Summer school for managers

Aug. 2006

What I know about managing people wouldn’t fill two pages of a book, and might not even get me through this column. But the handful of valuable lessons I’ve learned about getting individuals to work together in a common cause came from a setting where you won’t find a single cubicle, copy of Microsoft Office or molding cup of yogurt left behind by the guy in IT who went to work for Oracle.

Rather, they derived from about 400 square feet of hardened brown dirt backed by patches of barely tended grass and fronted by a latticework of thick fence wire.

A ball field.

This summer marks my retirement after 12 years of coaching recreational-level youth baseball and softball teams. Started when my five-year-old son was whacking the ball from a stationery tee, ended in mid-July with a winning season from a team whose scrappy, hard-throwing shortstop happens to be my 16-year-old daughter.

In between, everything every volunteer coach goes through. Wrenching meltdowns. Sobbing players. The occasional defiant parent. Dusty duffel bags of gear hauled 200 times from the car trunk. Miniature coolers filled with ice cubes to keep ankles from bruising and swelling. That vacant, helpless feeling when your pitcher has walked four consecutive batters and you’ve got nothing in the bullpen and it’s only the third inning.

And now and then, marvelous, joyous breakthroughs. The awkward kid with few friends who, hitless until now, keeps a rally alive in a championship game by lacing a hard single over second base and will, you realize, have that moment to keep forever. The towering two-out fly ball that remains suspended forever above right field before it finally lands with a convincing thwack! in the deepest part of a kid’s glove – your kid’s glove – for the final out. 

Coaching rec-level ball isn’t anywhere near as demanding as managing a competitive youth team filled with scholarship-seekers and the determined parents who drop them off in the parking lot. But in some ways it’s more emblematic of the reality of managing a company, or a division, or a mail room. You have a mix of talents and temperaments to accommodate. Some you recruited, some you inherited, some you settled for because it was Friday and you needed to fill a position on Tuesday. So you work with what you’ve got.

Here are three things the 100 or so players I’ve coached over the last 15 summers have taught me about doing that.

  • Let people know what their job is. A cable TV industry executive I respect once said the most important thing a manager can do is to let subordinates know what’s expected of them. This summer a novice ballplayer with a brand new glove and zero experience showed up at our first practice. Alex Rodriguez she was not. So we defined for her a single role. She would station herself in center field, and she would not let a ball get past her. That’s it. Her job was not to drive in runs, slap-bunt or catch a fly ball in the air. She was expected to do one thing: keep the ball in front of her. She saved two games in late innings for us by fulfilling that role brilliantly.

  • Do a few things very well. A variation on the “stick to the knitting” theme of In Search of Excellence, the legendary management book by McKinsey alums Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman. If you’ve ever coached, you’ve had a well-intentioned assistant come up to you with a scrap of paper featuring a brilliantly conceived and equally complex special-circumstance play. Your assistant spent three nights on the thing. Your job is to say “thank you,” tuck the paper gently in your pocket, and go back to drilling your team for the 400th time on making a routine and exceptionally uncomplicated groundball out. Because you’ve only got so much time, and that’s what you decided you’d do better than any competitor.

  • Recognize talent. Find and cultivate something in every team member they can bring to the party. Then give them a chance to bring it. Just as the shy kid with the rocket arm ought to be put in a position to throw a runner out at home when it matters, the administrative assistant everybody seems to adore might just be that killer account executive you can’t seem to find after plowing through 200 resumes from 

    And one more thing: Never, ever make the first out at third base.

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