by CIO Staff

Play Ball–A Manager’s Guide to Conversation

Jul 25, 20066 mins

One of the richest traditions in baseball, a game that by nature is tradition, is the idea of “talking baseball.” It is a concept that is one part teaching, another part oral history. Ted Williams, one of the game’s greatest hitters, loved to talk about hitting and loved to share his insights with young players. Sandy Koufax travels regularly to Dodger spring training to talk about pitching to young prospects. And managers, from stoic Joe Torre to the voluble Don Zimmer, talk game situations and how to deal with them strategically and tactically. Baseball, among all the major sports, is the one that puts a premium on sharing knowledge player to player, manager to player and manager to executive. Toss in sportswriters, broadcasters and statisticians, and you have a soup of story and tradition that accounts for at least one reason the game is called the National Pastime: It gives people a great deal to talk about.

Share the lessons

And that’s why baseball may be a good teacher for managers. Anytime you get two or more people together from the same discipline–be it law, medicine or accounting–they will slip into dialogue about their profession, the upside, the downside, and the “what can you do about it” mode. Less of this occurs on the management level; rarely do managers in business talk, as managers in baseball do, about the practice of management. Peter Drucker wrote a monumental book on the topic a half century ago, but that was from the perspective of a consultant advising business people. High profile CEO types from Jack Welch to Lou Gerstner write books about it, but seldom do managers spend time among themselves talking about what they do. That is too bad, because from such conversations emerge lessons that can be applied to any business. So borrowing a page from baseball, here’s how to start that conversation.

Emphasize team. Baseball is a one to one sport, where one play at a time typically involves one player at a time. But over the course of a game, and the season, it involves thousands and thousands of plays that include everyone on the team. And so it’s important that managers communicate to everyone that baseball is a team sport and that players have to play as much for the team as for themselves. This rule is essential for any team that hopes to contend for a championship. And it is a critical lesson for managers in business. We preach team but reward individual performance, so employees go for what will benefit them first, even if it might not benefit the team.

Talk tactics. With two men on, a two two count and one run behind, do you play hit and run? Questions such as this get to the fundamentals of baseball–what you do as a manager, a hitter, a fielder and a pitcher in every situation with players on base, off base, at the plate or on deck. Situations form the core of baseball; it is a game of reaction once the ball’s in play, but prior to each pitch, every player, coach and manager thinks about what to do next. And good managers talk about this with their team before, during and after the game. Managers in business can apply this lesson by talking with staffers as well as each other about the discipline of their function; what they do, how they do it and what they can improve. Conversations such as these about “fundamentals” keep people focused and maybe will even spawn new ideas.

Play the game the right way. The only rule that is posted on the clubhouse door is “no gambling.” It is something that legendary hitter and loudmouth Pete Rose never learned; it cost him a place in the Hall of Fame. Aside from that rule, there is a spirit of how you play the game that players from every age would recognize, and it comes down to a single word: character. You play with your head–know the rules; you play with your heart–you care about what you do; and you play with your spirit–you play with integrity and never show up another player, and that includes an opponent. Character matters in business, not simply in ethical matters, but also in how managers and employees relate to each other. Expectations for the job should always include the “how” issues–that is, how employees cooperate, coordinate and collaborate. Putting a premium on the human relations ensures that your employees play their games right, too.

Keep a level head

Baseball managers receive a scrutiny that managers in business do not receive. Even the most celebrated CEOs do not have their decisions second- and triple-guessed each day in the media by others who sometimes care more about being clever than being correct. So managers learn soon enough to maintain easy relations with the media, always keeping an open door, but learning to speak a dialect that some call “coach speak,” and public relations professionals call “smart.” Such language pats players on the back, speaks deferentially about those in charge and always thanks the fans who buy the tickets. Smart indeed, and a lesson for any manager who must deal with the public. Team matters, and anything that involves player’s performance is reserved for behind closed doors.

It is has been said that baseball is the sport most similar to life. After all, the professional season spans six months, not including spring training and the postseason. Players average playing six games per week and spend off hours in motion from airport to airport, hotel to hotel, and back and forth to the ballpark. You get to know, if you choose, the players on your team, if not as family, then certainly as colleagues and fellow travelers.

Above it all, there is the game, the one with the small “g” and what you play on the field, as well as the one with the big “g” that involves the players, management, ownership and sponsorship. How a player performs on field and off says a great deal about who he is as a performer, as well as a person. Often it falls to the manager to keep the two halves of his players–personal and professional–in balance so he can do his best when it matters most. Working with his team. And that’s not a bad lesson for all of us.