Sunday, July 15, 2007

Promoting From Within or Hiring From Outside:
A Mariner Lesson in Social Cohesion Vs. Innovation  

"It is the price of progress that there never can be complete consensus.
All creative advances are essentially a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things
 and to overemphasize the agreed-upon is
to further legitimize the hostility to that creativity upon which we all ultimately depend."
-- William Whyte, "The Organization Man".

In the last entry, I discussed the departure of Seattle Mariners' Mike Hargrove. His successor, John McLaren, had been a long-time "organization man", a widely-populated role within, and beyond, baseball.

"Organization men" are rarely charismatic, rarely had an illustrious, if any, major league career (I can't think of a single organization man who played in an All-Star game, but please write to me if you know of one). They labor long hours for crappy salaries, persistently get overlooked for promotion (well, there are a lot of them; a lot do get promoted, even as far as the bigs, but there are so many of them relative to the major league positions available, most will never make it to a big league team's manager position at all).  McLaren worked at many levels in several jobs, knows the game inside and out, and is the one of the relative few of his populous breed who has gotten to be a major league manager.

In some outfits, they get overlooked because they aren't excellent, especially within a profession like Baseball that is relentlessly meritocratic. In other, less healthy outfits, it's because the overlooked  lack charisma or apparent "leadership" attributes ("he doesn't look the part"). Beyond baseball, individuals are constantly being pulled between being "a team player" and being outstanding enough to be noticed but not so noticed they elicit in others the competitive need to subvert them.

Organization women and men can feel (legitimately in many cases) trod on, undervalued or overtly disrespected when people from outside get jobs they might have been promoted to. Periodically, an one of them will get a position from which they can promote their buddies, either because they value them as individuals, want to equalize the lost opportunities or for simple cronyism.

Mariner manager McLaren not only got such an opportunity this month, he grabbed it by the job application. According to this 7/4 story from the Seattle Times, the new skipper promoted a loyal foot-soldier, Gary Thurman, to be his first base coach, a position that opened when McLaren promoted the incumbent, loyal foot-soldier Mike Goff, to be his bench coach, the position from which he had ascended. A nice, cozy promotion chain redolent of something pre-teens would envision was the norm if they played The Game of Life (but not if they'd played The Game of Real Life).

So it appears that McLaren has launched something like The Revenge of the Organization Cogs, bringing together a management team made up of such folk. This happens beyond baseball on occasion. Is it a good thing?

Organization men and women are the loyal foot-soldiers who make things happen in a healthy organization or keep them from happening in unhealthy ones. I attached no automatic virtue or vice to the role -- it's neither an intrinsically "good" or "bad" thing for a team to install an organization man in the dugout -- context and the individual dictate the potential and kinetic accomplishment of the chosen candidate.

within and beyond baseball, the organization man or woman promoted has connections, knows the current methods. She or he tends to make for a gentle transition, turning a few knobs based on personal observations made within the system, grokking executive management's wishes. Combining a ground-floor knowledge of people and their individual potential and the chance to make small changes in one's initial days generally leads to some immediate gains.

And organizations count on loyalty. In a functioning free enterprise system (though usually not in a free market system), to get consistent loyalty, some has to be given. To promote organization folk to higher positions dangles some realistic hope for the rest they might be promoted, that their loyalty might be returned in kind.

As in any social system, promoting from within reinforces values, minimizing change other than that planned by the head office's objectives, advances and simplifies the tacit knowledge of how things get done, and this leads to better harmony, and that in turn lowers the overhead of coping with change.

The big change the new management has committed to so far is to use the bench more. For this team, I think it's a good idea -- it was pretty obvious Mike Hargrove wasn't using his bench much, and while not holding as much potential this year as last, the bench can make contributions if given the chance. Note, bench players are the equivalent of organization men with cleats. It's not hard for the organization-originated coach or manager to empathize with the overlooked two- or three-tool player who is good enough to advance through hard work and commitment only to be ignored at a moment he might have made a contribution.

Not a significant change likely to upset anything. Which could lead to the down side.

within and beyond baseball, the organization woman or man knows-what-she-knows. Inventions that make a difference just about never come from twiddling standard operating procedures. For the manager whose ambition is to keep things smooth and not upset or confuse anyone. And promoting from within, while promoting harmony diminishes the portfolio of methods, practices, insights available for problem-solving, which, in turn, limits the number of problems that management team can successfully solve.

In human cultural evolution, early tribes of people had choices based on a continuum that fell between endogenous (inward-looking) and exogenous (outward-looking) behaviors such as trading and marriage/kinship arrangements. Endogenous cultures had cohesion while exogenous ones were more likely to be exposed to innovations and more likely to apply them. As one of the parents of anthropology, E.B. Tylor, said:

‘Exogamy (marrying outside the tribe), enabling a growing tribe to keep itself compact by constant unions between its spreading clans, enables it to overmatch any number of small intermarrying (endogenous) groups, isolated and helpless. Again and again in the world’s history, savage tribes must have had plainly in their minds the simple practical alternative between marrying-out and be killed out.’

In any given context, the short term gains might go either to a hiring-from-within or importing-talent choice. But in a competitive line of work over time, the purely hiring from within endogenous choice dooms the organization to a certain brittleness of response likely to suffer seriously in the face of changes.

John McLaren as a bench coach owned the traditional "Mom" role -- it was his job to show warmth, interact a lot with each individual, freeing his manager to be somewhat aloof and without the need to get involved with every emotional hangnail every player had. And he was good enough at it that many players think he's the bee's knees, including Ichiro Suzuki who is a key component for the team in any successful run for the flag.

If the players play significantly harder for McLaren out of loyalty, that extra effort is likely to, in the short term at least, squeeze a bit more torque of the talent they have available. Or not.

For the Mariners, as for your own outfit, for this season, and maybe next too, a McLaren hiring may make a positive difference in the franchise's fate. But at some point, the organization man at the helm either will have to display an ability to design and execute innovation away from the franchise's norm or break up the consistency of organization folk on his management team or suffer the consequences.

To paraphrase William Whyte in The Organization Man, creative advances are a departure from agreed-upon ways of looking at things, and creativity is the source of survival in a competitive endeavor -- you're not going to thrive long without some stream of it. Hire within and hire from outside, but don't expect the decision to work without putting it into context with other environmental factors and other hiring choices. The organization woman and man should be measured for the skills they bring to the table, not punished or promoted just because they are an organization cog.

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

free website counter