Friday, July 15, 2011

Dick Williams' Lesson in Establishing a Reputation
(A Memorial Reprise)  

When Dick Williams life ended earlier this month, he left behind a legacy of management excellence -- and several different reputations. In the previous entry, I took a quick your of his useful methods, but left out one at Second Base of the Management by Baseball Model: Managing People, forgoing that topic for a full entry on it. The following essay, focused specifically on a Second Base method -- establishing a reputation to improve effectiveness --  is a reprise from January 2004.

When you start a management position in a new company or in a group that doesn’t know you well, there will be many staffers who don’t want it to be too easy for you. One or two of them might have been angling for your job themselves.

There are many males who compete by a zero-sum equation; like frat boys’ hazing rituals, they believe you have to earn their compliance. There are many females who manage their environment by manipulation, testing your resolve and determination.

You’re going to have to learn to establish a reputation that has a full spectrum of possibilities, because different people are best managed with different incentives and approaches. If you’re a natural hard-ass, you’re going to need to learn to establish a reputation as a cooperator. If you’re a nice guy, you’ll need to show your assertiveness. And once established, you’ll need to reinforce your reputation with consistent “marketing”, that is, presenting yourself a certain way, but you equally may need to alter your reputation in response to group needs or events.

Dick Williams was hired by Charlie O. Finley to take the Oakland A’s to a new level. The team had built a roster very wisely in the late 1960s and had two second place finishes in a row, In 1969 and 1970 with aloof, businesslike managers Hank Bauer and John McNamara. Finley understood that a different style can frequently bring out new strengths while holding on to strengths already internalized.

Williams was more a one-of-the-guys manager, but when he got to the A’s, they were already swaggering, feeling like champs, and, according to Williams, he had three clubhouse leaders. There was Reggie Jackson, the vocal one, Sal Bando, the quiet clubhouse emissary, and Catfish Hunter, the ace pitcher and campus clown who kept everyone loose. As Williams said in his book No More Mr. Nice Guy:

“I’ll let players lead themselves, particularly veterans like Catfish, as long as they recognize and respect the ultimate authority. Me.

“…We had opened that first A’s season by losing four of our first six games…I was a little worried about a pitching staff that had allowed 40 runs in those games. Then I became more worried after Charlie called me and pitching coach Bill Posedel to his apartment and asked what the hell I was going to do about it .

“By the time the plane landed in Milwaukee to begin the trip, I had advanced from worried to angry.”

His players were loose, but in a bad, unproductive way, and not listening to their manager. Williams knew he needed to change the established shape of the manager-player relationship in a way that asserted his dominance, but not in some hysterical Captain Queeg out-of-context rant. Fate handed him an opportunity right that minute in Milwaukee.

The players got off the plane an boarded their bus. A flight attendant from the plane came running out to the bus, jumped on it and explained that someone had stolen a megaphone from the plane at they had to return it. “I sucked in my breath,” Williams said, “It was time to stop staring in awe at my Athletics and start shoving them.”

He stood up in the aisle and announced he was going to stand there until they coughed up megaphone. Silence, jostling and nudging, snickers. He turned red.

“I don’t know if you guys know this, but we aren’t exactly burning up the damn league”. More silence, more snickers.

“I know some of you think you can be assholes…well I can be the biggest asshole of them all. And if you have a problem with that, just call Charlie…but he ain’t her now and I am, and you’d better learn to live with-”

Clunk. The megaphone had been returned.

It turned out it was ace pitcher Catfish Hunter who’d stolen the megaphone. “I knew and the team knew but I never did anything about it. As it turned out, I should have given him a bonus for feeding me the slow curve that enabled this team to feel my swing.”

“I was never told how they reacted to it, but then I didn’t need to be told, I saw. We won 12 of our next 13 games. Six days after my meltdown we went into first place and were never caught.”


Beyond baseball sometimes (rarely) a tantrum is just what’s needed for a relatively-new manager to cement his authority. Usually it’s something else. But you have to wait for the right opportunity, because if it’s too out of context or feels staged, it will actually degrade your authority.

My wife works in an organization that has an affirmative action program for hiring older people who had been career military. A few men who came in this way got into positions of hiring power and started hiring a lot more retired military men until the organization had a strong strain of this particular style of management. It's a style that doesn't work well in most non-military settings.

The ones that succeeded in the new role were the ones who established early on that their management style was different. They did this by demonstrating an almost over-the-top "warm fuzziness", very explicitly differentiating themselves from the expected pattern. The ones who failed to set a tone early were likely to waste time struggling against the reputation of the retired military archetype.

Set a tone, establish who you are early & clearly. Maybe you'll be a legendary success like Dick Williams.

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