behaviors. Early on, I realized that once we arrived at the new structures, I wouldn't want to work there any more. So I let the six managers who reported to me know that I wuld be moving on in about a year plus or minus, depending on when we had the new structure working effectively-enough.

In my mind, I was paving the way for them to experiment because I could take the blame for anything that went wrong, and we could all take credit for the designs that succeeded -- what I consider a perfect arrangement. A couple of the managers, however, preferred to try to topple me prematurely so she and he could inherit my position. Never mind that one would never be able to build the bridge we were building, never mind the other would possibly succeed even though she'd never worked successfully in a behemoth corporate structure and that her very excellence was dependent on the current, entrepreneurial model.

I hadn't thought through what a (in this case) premature announcement would mean individually to each of the individuals involved and how they would act based on that info.

In the Blue Jays' locker room, once the Shea Hillebrand set-to happened, Gibbons' unquestioned authority was gored and, while that wasn't his Waterloo, the room knew he'd been bloodied. And in a discipline, like Baseball, where overall success depends on staff working to execute the few hundred decisions per game a manager makes, lack of followership can get really ugly.

Lame-duckyness is an undermining factor for baseball managers, as well as managers beyond Baseball.

Baseball ownership has a few techniques to buffer this. Elliott suggests giving Gibbons a raise to bring his roughly $500K salary to something above $600K. It's a small (and for the Toronto organization, a cheap bit of marketing to the staff that Gibbons isn't quite as much a quacker as they might think. Of course, they are not dolts...they know an extra $150K/year doesn't make firing a manager an accounting bloodbath (and if Gibbons' head goes on the London Bridge in, say June, that's under $100K difference to the team).

Beyond baseball, upper management usually isn't clue-in to what's going on below their managers' level. And if a manager were to bring up authority problems they wanted help with, upper management would, in most organizations, view this as a weakness to be punished, so in these unhealthy organizations, managers are unlikely to report it. There's no reason, of course, upper management shouldn't pay attention...they should, and not just for this reason, but for all the myriad advantages they can have when they know what the frell is going on.

In the end, the highly-accountable, disposable manager model Baseball applies can be wonderful in the hands of healthy organizations beyond baseball. There just aren't very many healthy organizations beyond baseball.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter