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Is Theo Epstein “The World’s Greatest Leader.” The Power of Fearless Leadership to Inspire and Transform an Organization.

April 6, 2017

First things first. I am a passionate baseball fan (Mets) who grew up on my father’s knee watching baseball and inheriting his love of the game. I passed that love on to my younger son, who is working his way up the ranks of the operations side of the business.  Still, seeing Epstein’s name on the top of a list that includes, among others: Pope Francis, Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, John McCain and H.R. McMaster really got my attention. Translation-No way! How can running a baseball team compare with running a business, religious or political organization? As a leadership coach as well as a fan of the game, I will try to make some sense of Fortune’s decision to put him at the head of a very distinguished class.

A little bit about baseball for the non-aficionados among you. When compared to football, soccer, basketball and hockey, baseball is the least team-oriented of the major sports. In fact, it is really not a team sport at all. Those other sports require repeated drills to create coordinated movements by players on the field. Except for a few plays eg. Double plays, pickoffs, pitchers covering first base or relay throws from the outfield, there is little coordination between teammates required for success on the diamond. Baseball’s essence, and truly its greatness, boils down to the one-on-one drama of pitcher vs hitter. That drama is what draws so many casual fans to watch post-season games.  But I digress. The question is, how can Theo be a great leader in a non-team oriented sport and what can we learn from him?

At the core of Fortune naming Epstein the greatest leader is his evolution from a highly successful, quant-oriented GM in the mold of Billy Beane and other “Moneyball” type executives, to one who determined that “character doesn’t just matter, it is essential.” His shift changed the way that the Cubs would evaluate players and resulted in the team’s first championship in 108 years. In the Fortune article, Epstein also spoke about players wanting to belong to something, and to feel a connection to teammates and the organization. Sounds good, but baseball history is replete with the tales of successful teams where the players literally despised each other, and in some cases actually fought in the clubhouse. Examples include the Yankees of the late 70’s; the A’s in the early 70’s, and many more. The joke about the Boston Red Sox in the 1950’s was after every game it was 25 cabs for 25 players. Of course Uber and Lyft didn’t exist then, but it doesn’t sound like those Red Sox teams would have done much ride sharing. And they didn’t do much winning either.

In considering Epstein as a great leader, his story provokes much thought about the components of leadership. It is important to keep in mind that baseball players are paid huge amounts of money. They make much more than managers and general managers, creating an environment where many players care only about themselves, not their team, teammates or organization. The baseball season is longer than ever, and players live and travel together for at least 8 months a year. In our age of the 24/7 news cycle, Twitter, Instagram etc., they are constantly examined in an unforgiving fishbowl, where schadenfreude seems to be part of the fan experience. No matter what happens on the field, today’s player interacts daily with teammates for most of the year

He used failure as an opportunity to learn and change.

The “Moneyball” philosophy has resulted in the game becoming obsessively data-driven, with baseball operations offices populated by “brilliant people with math and science degrees.” Epstein used this approach with great success in Boston where the team broke an 86-year World Series championship drought, won another Series, and appeared in the postseason six times in his nine-season tenure. But something really important happened at the end of that rollicking run that changed Epstein’s blueprint for building a winning organization and team. During his last season in Boston, the negative, me-first attitudes of a few players created a toxic atmosphere in the clubhouse, the Red Sox collapsed in September when the pressure was greatest, and Epstein took notice.

He challenged the conventional wisdom and focused on creating a culture of collaboration

When he arrived in Chicago to rebuild the perennially losing Cubs, he clearly communicated that he was going to change the way players are evaluated. Character, handling adversity on and off the field, how players treated people they came into contact with in all walks of life, and other non-athletic traits became part of the assessment process. Scouting reports became much longer and filled with non-empirical data. Long-time scouts who were unwilling or unable to adapt to the new way of doing business were let go. Said Epstein, “If we can’t find the next technological breakthrough, well, maybe we can be better than anyone else with how we treat our players and how we connect with players and the relationships we develop, and how we put them in positions to succeed. Maybe our environment will be the best in the game, maybe our vibe will be the best in the game, maybe our players will be the loosest, and maybe they’ll have the most fun, and maybe they’ll care the most. It’s impossible to quantify.” Epstein led by objectively evaluating the hits and misses of his Boston experience and shifted to a holistic approach to scouting and developing players and building a supportive, collaborative organization.

He inspired and empowered everyone in his organization to lead

The 2016 World Series was extremely close, and came down to a winner-take-all seventh game. The Cubs had lost a 3 run lead and momentum had shifted to the home team Indians when a rain delay sent both teams to their clubhouses. In the Cubs locker room, Jason Heyward stood up to speak. Heyward, who had signed a $184 million contract before the season, had a terrible year for the Cubs and was a non-factor in the World Series. Despite the fact that he was relegated to the bench on the game’s biggest stage, Heyward never complained about his reduced role or situation.  Instead, he made an impassioned speech to his teammates about his love for them and his absolute certainty about what they were going to do to win the World Series. Accounts of the game after the Cubs won were filled with testimonies from Cubs players about the impact of Heyward’s speech. Great leaders empower others to lead.

So, is Theo Epstein really the World’s Greatest Leader”? Whether you agree or not, what he has done in Chicago is a textbook demonstration of what great leaders do. After achieving historic success with the Red Sox, he fearlessly changed the winning formula that had turned around that franchise. He bucked the trend (and the “new conventional wisdom”) in a game that doesn’t change quickly or easily. He evolved, he adapted and he applied his vision of a different way of doing business.  He inspired the executives and players who work for him to stretch themselves to do things out of their comfort zone. Like all great leaders, he understood that building a successful organization always boils down to hiring, inspiring and empowering exceptional people who share a common vision and goal. Theo may not the greatest. But his greatness as a leader is inarguable. Now if we would come to New York apply his skills to the Mets, I might have to reconsider his place on the list.

What are your thoughts on great leadership?

The Dreaded Cocktail Party Question

February 22, 2017

“What do you do?”  From my vantage point as a recruiter and executive coach, I’ve seen how much stress these four little words can cause. Even when delivered with a smile as a friendly ice breaker, for many people “What do you do?” is truly the dreaded cocktail party question.

I first started thinking about this after many of our clients and candidates were laid off in 2007-2009.  While wave after wave of corporate layoffs were taking place, I was receiving calls from people who just wanted to talk about what had happened and what they could be doing to find a new position. Sadly, many who had been so much in demand found themselves with few recruiters who were just willing to meet. Suddenly lacking a job, an office, a business card and a schedule, they lost what had formerly been a strong sense of self. Within weeks and sometimes days after losing their jobs, I saw many people begin a process of seemingly forgetting all that they had accomplished, and the skills and experience that made it happen.

While coaching executives in transition, I’ve had the opportunity to further consider why people assume a limiting, one-dimensional self-view.  For most of us, it’s not difficult to understand the difference between our “what” (vocation) and our “who” (everything outside of work that makes us who we are).  We all know highly successful people who are bored with or dislike their jobs and/or their employers. It appears to be relatively easy for us to say “I am not defined by a job I dislike,” Why is it so much more difficult to say “I am not defined by not having a job at this time?”

In transition coaching, I work with clients to make an important shift to what we call “living from the inside out.” The process begins with an assessment that measures attitudinal responses to different situations.  Then we use a values tool, an exercise that helps clients identify or become reacquainted with their core values, defined as those values that don’t change, and where they won’t compromise, no matter what is going on around them. After the core values have been established, we examine where in their lives, both in and out of work, they are honoring those values, and where they are not. Once we understand what we value most deeply and why, we can better evaluate our current work situation and potential opportunities by using core values as part of the assessment process. Additionally, living from the inside out requires recognizing and recalibrating the filters that are activated when listening to and reacting to others.

When we have shifted to living from the inside out and encounter the dreaded question, we respond by describing our passions, goals and genuine excitement about our personal and professional journey. We tend to focus more on how we work and live instead of the what we do to make a living. We recognize social situations and all encounters with new people as personal and often professional opportunities. The biggest shift takes place when we begin to enjoy the journey of self-discovery as we move purposefully to the next phase of our lives.

If you are in between jobs, how do you handle the dreaded question? I’d love to hear from you and learn and share. Please feel free to reach out to me to start a discussion.

 

 

Toxic People In the Workplace

November 30, 2015

I recently read an article in Forbes Leadership entitled “Ten Toxic People You Should Avoid at All Costs.” It started promisingly, describing the impact of the stress that 10 different toxic personality types can cause. While it has been proven that there are serious negative effects from interacting with manipulators, gossips, self-absorbed, arrogants etc., I believe this article misses the point.  To put it politely, every workplace has at least one jerk, and usually more.

In my thirty years of recruiting and coaching executives, I’ve observed that those who expend their energy on avoiding toxic people place themselves squarely at the effect of the destructive behaviors and attitudes they so desperately wish to avoid. They begin a potentially never-ending journey of seeking a work environment where they feel safe, comfortable and positive, and therefore more productive.  Everyone has the ability to create change in others by first changing themselves.  What we think becomes what we feel, which ultimately becomes how we behave.  The source of the power of the negative attitudes and behaviors of others is our own thoughts and feelings.  When we work harder at understanding why certain people upset us, stress us out or just make us uncomfortable, we begin to act as leaders first of ourselves, and then others.

The greatest leaders instinctively understand that getting the best out of people is not about telling them what to do.  They lead with honesty and passion, and don’t judge others.  Each of us has the potential to be a leader, simply defined as influencing others to take action.  The path to becoming a great leader begins with leading oneself, and focusing on being at the cause, as opposed to the effect of other people and situations.

 

Djokovic’s Winning Strategy: Mind Over Chatter

September 15, 2015

After Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the U.S. Open Men’s Championship, he shared how he coached himself to turn the efforts of a mostly hostile crowd that was actively trying to disrupt his serve, to his advantage. “They would scream ‘Roger!” and I would imagine they were screaming ‘Novak!” “I came out to the court knowing what to expect and I was ready for it mentally, and i think it helped me keep my cool in the toughest moments.”

Much has been written about athletes that can block out the noise, the moment and the pressure to perform at a high level, but as an executive coach and recruiter, this was striking to me.  One of the precepts of coaching is “What people say is about them; what we hear is about us.” The implications of this simple statement are profound.  We have the ability to change our thoughts and when we do so, to change our behavior.  Every day, leaders, managers and employees process internal and external evaluations of their performance. Those that consistently perform at a high level keep negative words from becoming negative thoughts that create poor results. One of the most powerful things that great coaches do is work with their clients to identify thoughts that limit their performance, especially at times of high stress.  We can’t all block out 20,000 screaming voices and hit winners. But we all can learn how to identify and turn off the inner voices that hold us back from achieving our potential.

The Real Impact of Diversity

March 14, 2011

On every search, clients require that we provide a diverse slate of candidates.  This is a serious responsibility for search professionals and the companies that we represent in the marketplace.  Yet, because identifying and presenting diverse candidates has become a matter of course, it can be easy to fulfill our mandate without thinking about, or truly understanding its importance.

On Tuesday March 8, the New York Times printed an article about the managers of Villanova’s men’s and women’s basketball teams.  Nick Gaynor is the freshman manager of the women’s team; Frank Kineavy is the sophomore manager of the men’s squad.  Both of these young men made the dean’s list last semester.  Both of them do their jobs in wheelchairs, because each of them has cerebral palsy.  Frank Kineavy is unable to speak, write or walk.  He uses a computer system that is built into his wheelchair to communicate.  Nick Gaynor can speak, but he cannot walk.  Jay Wright, the men’s coach, treats Kineavy like all the other student managers.  He is responsible for evaluating practice and game films, looking for energy, chemistry and all of the little things that the coach teaches.   Wright said: “He picked up concepts on what we do quicker than any player or any person in our program.”  Wright foresees an expanded role next season for Kineavy.

The women’s coach, Harry Perretta said of Gaynor: “His greatest contribution is his ability as a motivator.  We draw strength from Nick.  Way more than he draws from us.”  This last comment brought home something that I learned while spending the first seven years of my career working in social services.  Then, while running a group home for multi-handicapped blind people, I saw on a daily basis, incredible abilities, courage and decency.  I was highly aware that I learned more and gained more inspiration from the people I was paid to help than I could ever hope to provide them.

The value of diversity in hiring is far greater than meeting legal requirements. Most of us work to live and if we’re lucky, we form friendships that enrich our lives outside the workplace.  When we work with people whose lives inspire and teach us, we receive a gift that is beyond measure.

Be Kind to the Candidates

December 3, 2009

I wrote this post during the height of the most recent financial crisis and the resultant deep cuts to the workforce.  I believe it is still highly relevant.

The voice mail was waiting for me when I woke up on one of the proudest days of my life.  I was in Virginia to witness my older son take the oath that made him an officer in the U.S. Air Force, when I picked up the message informing me that my flight had been cancelled.  The airline provided a sincerely recorded apology and invited me to call to make new arrangements.  There were no details or explanations for the cancelled flight, and no alternatives as all the other New York bound flights were sold out.

My feelings of joy and anticipation were quickly replaced by the anxiety and stress that comes with lacking any influence, information or control over one’s situation.  Fortunately, my extremely capable assistant was able to make the multiple phone calls and Internet searches that put me on another flight.  After the ceremony, I again checked my voicemail before boarding and listened to my messages, including several from candidates and unsolicited job seekers.  Once on board, I found myself thinking about the parallels between my experiences that day, and the situations of many of the people who had called me.

As the deep recession continues, candidates and job seekers are increasingly anxious.  Many of those who are employed are concerned about job security.  Those who are seeking employment are stressed by their lack of control or influence on the hiring process.  They crave information, updates and sometimes, guidance and support. As a retained search consultant, I understand the privileges and obligations that come with working for clients that hire us to represent them in the marketplace.  I also understand that candidates, like passengers on commercial flights, sometimes endure terrible experiences marked by sudden changes, little information and no recourse.

Today, more than ever, I believe it is imperative for all executive search professionals to provide candidates and unsolicited job seekers the same respect, responsiveness and professionalism that we afford our clients.  We deal with human beings who are experiencing significant stress as they vie for a limited number of employment opportunities. Whether you call it the Golden Rule or good business, it ultimately benefits all of us when we are kind to the candidates.