Baseball and Business Leaders – the Context of Heroes and Heels

A number of years ago a small technology company caught the attention of the press when it acquired a firm substantially larger than itself. The acquiring organization was not only small, it was without experience in undertaking acquisitions of any sort much less one of such a magnitude. To the surprise of most observers the subsequent integration proceeded very smoothly and soon the firm’s young CEO was being hailed for his creativity in meshing the two organizations together. Articles spoke of ‘new paradigms’ and of turning traditional approaches ‘on their heads’. Emboldened by its success the firm undertook another acquisition and then another. These also proceeded extremely well, until suddenly they did not. Seemingly overnight, revenue growth stalled, executive and customer defections became material to the business, and the dot com sensation morphed from darling to dog. The young CEO was jettisoned and replaced by a ‘seasoned veteran’.

In a subsequent article written about the company it was noted that the first acquired firm, a division of a much larger concern, faced sale or certain closure. Having an obvious preference for the first of those eventualities, employees were delighted when an acquisition was announced and highly motivated to do whatever it took to make it work. It was this context, more than any creativity on behalf of the acquiring firm, which likely greased the ensuing ‘successful’ integration process. The subsequent acquisitions did not benefit by a similar context and thus the acquiring firm’s inexperience and newly minted hubris became combustible factors.

I was somehow reminded of this story as I read the countless articles lauding Boston Red Sox Manager John Farrell who recently led the storied baseball franchise from last place to World Series Champions in one season. Newspapers gushed that Farrell had provided the ‘experience’, ‘steady hand’, ‘strategic mind’ and ‘connectedness’ necessary to return the team to championship form. Article after article applauded team ownership for the ‘brilliance’ of their hire.

Curiously, this is the same John Farrell who as Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays for the prior two seasons led that team to a far less noteworthy record of 154 wins and 170 losses. One Toronto scribe noted, “In two seasons with the Blue Jays, Farrell had a lot of trouble establishing exactly what kind of manager and what type of style of play he wanted to establish”. Another writer said, ‘quality of field talent notwithstanding, it would be difficult to consider Farrell’s stay in Toronto to be successful in any meaningful way’. How is it possible for a manager to transform from being so uninspiring to inspiring in such a short period of time?

As in the case of the start-up technology company, context may have played a role. The players on the Boston Red Sox team had been party to the firing of two managers in the prior two seasons. According to one article, one of these managers “lost his ability to prevent some of the lax behavior that characterized the collapse”, while the other was let go for what was described as ‘obnoxious pomposity’. It is altogether possible that Farrell inherited a group of underperforming players motivated to redeem themselves by cooperating and working hard with whoever took over the team.

Success seems to always trigger a search for its causes and thus winning baseball managers and executives alike are analyzed to identify those attributes/strategies that lead to their success. But the reality is that success is rarely ‘caused’. Instead it correlates to a whole constellation of factors including skill, experience, personality, competition, context, timing and luck. While history will show that John Farrell was the right manager for the Boston Red Sox in 2012/13, many other managers may well have had similar success in that situation. John Farrell’s brilliance may or may not shine again next season as the context changes yet again. To that point, major league baseball recently announced of the winner of the American League ‘Manager of the Year’ for 2013. Surprisingly, the winner was not the John Farrell, but rather Terry Francona one of the two managers released by the Boston Red Sox prior to Farrell’s hiring. His performance in revitalizing the fortunes of the Cleveland Indians this season was described as both ‘masterful’ and ‘brilliant’.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

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