Monday, October 1, 2007

What MBAs Can Learn From Sweet Lou

Every year, the nation's universities churn out another crop of MBAs, who move on to master the world of business. Or so, they'd like us to believe.
But many of those MBAs could learn a few tricks of their trade by studying the way Chicago Cubs skipper Lou Piniella managed this year's team, which won a division title and is meeting the Arizona D'Backs in the first play-off round of the National League title race.
Whether the Cubs advance to the World Series or not, Piniella is an example of what good managers--and not just those who run baseball teams--can do to motivate their employees. And it is also why Sweet Lou will probably win the National League's Manager of the Year award.
So batter up , here goes:
Having clear expectations. Those experts who follow the Cubs much more closely than me say a major turning point came in June, when Piniella went nuts on an umpire and shifted the spotlight off a recent tussle between pitcher Carlos Zambrano and then-catcher Michael Barrett. But I'd argue that the change came much earlier in the season -- at a cold April night game, when Piniella walked out to the mound and told relief pitcher Ryan Dempster that it was below 32 frigging degrees and to start "throwing @##!!##! strikes." Piniella stalked back to the dugout, where presumably the heaters were on, and Dempster did what he was told and won a save.
From that juncture, Cub players knew there was a new sheriff in town, one unlike Piniella's cuddly predecessor, Dusty Baker. Instead, Piniella showed he was engaged in the actual management of the game and expected performance even under the nastiest conditions. What's more, if you fell down on the job, he'd let you know about it in no uncertain terms.
Timing is everything in management. Under game conditions and during the start of his tenure, Piniella sent an important message at just the right moment--one that challenged his players to do a better job.
Flexibility is crucial.Unlike many previous Cub managers, Piniella never fell in love with only one line-up--especially during the beginning of the year when he was still getting to know his players' capabilities. Throughout the season, he's shown an uncanny willingness to freshen up the line-up by bringing in younger ballplayers, like infielders Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot, and playing them when they got hot. In Theriot's case, Piniella replaced Cesar Izturis, who was to be the starting shortstop, and didn't look back. Piniella did the same with the bullpen, dropping or benching guys who weren't doing the job and replacing them with less-experienced but talented players, especially flame-thrower Carlos Marmol. Piniella didn't just play the hand he was dealt. He reshuffled the deck (moving Mark DeRosa around the diamond), pressed upper-management to get new players (trading for veteran back stopper Jason Kendall) or dipped into the minor league system, (pulling up the likes of catcher Geovany Soto). Often in business, insecure or timid management will just use what's available or blame their bosses for lack of resources, instead of shaking things up or fighting for change. Piniella didn't make that costly error.
Cutting out a cancer Even before the June 1 brawl between Zambrano and Barrett, it was clear that Barrett was a trouble-maker with a short fuse. Remember his sucker-punch of White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in May, 2006? Even though Barrett was putting up respectable batting numbers, Piniella and his boss, Jim Hendry, knew they couldn't win with this guy. So they dumped him on San Diego and went shopping for a catcher. At the time, Piniella took a calculated risk that subtracting a good-hitting Barrett would actually add to the the Cubs' camaraderie and chance for success.
You'd be surprised how many business managers don't want to confront this type of unpleasant situation. Many times, they allow the angriest person in the room to set the company's rules of behavior, hurting morale and allowing trouble to fester. Piniella didn't fall into that trap.
Making the right exceptions. Practically speaking, you can't treat everyone the same. Some employees are more talented, and important, than others and exceptions--within reason--have to be made. In at least two cases, Piniella appears to have bowed to that logic. He didn't press for major sanctions against Zambrano, who could be the team's dominant pitcher for many years to come, because of the Barrett dust-up or subsequent displays of immaturity. Piniella seems to be saying that with a little patience and mentoring, this kid can turn it around. We'll see. The same is true for Alfonso Soriano, who nearly everyone in town believes should be hitting lower in the line-up and not lead-off. Piniella is keeping him in the top spot for one good reason--that's where Soriano is most comfortable this year and, as a result, most productive. Sure, Piniella could have dug in and forced the issue (in a way that past Cubs Manager Don Baylor would probably have done) but he repressed his own ego for the good of the team.
So far, in the cases of Zambrano and Soriano, it's working. Not many company managers would have the foresight to back off for the greater good.
Be approachable, but in control. You get the impression that there's a healthy and respectful distance between Piniella and his team. At 64-years-old, Piniella acts his age. I don't get the impression that he wants to be a "players' manager" as much as he wants to win. That means maintaining command and control over the team. The quickest way to dim that aura is trying to become one of the guys.
Moreover, for a man with a reputation for blowing up at umpires, Piniella appears to take wins, loses and other matters in stride. That comes from years of experience on winning teams and knowing that every low is not a crisis-point and not every high is a pinnacle.
Even in a tough central division race, Piniella wasn't getting tossed out of games repeatedly like Milwaukee Brewers' skipper Ned Yost. In the long run a combination of experience and respect can take any business or team to new heights.
It's not all about the boss. Ever work for a boss who takes credit for what everyone else has accomplished? What can be more demoralizing? Piniella has gone to great lengths not to steal the spotlight and typically gives credit to his team and bosses. Yeah, it can occassionally sound disingenuous, but it's better than the alternative.
Suspend disbelief, set a goal and mean it.When Piniella came on board, he said he wanted to get the Cubs to the World Series. Yeah, sure. Cubs Nation has heard such lofty promises before, but often it settles for just filling up Wrigley Field. But Piniella didn't get caught up with the practices of the past. He came in expecting to win and got everyone to go along for the ride. How many business managers are so inspiring?
Yes, the MBA programs churn out thousands of aspiring CEOs, but there's only one Lou Piniella. Still, if more corporate gurus followed Sweet Lou's example maybe business would have more real winners, too.