Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Curse of Jim Riggleman:
Change Manglement, the Ragnarök of Loyal Stewardship,
& Being an Anti-Turnaround Artist  

One of the easiest management assignments in the world is when you work in a struggling workgroup that's been doing the same things over and over again without success, resulting in the purge of a manager and your ascencion to the position. It's less exciting than coming from the outside as a fixer -- more latitude that way -- but when you've been promoted internally, you already have a ton of detailed knowledge about the mechanics of what has been failing and working, personalities, workflows, processes, and unquestioned assumptions. "Where all the skeletons are buried".

And the detailed knowledge is even more useful if you've been "shadowing" the incumbent manager -- not so you can knock her off, but as a quotidian self-test: "¿What will she do in this situation?", "¿What would I do in this situation?", "¿What did we do in the past that worked and didn't that might apply here?".

I recommend that course for all employees, even those without management ambition, because it makes even a dull job more interesting. But when you have a job like Jim Riggleman has had, bench coach for a struggling team, that's one of the critical pieces of your very job description...to be a "shadow manager" and to be there at the right hand of the manager for advice and perspective.

It enables you to cherry-pick a big quiver of improvements so that if anyone asks you, or if you inherit the position, you can decisively and instantly lay down a bushelful of changes that make a positive difference, signal to your workgroup and others that change is here and that all the Droopy Dog habits and emotions of the struggle are to be flushed or eased out.

But it appears Jim Riggleman, 16 games ago given the job of interim manager of the struggling Washington Nationals, is about to let an essential personality trait, personal loyalty, get in the way of doing the things he needs to do to achieve enough success to be the not-interim manager. It's sad, because in overhearing him interact with other coaches and staff last year and in watching him prepare for games, I found him to be thoughful and studious and intelligent.

What's sadder is, he's done this (valuing personal loyalty over results) before, last year. It's not as though it's so long ago he can't recall the self-limiting results of that loyalty.

When before the 2008 season, lifelong baseball man John McLaren got his first chance to start a new year as a major league manager, he chose to hire a powerful combine of experts as coaches, many of them former major league managers themselves. This requires a lot of self-confidence -- many managers hate to have anyone around who might replace them, but McLaren has high emotional intelligence as well as traditional baseball knowledge, and recognized that each of his College of Cardinals, er, of Mariners, would be non-backstabbers. His bench coach was Jim Riggleman.

McLaren, with his college, put together a master plan that included the cognitive DNA of his expert & loyal staff and launched the season with it.

The 2008 season was a frelling mess for the Mariners, the core reasons being it was a pitching-and-defense team with pitchers who were playing injured (Erik Bedard), or underperforming (Jarrod Washburn), or meeting head on The Bigotry of High Expectations Not Justified By Skill Level (Carlos Silva), declining defense, and not enough middle-of-the-lineup oomph to even provide a hint of success. The roster was the limiting factor, McLaren wasn't squeezing the most out of what would have been a last place team anyway, and he was sacrificed after game 72.

Riggleman inherited the interim manager job. But Riggleman was loyal to McLaren and The Plan. And while they played significantly better under the new guy (the equivalent of 8 or 9 games batter over a 162 game season), their .400 mark with him at the helm was still good enough for last place.

The same roster + the same game plan + a different personality making slightly different decisions = minimal, if positive, change.

When the Mariners got a new G.M. in his first head-man job, it pretty much guaranteed he'd be bringing in his own staff, and the interim title proved accurate.

Washington Nationals' manager Manny Acta hired Riggleman to be his bench coach in the off-season with the thought that the team would benefit from his knowledge and experience and that Acta could count on his personal loyalty which, as it proved, he could. Because when the Nationals' G.M. Mike Rizzo fired Acta from his position at the helm of the woeful and woefully-underperforming even their intrinsic woefulness , Riggleman had nothing but considerate things to say about his friend Acta at his kick-off press conference, as reported at Nats320.

Question: Mike Rizzo said a couple of days ago that sometimes you just need a different voice. The things that Manny may have been doing were fine, but need to be presented in a different way. How will Jim Riggleman’s voice be different from Manny Acta’s? Riggleman: “I don’t know if it will be much different. But there is something to that. That is the kind of statement I made in Chicago. I was there for five years (as manager for The Cubs) and I was let go there. And I felt like that if I were in the General Manager’s position, I would have done the same thing. I would have let Jim Riggleman out of there because I know he was saying the right things but we need to get someone else to give this message because the players are not getting it done. So that’s basically what it amounts to. I don’t think you can change a lot. I know Manny wouldn’t change anything that he did. And I wouldn’t question anything that he did. I just want to try to continue to pound the message in and maybe coming from someone else maybe they will respond or maybe they won’t—but we have got to try that.”
As he did the previous year, he's not telling the players and front office that things need to change and that he's going to do it. He's being loyal to a good baseball man whose regime proved ineffective in that moment with that roster, when what any woeful team needs is the belief, even if it's based mostly on small but concrete things, that change is coming and that it will prove significantly beneficial. Not blaming Acta is cool, because Acta didn't build the roster, probably even only had a small effect on the design of it, he didn't throw the hanging curves and miss the cut-off man. But by not picking out a handful of visible changes, publicizing them and then implementing them, he again missed a big opportunity to change not only the processes that were not working, but the emotional wind-drag, too. Very bad change management practice. And very good way to associate yourself with a previous failed regime so that if things don't improve "enough", you can be purged without much consideration for what you did as an individual and how much improvement you actually DID engender. SUCCESSFUL TURNAROUND ARTISTS
Successful turnaround artists, managers such as Dick Williams and Billy Martin, don't necessarily show overt disrespect to the past (Williams chose to, but he inherited some real dystopic doozies of dreary doom). But there are things they do execute to indicate change is inevitable and useful. I wish Riggleman would have tried out a little Billy Martin.

No one, not even Manny Acta I suspect, would have considered him disloyal if he had said as part of his answer to the question quoted above, "We've been underperforming and I'm going to have to do several things differently from what Manny was trying, including X and Y", X and Y being the items he most noticed as the "shadow manager".

Loyalty is a virtue and a precious trait in employees, managers and executives. But loyalty to the processes of a person you were and wish to remain loyal to is not a virtue. And it's, far more often than not, a C.L.M. (career-limiting move) as well.

When you take on a new management assignment, you have a very short period, not even the Cloud-Cuckoo-Land "100 days" U.S. Presidents are imaginarily given, to have a high impact. You need to choose concrete changes (even if only small ones), implement them effectively, and tell staff and other management you're doing them, and point out the differences they made.

Without that, you're doomed to Riggleman's Fate, another death-and-rebirth ritual in which it's very unlikely you'll be one of the survivors.

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