The Real Loss in the Departure of Alex Anthopoulos

November 5, 2015 at 9:28 AM

Much has been written about the departure of Alex Anthopoulos from the Toronto Blue Jays. He has been lionized by many as a brilliant strategist whose trade-deadline magic returned Toronto’s baseball team to glories past. For others, the legacy of Mr. Anthopoulos is decidedly mixed, a hodgepodge of good and less-than-good decisions the sum of which won’t be clear until the full costs and benefits of his transactions play out in seasons to come.

Executives of all stripes are evaluated in a similarly variable manner. Some are judged on their most recent body of work while others have their careers weighed linearly or in toto. And while each may be valid in gauging past performance, they are not all equal in predicting the future. Will Alex Anthopoulos’ next employer be securing the services of someone who was lucky or good?  Inconsistent or steadily improving? Someone who sold out the future for a fleeting present? Or someone whose education the Blue Jays paid for over many years only to be lost on graduation? There is reason to believe the latter is most likely.

When the 32 year old Anthopoulos took over the Toronto Blue Jays he confidently announced that he would ‘retool’ the underperforming team. Henceforth the organization would focus on scouting and drafting rather than trading and free-agency.  Mr. Anthpoulos would build ‘a pool of athletic guys with high ceilings’ while concurrently enhancing organizational processes, systems and feedback loops. As he was quoted, “We will build and study our processes, look at things we do well and don’t do well, constantly refining. In theory we should get better”.

Unfortunately ‘should get better’ did not immediately become ‘did get better’. Mr. Anthopoulos nonetheless faced up to the lessons being learned, “You always know you’re going to miss. But we need to miss less. It’s so important”. He dabbled and experimented. When sabermetrics and his consensus based decision-making style failed to pay short-term dividends he pivoted. When asked about his strategy for hiring a new field manager, he said: “I am going to trust my gut this time!” There would be no more “listening only to my democratic angels, analyzing and absorbing opinions and information trying to be a good leader.”  Instead, Anthopoulos would follow his instincts, a decidedly dangerous approach for most.

It is uncommon for major corporations such as Rogers to indulge in the education of a young executive entrusted with such a valuable asset as a professional sports team. They almost always prefer proven experience. In the case of young Mr. Anthopoulos however, he had the mentoring and protection of team president Paul Beeston which afforded the young general manager the time and safety to learn and to make mistakes without immediate fear of losing his job. And learn he did. 

Reflective, self-aware and adaptive, Mr. Anthopoulos started to piece together the puzzle. He developed a more nuanced understanding of the elements of success. In a recent Maclean’s magazine article, the Blue Jays General Manager said that he now puts “less emphasis on talent and tools and production. Don’t get me wrong: that is still the driver in any player acquisition. But we put more of an emphasis on character, make-up, quality of the human being, what kind of teammate they are. That’s not to say we didn’t value it before, but we decided to up the percentage quite a bit. We probably didn’t value it enough, and that starts with me. That’s part of being a young GM: learning from mistakes just like players try to make adjustments and tweaks. I think I said it after we clinched the American League East: I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the other way..”

Mr. Anthopoulos moved from the study of athletics to analytics to alchemy. He started to reflect on the difference between fielding a collection of high performing athletes and putting together a high performing team. As he said “Some people might roll their eyes at that, but I do believe—and it’s easy to say because we’re winning—that we’ve taken players that were less talented than others we could have had because they fit the values of what we are trying to do as a team. When you look at the definition of a team—everybody coming together, pulling together, playing for one another, making each other better—this is the first time I can say I’ve been around a true team”.

Arguably herein is the real loss for the Toronto Blue Jays. In Mr. Anthopoulos’ departure, at the age of only 38, they are losing someone who is starting to understand how to be an effective General Manager.  They are losing someone who is bright, reflective, self-aware, who sees setbacks as learning opportunities and who adapts. They are losing someone with all of the characteristics of a classic high performer. What a shame for the Blue Jays.

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. 

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777