This probably sounds like the start to an article about work/life balance, team-building exercises, or a fantasy sports pool, but I promise you it is not. I believe that baseball provides the perfect analogy for building and leading a successful team in the workplace. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, perhaps the next few paragraphs will inspire some ideas.
Managing the Team
Let’s start with the manager. The most impactful thing about managers in baseball is that they wear the uniform, literally and figuratively. They are part of the team as they lead — not a separate entity defined by a different set of rules or a different outfit. They are in the trenches (it is called a “dugout,” after all) with their team, which is the true definition of a leader. When you are part of the team it is very difficult to be a boss, but who wants to be? In what situation would you rather have a boss than a leader? When is bossing ever considered a positive thing? Be like a baseball manager. Wear the same uniform as the team, and lead from the field.
The Fundamental Skills of Baseball
When you think of a baseball player, what do you see in your mind’s eye? The glove, the bat, the uniform? A 5-ft. 9-in. second baseman, or a 6-ft. 5-in. tall pitcher? Would you say both individuals are good at baseball? If they are in the pros, the answer would be a resounding yes.
Regardless of the position, everyone on the field has a fundamental set of skills needed to play the game. They all need to be able to catch and throw the ball, to run, to communicate well, to work as a team, to know the rules of the game, and to be trustworthy. They all have the same fundamental goal as well: to win the game.
This is the same in any work environment. Your set of fundamental skills may be different than another team, but it is still there. Create a list of these skills for your team. These are non-negotiable; everyone needs these skills or they should not be on your team. These should be part of the required skills on a job posting. Examples might be the ability to communicate professionally, showing up for work on time, using a specific software, or having a certain license. Whatever these are, ensure that all players have the skills.
The Specialized Skills of the Position
While there are fundamental skills that everyone needs to have, there are also many specialized skills that someone needs to have. Not everyone on the field needs to be able to throw strikes, but the pitcher does. Not everyone needs to be able to throw the ball from the warning track, but the outfielders do. Not everyone needs to know how to set a lineup, but the manager does. Just like the fundamental skills, these are critical to your team’s success, but are much more specific.
Create a similar list of the specialized skills needed on your team. Some examples might be programming, creating marketing content, installing card readers, public speaking, etc. Ensure at least one person is capable of each specialized skill that your team needs. If you have a gap, you need to recruit specifically for that skill. Sometimes you might need to pass up a very talented individual because they lack the specific skill where you have a gap. As the great Knute Rockne said, “The secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my eleven best, but my best eleven.”
Rally Around a Goal & Make It About the Team
If everyone uses their skills to rally around the same goal, it is possible to attain the goal without perfection. In fact, perfection is so rare that it is noteworthy. When was the last perfect game thrown by a pitcher? When was the last time a player went four-for-four at the plate with four homeruns? When a team works together to achieve a goal, there is a much better chance of success. You may say, “I have an all-star on my team, he can carry the weight of a poor performer.” Perhaps, but it is extremely rare, and it almost never results in a win. Can baseball prove this? Of course.
Since 1989, there have been a total of 60 league MVPs selected in the major leagues — one from the National and one from the American leagues each year. These two individuals each year are the best of 1,200 major league players. Of those 60 best players, how many of them were on the team that won the World Series in the year they were the MVP?
The answer is four.
So, can a single MVP carry a team to victory? Maybe 5 percent to 10 percent of the time. Ask your CEO if a 10 percent success rate on projects at your company would be considered successful. I bet I know the answer.
Whether you are a baseball fan or not, consider this question. Do you recognize these names: Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, LA Dodgers, Chicago Cubs? I’m assuming everyone is nodding their heads in the affirmative. Now, without the aid of your smartphone, I challenge each of you to name the current managers of these famous teams. Only the most fanatical of baseball fans can probably do it.
What does this tell us? The leaders of the most successful teams are not necessarily famous; the team is.