Posted January 30, 2017 by

What HR can learn from Cubs manager Joe Maddon


Contributing writer Ted Bauer

Even if you’re not a baseball or sports fan, one of the bigger non-political stories of 2016 was the Chicago Cubs ending “the curse of the Billy Goat”. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, there hadn’t been a World War yet. After 108 years, they finally won again. There is a message in here for HR and managers.

There are a lot of reasons why the 2016 version of the Cubs was the team to finally win a championship. The 2003 team had been great, for example, but lost because of another “cursed” situation. Other Cubs teams in 108 years had the ability to win it all. None did. What was different about the 2016 team?

First, one main factor was that over time, they put a lot of quality young talent together. Eventually, some of those players began hitting their peak around the same time.

Second, and maybe more importantly, there was an influential person who was tasked with making sure everything was on the same page. That person was Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon. Maddon had only been hired in 2014 after a successful run as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays (he got them to the 2008 World Series, although they lost).

Maddon has an unconventional style, including printing t-shirts for his team that say “Try Not To Suck:”

He does other unconventional things, too — hiring DJs, for example, or choosing to live downtown when most MLB managers (often well-paid) opt for large houses outside the city their team represents.

What are the lessons that managers or HR teams could take from Maddon?

Goals and growth: Maddon has been nothing but successful with the Cubs — both years he’s worked there, they made the playoffs. In his first year, they made the National League Championship Series (the step before the World Series). The second year, they won the World Series. The year before he got there, they were 73-89 and (obviously) didn’t make the playoffs. Now pivot to business: all companies want to grow in some way. This is also (typically) the major factor for people getting incentives and perks, i.e. bonuses, so individuals usually want to be associated with growth. Growth happens at the intersection point of strategy — the big picture — and execution, or the day-to-day tasks that drive the strategy forward. Maddon has done this in Chicago, empowering his players and working with the front office to get the right parts he needs (strategy), as well as being a strong in-game manager (strategy again). Unfortunately, many managers in enterprise companies are not very good at aligning strategy and execution. Observing Maddon, or even reading some of these links, might be wise.
People: Managers manage people and most employees leave a job because of a poor manager — not necessarily because they dislike the company. Too often, however, managers focus on the first bucket — goals and growth — and tend to forget about the second bucket, i.e. people. Let’s bring this back to the Cubs. In a recent ESPN poll, Maddon was named the best “players’ manager” in all of baseball. Now, of course the quality of on-field players is good — but wouldn’t you think there’s some correlation between being a great, people-first manager and overall team success? Others have noted this as well.

The big lessons from the Cubs for your organization? There are a few:

  • Build your team slowly and deliberately; you may have a few bad years along the way, but if you have a goal in mind, you can get there. Don’t rush to hire some superstar in your industry who may not be the right fit.
  • Make sure your front-line management roles understand their goals and objectives, and make sure they realize developing people is as important as achieving certain KPIs.
  • Align the big picture with the “what needs to be done this Wednesday” task work.
  • Free up your senior leadership team to focus on big picture issues and relationship-building, not everyday logistics.

Having a 12% growth quarter might not feel as good as winning a World Series for the first time in 108 years, but understanding the playbook for success is crucial.

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