Thursday, October 09, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #16 of 17: Nepotism, Nasty Talent and Nitrates  

On any small-team project, Agile or otherwise, a critical success factor (maybe outside of keeping senior management from constant meddling, it is THE critical success factor), is the careful blending of skills and personalities within the team to be able to achieve and maintain high performance. Rejecting nepotism or Nepotism Lite (hiring friends because you like them and/or they are easy to work with) as a norm, while concurrently allowing for some exceptions is a challenging but key skill for the manager. Baseball has great lessons for the Beyond Baseball manager, and one fine documented case is Tony La Russa's succesful hiring of the ostracized Mark McGwire, a former player of his and friend, as the Cardinal batting coach. He explained the hire in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 300-6)

Mark had to retire prematurely in 2002 because of his (injured -- probably as a result of muscular overdevelopment, the result of working out too much, probably the result of outlawed supplements that enable hard working athletes to extend their workouts) back. Since then, his integrity over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) had been widely discussed {SNIP}

After he left the game, I kept inviting him to Spring Training. He turned me down a few times, but I found out from his wife that about four o'clock every afternoon, once he'd picked up the boys at school, he watched games on TV. He'd watch a doubleheader every night, and he was really into analyzing the hitters. I'd talk to him once in a while, and he'd always tell me what he thought hitters, including our guys, were doing right and wrong, pointing out details like how well Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodrigues and Albert Pujols were getting on top of the ball and getting through it, getting that great backspin that made the ball carry.{SNIP}

The more I heard him speak, the more I felt everything about his approach would make him an outstanding candidate for our staff. In November of 2009, I decided to make an offer to him for the hitting coach job (for 2010). (La Russa and Cardinal front office management, though, made it a prerequisite that he make a public statement addressing his alleged PED use, to which he had declined to comment for years). We didn't know what he was going to say, just that he had to say something

I knew he would tell the truth, but I didn't know specifically what he was going to say. Mark admitted to using steroids and on the morning the announcement was made he called to tell me what was about to be all over the news.

McGwire and La Russa had stirred up a hornet's nest. The way the PEDs played out in the U.S., it was an emotional issue; most casual fans (though few serious fans) wanted every home run hitter of the 1990s & 2000s burned at the stake, as a start. Very Stalinist Show Trial environment, as I've written about before. By McGwire's silence, he angered the steroid-obsessed by giving them less excuse to rag on him for not confessing, but by either denying or admitting use, he was going to inflame them further.

It took great courage for La Russa to hire an ostracized friend and re-open an emotional knicker-twister of a topic in a profession that demands relentless hyper-focus by everyone on the team. Few managers Beyond Baseball would balance the potential gains of a 97th percentile performer who had massive credibility with players coaching those with whom he had credibility against the controversy.

Had La Russa hired a dud just to get him a job (what I call Nepotism Lite), without regard for his performance potential, I would be terminally critical. Every team of ~50 people can afford one or two middling talents who are vital to the team's morale, and every team of ~50 people can afford one or two very difficult people if they are 90+ %ile talents who get the job done. If you're hiring a difficult human who's ultra-talented, you are taking on more work (office politics, managing outside criticism, managing people's fears) to make more work happen.

After Mark was hired and made his statement, the media focused on my motives for hiring him. Some commentators may have wanted to compliment me, and others to criticize me for presumably hiring a friend out of loyalty and helping him to rehabilitate his career. Regardless of intent, I was insulted by those assumptions. I take my responsibility to my employers, fans, teammates, and the game itself to ever engage in that kind of nepotistic behavior. Mark was hired based on his merits.


La Russa then goes on to describe the incredible level of and number of skills (Beyond Baseball,anyway) required for being a successful coach/mentor to skill- based professionals.

He wasn't overwhelmed by the workload -- he was fired up by it. It was an attitude that we needed all our coaches to have.

This is the crux of why this Nepotism Lite is okay in this exceptional case. Nepotism and Nepotism Lite both GENERALLY suck oxygen out of your environment, like nitrates out of a river. La Russa hired McGwire because he had both high cred as a past performer, ergo, as a leader, and also the hire was determined to succeed.

On any small team, Agile or not, you will more often benefit more than not if you are willing to hire a high-performer even if that is a difficult individual or a person who requires you additional management burden. That's a contrarian point of view, of course, which means "Money Ball", that is, a relatively untapped high-performance talent pool you can acquire more easily.

You can be lazy and leave talent on the table, or you can be Baseball and channel La Russa to Agile success. You choose.

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