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Kenneth W. Keller: A few lessons can be learned from our national pasttime

Posted: August 4, 2009 9:46 p.m.
Updated: August 5, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Baseball is one of America ’s leading sports and it also a significant business. The thirty teams in Major League Baseball have an average value of $482 million, but one team, the New York Yankees, is worth an estimated $1.5 billion. In 2008, ticket sales and television revenue grew to $5.8 billion. That number is expected to fall this year due to the decline of discretionary spending by consumers.

You don’t have to be a fan to admire the financial success of the sport. What you can also admire is the understanding that baseball is a business of talent. Businesses can learn from baseball about how to acquire, focus, manage and coach players on their own teams.

The goal
Every team begins the season with a stated goal. This goal is set by the ownership of the franchise and it is communicated to everyone in the organization.

Not every team has the same goal; the Oakland A’s have a stated goal to get into the playoffs which take place after the regular 162 game season. Other teams, such as the New York Yankees, expect to win the World Series each year.

Teams that say they are “rebuilding” don’t set specific goals. As a result, many of those teams don’t do as well as those teams that set and announce their goals.

The scoreboard
As the 162 game season progresses, every stakeholder (players, management, coaching staff, fans, media) sees exactly how the team is doing against the stated goal. This is done through a report called “the standings.”

During the course of each game played, those same stakeholders can see what is happening by paying attention to “the scoreboard.” The scoreboard lists how every player is performing. This is the equivalent of an ongoing, visible, performance evaluation.  

Unfortunately, most businesses do not publicize their goals, internally or externally because in most organizations, goals do not exist. They also don’t often have an internal version of a scoreboard. Goals and scoreboards improve performance.

The general manager’s role
The title does not explain what this job is all about. The GM’s job is talent acquisition.

A baseball team is no different than most businesses; having the right people in the right spot is one of the most critical components of success. The key difference is that most businesses don’t take the time to focus on people except when there is a vacancy, performance issues or a disciplinary problem.   

The GM is not afraid to trade a player to another team in exchange for a player or players that can help them win in the short term. The GM is also able to demote someone to the minor leagues if they need improvement in some aspect of hitting, pitching or fielding.    

What the manager does
The job of the manager is to use the players on the 25 man roster to win baseball games. The focus of the manager is on winning during the season and post season.

For the manager, this means he must use his resources to his advantage literally play by play, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game, series by series.

The manager is the tactical leader on the playing field. A game of baseball is similar to a chessboard and the manager’s role is to move the players around the line-up card, the field and the batting order to win as many games as possible, focusing on one game at a time.   
What the coaches do
A baseball team accepts the fact that the players on the team have talent. The role of the coach is to maximize the talent of each player in whatever role they play; as a fielder, hitter or pitcher.  A team has pitching, hitting, fielding and base running coaches, all critical for player development on an ongoing basis.

Most businesses believe that the manager can also coach, and that is true in limited cases. Managers aren’t usually concerned or trained in coaching methods; managers are usually just focused on winning in the short term. However, most businesses cannot define what “winning” is.

What you can do
If a baseball team is built on talent, so is your business. How much time is spent in acquisition of potential staff members? How much time is spent setting achievable goals and communicating those goals?

What kind of scoreboard and standings are available to the “players” on your team; is winning defined? How much time is invested coaching talented people to become better? What are you doing as the owner to become better? Do you have a team or simply a group of people who work for the same organization?

 Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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