Paid to Play, or Paid to Win?
Posted by Dave Clark on July 24, 2006
Demand Greatness, Accept Nothing Less than Victory
By David Josef Clark
Taking an unplanned month away from the Internet – the blogs, message boards, new sites and even e-mail – gave me the opportunity to reevaluate my thoughts on baseball, sports and life in general. The sale of the NBA’s Seattle Sonics, who employed me for portions of three seasons, pinpointed and highlighted the particular issue of organizational goal-setting and stakeholder buy-in that I have refined during this time.
The fact is that in my 13 years of adult life I have been employed by only two organizations that could be considered dominant. While many of the others were very good at what they did – particularly my affiliation with Locked on Sports on KJR – only the 5th Special Forces Group of the US Army and Starbucks, Inc. have excelled at pretty much everything they do.
A large part of what makes these “companies” special is also what makes the following three Major League Baseball Clubs extraordinary. The New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have all performed at consistently superior levels for extended periods of time. Within all three baseball clubs, the Special Forces and Starbucks there is a fairly unique thing displayed as American companies.
It is a complete understanding by all stakeholders, including employees, players, soldiers, partners, officers, executives, opponents, customers, and fans, that victory and/or success is the only acceptable conclusions to a season, mission or fiscal year. This success orientation is more than just part of a publicly displayed mission statement; it is the expectation and culture of the institution.
Cultural traits such as these are what empower Corporals to override a Captain’s suggestion as long as the evidence of victory is strong. They are what get the executive level partners working in coffeehouses for a few days per quarter just to gain an understanding of the impact of their decisions while connecting with the customers and partners at the level that determines Starbucks’ ultimate success.
It is this cultural expectation of victory that lead Atlanta Braves right-hander John Smoltz to accept a two-year detour as a dominant closer and then happily moving back to the starting rotation when it became apparent that those roles would best lead his club to continue their NL East supremacy.
These expectations of victory are the authority behind Walt Jocketty gambling on aging veterans like Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire or having the natural magnificence of Albert Pujols available to become one of the three greatest players of the time.
And the ‘Culture of Victory’ within baseball is most clearly demonstrated by the behavior of everyone affiliated with the New York Yankees baseball club. Where the concept of “these guys are paid to play” is not even tolerated, much less accepted. No Yankees roster member is paid to play baseball. They are paid to win baseball games. Victory is what matters.
If the Yankees are a better team by paying a player to not play for them that is what they do – they separate themselves from losing. Sunk costs do not matter. The driving force behind the Joe Torre/Brian Cashman New York Yankees is one thing – victory.
Expectations this high place a lot of pressure on the organizations’ employees/players. But such success brings the same level of pleasure to the customers/fans and develops a brand loyalty that is nearly unbreakable. With such high stress, how is it that many of these organizations have turnover rates that rank lower than their industry standards?
This theory is called many names, but is an aversion to the traditional, nearly feudal management structure of large organizations. It is the ability of stakeholders to influence decisions that affect the entire company. It empowers even simple lower enlisted soldiers, hourly baristas and bench players to make positive contributions to the success of the organizations.
Within baseball this is exhibited by an immense trust in advance scouts, faith in new theories of roster management. This is shown by a willingness to reward excellence in the minors with a call up to the Majors. When a gold glove shortstop lets the organization know that he will move a few strides right – damaging his own defensive reputation for the sake of the team – that’s the kind of bottom up management that takes advantage of the minds of the many, rather than the power of the few. This theory diminishes the power of the entrenched veteran and prefers performance in the now, and the future over past success.
The Braves even do this in a somewhat unique manner by locating all of their minor league clubs within the greater South. This enhances their ability to judge talent in traditional top down style. What it also does is allow a greater level of interaction with the same people who developed the talent that is currently performing – at a Major League level.
Active participation by all stakeholders across levels of participation is the key to this theory. It means that if a customer, a blogger, a player, an employee, a manager and as traditional an executive comes up with a good idea, it is evaluated, and if valuable, enacted accordingly.
There are enormously valuable resources available to all organizations free of charge these days – customers, fans, blogs, google, etc. Organizations willing to capture these ideas, and evaluate and quickly implement those that compliment the success-based mission statement will be the organizations that dominate over long stretches of time.
The Seattle Mariners
All of this mission statement and management theory is just theory right? Every organization wants to succeed, don’t they?
Certainly, but each entity defines its success differently. Some are willing to accept odd things as “success” in baseball. Some call it “competitive baseball.” Organizations that demand victory don’t shoot for competitive baseball. They aim for dominance.
In the business world, organizations that want to compete rather than lead the pack, wind up being the Tully’s to the big dog – Starbucks. When another nation sees the Special Forces show up they know that the Green Berets aren’t there to just compete, they are there for victory and fear shall take its toll.
The Boston Red Sox have their Yankees Complex and for much of their history the idea that they were not pursuing overall victory kept them second best. The Yankees, the Braves and the Cardinals all pursue the World Series on an annual basis. Being good is not enough for them. Only the concept of being great – every year – is acceptable.
The Seattle Mariners organization accepts being simply competitive. For the Baseball Club of Seattle, good is good enough. The lack of an overriding management philosophy shows up when the power pinch-hit bats play every other week. It shows up when the field manager frowns on the performing prospect in favor of the seasoned veteran. It is again under display when front office personnel are under valid criticism for pursuing a fan friendly environment and three million attendees over shear greatness.
Any organization that strives to be bedir than average will only win by accident, not by intent or design. Those organizations for which being bedir than average is failure will have sustained success. The Mariners have actually chosen to not be great. The Seattle Ball Club has chosen mediocrity and the whims of random chance. Their aim to be above average means that at times they will be great, such as 2000 and 2001, and at times they will fail, as they have miserably the past two seasons.
A skeptic will say that when the opposition knows the mission statement they have an intelligence or scouting advantage. That same skeptic would then need to show how even though every baseball organization knows exactly how the Yankees, Braves and Cardinals go about their business, they continue to enjoy prolonged success.
One would need to show how even though Starbucks has made its Mission Statement and Guiding Principles publicly available for years, they still dominate the coffee business. There are reams of data for public consumption on how the Special Forces operate, and yet none of their opposition stands for long.
The Seattle Mariners Baseball club needs a clear and concise organizational philosophy that is centered on dominating the American League West – every single year; they can still do this through player centric stories while attracting more than three million fans that enjoy watching the past time in one of the most amazing ballparks in the world.
The Mariners would do this by combining their success at attracting international talent, developing amazing bullpen arms, recognizing that success at a major league level is superior to a “hot minor league prospect” and continuing to capture the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest, Southwest Canada and the entire Pacific Rim.
The Mariners need to choose and demand greatness on a daily basis – from everyone within the organization; no one should be paid to play. This franchise needs to pay the players, and everyone else behind the scenes, to WIN.