The merger of “corporate speak” and baseball
By Scott Langdon
Canadian Baseball Network
The Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins often use words such as vision, values, culture, leadership and others that are more commonly linked to the corporate world than baseball. They are becoming as familiar to Jays’ fans as walk, strikeout and home run.
Shapiro’s introductory news conference in Nov. 2015 featured phrases such as “…inclusive and collective culture”, “sense of urgency” and “collectively take accountability” and others often found in a business book.
Callers to sports talk shows following the news conference were heard to say: “Huh? What is with the corporate speak? Will you re-sign David Price or not?”. Some callers offered that, “Alex would re-sign him”, referring to departed general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
Anthopoulos’ simple, straightforward, folksy language contrasted with the buttoned-down vocabulary of the new president.
Shapiro has been nothing if not consistent in the three years since. His general manager, Atkins, and player development director, Gil Kim, and others throughout the organization sing from the same song sheet.
What, some Blue Jays’ fans still ask, does this so-called “corporate speak” have to do with baseball?
The Canadian Baseball Network reached out to the general manager of one of Canada’s most successful baseball programs over the past decade for some answers.
Andre Lachance recently stepped down after 14 years as the field manager of Canada’s national women’s baseball team, second-ranked in the world and bronze medal winner at the 2018 Women’s World Cup of Baseball. The team has finished top five in all eight World Cups.
Lachance is a devotee of Adam Grant, not a baseball executive, but a renowned organizational psychology professor at The Wharton School, the business faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He read Grant’s book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, listens to his podcast and follows Grant’s Twitter account, often re-tweeting him.
The Blue Jays recently sent some top prospects and management staff to a U.S. Army Ranger camp to learn about “culture and trust”. Lachance recently returned from Cuba where he ran a week-long development camp for young players aspiring to play for the women’s national team. It was the 10th consecutive year for the camp, which typically includes off-field, cultural activities “to make it more than just a baseball experience.”
Q. You are a baseball coach. Adam Grant is an organizational psychology theorist whose work is aimed primarily at the business community. What’s the connection?
I’m a curious person. I read his book Give and Take, which talks about succeeding not by focusing on your own journey, but by learning to bring others with you. It helped me understand people better, that there are givers and takers. It changed the way I look at people I want to associate with and the athletes I want on our team. I learned how to identify the leadership style I should use with our team and how to adapt it to different athletes. Whether sports or business, it’s about team… succeeding with a team approach.
Q. What exactly is culture and why does it matter on a baseball team?
Our culture is the way we do things…the norms and values and traditional behavior of our group. All successful organizations have a culture of performance as part of their program. That includes the All Blacks, the French Soccer Federation and countless others in both sports and business. Culture also drives the selection process, makes you accountable and helps everyone be on the same page when it comes to organization decisions.
Q. Grant, like Blue Jays’ management, talks about subjects such as organization vision, values and leadership. Does your baseball team have a written vision and values statement as a business would? If so, how do you make it meaningful to the players and get their buy-in?
Yes, we do. It is called Gold Standards. Our goal is to win. It lists 18 values we expect from our athletes to help us do that. Our players developed the list with the facilitation of the coaches. There is buy-in from the players because it is their list, the values they expect from each other.
We also produced a Winners’ Manual for our players. It is a motivation book that includes recollections of our teams dating back to 2010. It has player and coach stories and other things for our players to read.
Q. What are values and what values do you want associated with your baseball team?
Our values are everything we consider to be part of our team DNA. When there are problems or issues on the team, the Gold Standards give us something to refer to so we can resolve them. Before a world championship tournament, our players sit together and decide for themselves the two or three values they need to focus on to win. In 2016 at the World Cup, for example, I remember them deciding that poise, trust and communication were key.
Q. What if your best player doesn’t share those values? What is more important, values or performance?
If a good player doesn’t buy in, they don’t play. They wouldn’t be happy anyway. Eventually, the team would push them out.
Q. What are the qualities of an effective leader on a baseball team?
Commitment to getting better year ‘round. Take responsibility for your mistakes and move on quickly because baseball is a game of failure. Bring a consistent level of energy to the field. The coaches shouldn’t have to do that for you.
Q. Your battery mates when you won the bronze medal in 2018 were both 16 years old. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. will be 20 years old when the Jays open a new season. Team management talks about the importance of him learning to be a leader. Can the youngest player on a team be a leader?
No doubt. There are different kinds of leaders on a baseball team on and off the field. It could be a young player who is a quiet leader, someone who leads through performance. Or, it might be a role player who doesn’t play much but is always ready when needed. An older player might see a younger one as a threat to playing time, but at the same time the younger one helps that player elevate their own game if they want to play.
Q. James Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote an acclaimed leadership book called The Leadership Challenge. They say it is unlikely a leader will succeed without “relevant experience and exceptionally good people skills”. Can a team put too much pressure on a young, inexperienced player to be a leader?
As I said, there is more than one leader and leadership style on a team, or there should be.
Q. Blue Jays’ pitcher Marcus Stroman recently spoke about the importance of veteran leadership on a baseball team. Is veteran leadership important and, specifically, what do you expect your veteran players to provide that a young player cannot?
The experiences of our veteran players are highly valued. They help guide the younger ones to deal with certain game situations and help them understand how to get ready, to prepare before a game. They also share stories from the past that help to build continuity as players change and the team evolves.
Q. The head of sport science at a well-known Florida institution recently told me it is generally accepted that “the best human beings make the best athletes”. Do you agree or disagree and why?
I’m not sure exactly what that means, but you do want your athletes to be team players. You want them to fit your way of thinking. It makes sense to select athletes for your team that way.
Q. Sum it up…what is the link between these corporate concepts such as vision and culture with a successful baseball team? Do they make a difference between winning and losing?
When players learn from each other, it makes your team better. You often hear that people can learn a lot from failure, from losing. Well, you can learn a lot from winning, too. When we win, we talk about it in a debrief after the game. Why did we win? What did we do well that we have to do again?
There are things we cannot control. For example, the United States has more players to choose from for their national team. Some teams come from a warmer climate allowing them to play more. Teams like South Korea and Japan have more structure down through their systems than we do in Canada. So, it would be easy to say we have no chance. Our team’s vision, values, culture are described in the Gold Standards and the Winners Manual. They are among the elements that help to form a winning team.
Perhaps the Blue Jays’ focus on common business concepts such as culture, vision, values and leadership is not that uncommon after all. They have helped Canada’s national women’s baseball team be one of the best.
In the business world, 70 to 90 per cent of large-scale mergers and acquisitions fail to achieve financial goals according to the Harvard Business Review. The success or failure of the Blue Jays’ merger of “corporate speak” and baseball will likely be determined by the fans as they watch and judge the team’s continuing efforts to improve and to build a sustainable winning culture.