Thursday, November 03, 2011

Jon Daniels - Part III: Lessons in Changing Direction (A Reprise from 2007)  

In the last entry, I continued the conversation Texas Rangers' general manager Jon Daniels had with me in March, 2007. In this segment (one more to follow), Daniels talks about his initial moves on first inheriting management of a organization that has plenty of room for improvement. First moves are, as I try to hammer home, critical and usually set the limits of what a manager can achieve in the organization. His approach worked well enough that three years later (the planning/change horizon in major league baseball is usually six seasons, sometimes five) his front office team participated-in/led a very unusual accomplishment -- having a franchise get to the World Series in back-to-back years.

In the previous two entries that resulted from the interview Jon Daniels worked with me in Spring Training this year, we covered a couple of lessons from him. This part of the interview covered his approach to his early moves.

I asked him how he looked at his personnel and what kinds of moves he thought might need to occur. The reason I asked was partially too try to reveal how his management mind operated.

Jeff (MBB): Last year in Spring Training, the Rangers had one of those Hollywood disaster movies. You guys had an extraordinary string of injuries. This year, it seems more in the normal range. Given that, is there any spot on your roster that’s at the top of your list as a place to be looking for reinforcements? Or is it too early (March 20)?

Jon Daniels (JD): We don’t have a ton of depth in position players. And long-term, we don’t necessarily have a slam-dunk heir apparent center fielder. Those are things I’ll be looking out for.

I think in the past, we’ve always erred on the side of bats. As an organization, we’ve redefined ourselves, what we’ll be about. We going to clearly err on the side of pitching. It’s why I think we’re fine this Spring anyway. We’ve got some depth there – we have more guys who deserve to make the club than we have spots. 

But I’d much rather be in that position than I was last year.

I counsel managers to make a big (but thought-out) splash early on in starting a new management gig because one never again has as much chance to act unimpeded, ever. Daniels had a factor that might have been either a severe constraint, or perhaps liberating: his relative chronological youth. If he had chosen to let it be a constraint, it could have made him err on the side of caution -- but as you can see, it didn't. BTW: there's a long aside here that's not classic MBB material -- Jon's relating to me how that first press conference he did came about. I left it in because I thought it was interesting to me personally, and I thought it might be to some readers, too..

MBB: {SNIP} On the subject of starting a new job...I always say when a manager starts a new job, it’s critical to have some serious achievements right away. There are some GMs, Doug Melvin and Bill Bavasi for a couple of examples, who view themselves more as stewards, less inclined to tear things up than I usually advocate for my (non-baseball) clients. When you took the GM promotion with the Rangers, you were quoted as saying something like “we’re going to do many different things”. I don’t know if the reporter munged the quote…if perhaps you had said “we are going to do some things differently”. When you took the promotion, had you already developed ideas on which you had wanted to execute?

JD: I did have a few things…but first, I want to say, I’d take that first press conference with a grain of salt.

A quick chronology for you.

Season ends on a Sunday. We have a staff meeting with ownership on Monday. John (Hart), Buck (Showalter), me, one or two guys from the staff, Tom Hicks and his son Tommy, who’s involved in the business. We go over a lot of things – I’d prepared a good amount of information for the meeting. And John throughout the meeting is constantly deferring to me. A couple weeks back John had told me he was going to come back for another year. We get up and we go to leave and John take my hand and says, “hell of a job today”. A little differently than usual. So I leave, fight through traffic, get back to the office about 6 o’clock. And I have a 7 a.m. flight to the Dominican Tuesday morning, and I have an e-mail message from Tom Hicks saying please call me when you get back to the office. He doesn’t usually do that, but he has contacted me directly before.

So I call Tom, and he says, “Jon, what do you have planned for tomorrow,” and I told him about my trip to the Dominican…we were working on opening a new academy there and I’m overseeing the project. He said, “I’d like for you to cancel your flight and come to the office tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.” When the owner tells you to cancel, you cancel. I said, “No problem. Is there anything I can prepare?” and he said, “Just be prepared to talk about the future direction of the franchise”.

So I called John, and I asked him what was going on, and John said, “When you left, I went in to tell him I was going to step down and I recommended to him that you get the job.” It’s now 8 p.m., I call my wife and tell her I’m not going to be home, that I’ve got some preparing to do. Including thinking “am I ready?” You may get one shot at this…do you want to blow it? Or, you may never get another shot at it.

Prepare. Don’t sleep much that night. Walk the dog at about 4 in the morning. Go into Tom’s office at 10. And at 11:30, he’s extending his hand to me and offering me the job. About 45 minutes into the meeting the questions stop being “If you were to get the job what would you do,” and the tense changes to What are we going to do? How are we going to handle this situation?” Offers me the job. At 12:30, we have lunch. At 1:30 we call a press conference, and at 5 o’clock, we’re in front of the cameras. 
There wasn’t a lot of time for me to prepare my thoughts.

MBB: So the things you had in your toolbox you thought you might introduce, what have you done, what have you put off that you may or may not do, and what were the ideas you had planned on acting on that you decided not to?

JD: I think that there are two global or philosophical changes things that I have really tried to introduce. The first is I’ve tried to gear the organization more towards pitching – that’s more a result-oriented, tangible difference.

The other one is something I did in response to the fact that the organization had become too fragmented. I think in the previous six years, I’m the 3rd GM since Doug (Melvin), Ron (Washington) is the 4th manager, we’ve had four scouting directors and four farm directors. That’s way too much change. And we talk all the time about success being the result of stability and ability. We didn’t have the first, and the other was lacking because of it.

So we had our first organizational meetings this past off-season…the first, I think, since Doug left…seven years. 

MBB: Wow. That long?

JD: Yes…as a whole organization. We’d had met as departments.

MBB: So the organization-wide meeting…that was your initiative?

JD: Yes.

One of the things I want to do is create more of a family atmosphere. Yes, accountability, and goals and deadlines. But…we’ve done a lot of little things. The front office, we write little cards to everybody on their birthday on their kids and wives birthdays, their anniversaries, Mother’s Day. Here…here’s an example of the kind of letter we’re sending out….we’re looking to build that kind of ethic.

{he let me take a minute to read the letter}

On the field, the Rangers had tried, and failed to get back into the playoffs, as an offensively-driven team in an offensively-lush home ballpark. (Though it's important to note, Don Malcolm realized the offensive-boosting park has at times actually -- pre-Daniels -- fooled the team into thinking its offense was better than it actually was and undervalued its current pitching.) Daniels has made a commitment to try the other side of the equation. 

Off the major league team's field, the Texas Rangers had become a quaquaversal organization, radiating out in all directions simultaneously: geographically, departmentally, and as a result, socially, too. 

This Diseconomy of Scale is near-universal in large organizations beyond baseball. As the size increases, the likelihood of quaquaversality increases, the Scylla and Charybdis of Us-Them-ism and lack of coordination increases. How can you maintain the mission, support goals, keep generating objectives in harmony as this happens?

Conscious effort applied to connecting people and methods across the organization, showing each individual how they matter and how other individuals they don't yet know matter. Every organization is going to need its own plan for the creating a centripetal force to hold counteract the Diseconomy of Scale as best they can. Daniels' initiatives here make excellent sense, and we'll pick up more of them in the next part of this interview, in a subsequent entry.

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