Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jon Daniels - Part I: Rangers' GM
Got Mentoring From a Star
(A Reprise from 2007)  

A reader asked me last week if I had any idea why the Texas Rangers had been able to make it into the World Series two years in a row, and if it has anything to do with their management. It certainly does, I believe. When Jon Daniels was selected as G.M. five years ago, he was very young, but already very, very astute. He had been generous with his time and we spoke for a long while about his background in and Beyond Baseball, and his approach for building a franchise that had been in the middle of the pack for performance. I'm going to reprint the results of that interview piece-by-piece, because I think you'll be able to see what he was doing that led to this level of success.

In the 40% of management jobs that require a significant element of domain-specific craft to achieve excellence, it's normal, and usually necessary to have one or more identifiable mentors.

That doesn't mean there aren't successful self-made managers in these positions. The self-made, in fact, can be the most brilliant innovators (someone had to invent the Baseball GM job as it exists, in this case Ed Barrow, and he was, by definition, self-made as a GM). But running without inetrnalised standards leads more often to underperformance, and that underperformance is usually a result of the self-made nature of the manager, the using up of cycles/energy/ergs/torque trying things the standards "know" are no- or low-return. I read a circa 1983 study that confirmed this logic -- it found the managers who scored in the highest and lowest quintiles in independence were disproportionately represented in the least-successful and most-successful achievement quintiles. (I've been looking to find that old study now for about a decade with no luck -- all leads welcomed).

A Baseball GM with one of the most interesting backgrounds generously gave me a ton of his time this Spring. Jon Daniels of the Texas Rangers is usually thought of as being inexperienced because he is young, and generally regarded as the youngest person ever to get a Major League team's GM job. While his ascent was rapid, that thought is off-kilter for a couple of reasons. The first is, he'd taken on diverse responsibilities in multiple organizations.

The bigger one is, he had activist mentoring in systems from a team of people who trained under a management leader who actively mentored (that is, made a serious point of it, deliberately carving out time and resources to see that it was done), and who delegated and built of a team of talented people who would take on that deliberate mentoring model and apply it.

The mentor is John Hart, who built the management that grew the Cleveland Indians into the 1990s powerhouse they became, and produced innovators who played and play significant roles in the development of other franchises' competitive theories and action: Oakland, Arizona, Colorado, San Diego, the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles, Boston and of course, even after several years, Cleveland itself.

Beyond Baseball, this approach, selfless on the surface, can lead to great results, if not always recognition. More about that later. Here's the beginning of an interview that will end up being a multi-parter, thanks to Daniels' generosity in sharing his insights and time.

Jeff Angus (MBB): Jon, you were brought into the Rangers organization by John Hart. So many roads in today’s baseball management lead from his regime in Cleveland. Was that an important part of your decision to come to the Rangers? 

Jon Daniels (JD): (laughs) That would imply I had a lot of options. 

MBB: You were working in Colorado… 

JD: …yes, and Dan (O’Dowd) had offered me a chance to stay on there as an intern. It was right after 911, my family was in New York and I had been long-distance with my wife (then my girlfriend) for quite a while. There were a number of reasons I didn’t stay in Colorado. The lure, the idea of working for John was very attractive. I had worked in Colorado, so I had specifically worked with Dan and Josh (Byrnes) who had spent a good amount of time with him in Cleveland. And they have had a great deal of success, as well as others from there – Paul DePodesta, Mark Shapiro, Ben Charrington, Ruben Amaro Junior, Bud Black. 

A lot of quality people started under John. He’s a critical person in my career development. He’s one of the most dynamic and engaging personalities you’re going to find. I have told John my only regret is that I didn’t get to work with him when he was building Cleveland…there are so many great stories that came out of there. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from John. 

MBB: Cleveland was the most important innovator from that time. 

JD: Well, there are a few different trees. You’ve got the Pat Gillick tree, to some extent the Dave Dombrowski tree…the John Schuerholz tree. 

MBB: I consider the Pat Gillick tree comes from, as the Schuerholz one does, from Baltimore. John, I think, worked for Harry Dalton, who was his mentor. 

JD: Pat’s tree is really dynamic from the standpoint of scouting. You’ve got Gord Ash, you don’t necessarily have a ton of front office types, but you do have a ton of scouting types. 

MBB: True. 

JD: You have Don Welke and Bobby Mattick, Al LaMacchia, even some more recent guys…Logan White worked with Pat. He was a cross-checker in Baltimore. Some guys in Seattle…Ken Madeja who’s now a special assistant over there. He drafted John Smoltz, Derek Lowe, JJ Putz, Ryan Feierabend...he’s got a tremendous track record. There’s no doubt that’s it’s a great thing on your resume that you learned under John. 

MBB: When you came here and started working for him, what were the most important things you learned from him? 

JD: Well, everyone in the game now wears a label. You’re a “stat guy” or a “scout guy” or “new school” or “old school”. You’re a “this” or a “that”. John, having played a little, having managed in the minor leagues, he’s easily accepted into the old school ranks. Very easily accepted into the scouting ranks and the on-field culture. But some of John’s strongest relationships in the game are with the Mark Shapiros and Chris Antonettis…Paul DePodesta, Josh Byrnes and me, who didn’t play professionally and guys who are labeled the stat guys. 

John embraces it all, he wants all the information: medical, make-up, on-field, off-field, statistical, objective, subjective and that’s an ethic I’ve really tried to embrace. From my background, what used to come more naturally is looking at things objectively…statistics. That’s why I’ve surrounded myself with guys like John and Don Welke, Jay Robertson, Mel Didier, Gary Rajsich on down the line. Ron Washington…he wasn’t the kind of guy the industry expected me to hire with my background. 

It’s critical for me to get information from every possible direction. John Schuerholz had a great quote…I’m going to butcher it… “He with the best and most information wins”. 

That’s true. 

{SNIP, for now}

Key lessons here.

  1. Winners embrace everything. That's not saying every component is equal -- but no shred of potentially useful knowledge is to be ignored up front. Winners further balance their weightings of various forms of knowledge in response to context.
  2. Embracing everything is not a contained strategy in itself. There are a number of ways to act off of an embrace-everything strategy -- Daniels points out several trees and branches off a tree. As managers who've been mentored work with it, they tweak the rules or make some new ones. That intellectual process is precisely parallel to cultural evolution of other domains. Daniels may end up making a branch or entire new tree of his own (Jon thinks Schuerholz has started his own tree). 
  3. Note how people-centric his knowledge/apprenticeship is. A couple of these names come up multiple times. In a The Talent Is The Product endeavor, that is, a value-added and not a commodity one, people are not only the key (immediate) production asset, but the key long-term growth (capture, organization, refinement & dissemination of knowledge) asset, too.
  4. ...and this is less clear from this interview than what I've gotten from other Hart protégés...taking personal credit is less important to successful players in this kind of management environment that making sure the things for which credit could be taken get delivered and shared.

In the next part of the interview, we'll talk about multi-factor decision trees and on how you make (or avoid making) a big splash on starting a new job.

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