How the Cubs, a 140-Year Old Baseball Team, Operate Like a Startup
The Chicago Cubs are having a spectacular season, clinching their division and on the way to winning 100+ games. Without taking anything for granted, it’s clear that their talent strategy and their commitment to rebuilding with young, impact players has begun to pay serious dividends. For a team that’s been around since the 19th century and last won the World Series in 1908, the Cubs also look an awful lot like a scrappy startup–a work always in progress where everything is up for discussion, and change, if it’s likely to move the mission forward.
Of course, to give credit where it’s also due, it doesn’t hurt to have general manager Theo the Brainiac extending a string of increasing wins per season (61, 66, 73 and 100 and counting) for five straight years. That’s the kind of hockey stick growth that any startup would love to see. And, having Joe M at the helm with his mix of old and new age magic simply confirms something that I have always believed, which is that old age and treachery (in a good way) will always beat youth and exuberance. We had a chance recently to hear a lot of “inside baseball” talk from top management in the Cubs organization and there were a few key takeaways that will be valuable for whatever business you’re building. Keep in mind that these are my observations about what’s going on and what’s behind the rebirth and the Cubbies improving fortunes.
Creating the right culture and reinforcing the commitment of everyone in the organization to winning the World Series were two of the higher level and very central themes of the conversation. This reminded me of the early days of 1871 in some important ways. When we began discussing and defining the culture of 1871 and the special community that we hoped it would become, we spent a substantial amount of time on governance. As you would expect from a group that included a number of successful and outspoken entrepreneurs, there were plenty of competing ideas and lots of loud opinions. Entrepreneurs don’t always color within the lines– that’s part of their enduring charm. But if you’re not careful it can also make for a messy environment, which is disruptive in all the wrong ways.
I’d say that ultimately we ended up opting for a basically Miesian “less is more” approach with just a few red lines. If things worked out well, 1871 would be a place driven by the right attitudes rather than by rigorous authority. I like to think that my biggest contribution to the whole process was a single sentence: “A great culture has to be built on expectations of performance, not rules of behavior.” We couldn’t have written a master rule book even if we wanted to for an enterprise that was very much a grand experiment we fervently hoped would become a self-sustaining and organic ecosystem.
The Cubs have some of the very same challenges– to pull the broadest possible community into Wrigley Field, to change the surrounding neighborhood for the better, and to make the entire country sit up and take notice of what’s happening in Chicago.
As I listened during our meetings to the details of the Cubs approach, I was struck by the similarities to our own 1871 philosophy. The Cubs way is all about building a winning team for sure; but the foundations and the manner in which the ultimate goals would be achieved are all about the players’ responsibility for (a) controlling their own behavior; (b) improving their own performance (there would be plenty of help, but they needed to provide the heart); and (c) contributing to the greater good, which means specifically putting the team’s success ahead of their own.
I came away having identified 5 basic strategic steps that I think are working for the Cubs and a helpful framework for anyone building a new business as well. Keep in mind that these things don’t propagate themselves and that consistently communicating them to your team and the broader world of third party stakeholders is a crucial and ongoing part of the success of the system. Everyone wants to know where they’re going and how they’re gonna get there and also wants to be sure that they won’t be going alone. Equally important today for the younger players and team members is overt recognition and reinforcement — delivered authentically all along the way. Silent gratitude doesn’t mean squat. Money is always nice, but that’s what contracts deliver; acknowledgment and appreciation are the real drivers for young people these days.
So here are the 5 “simple” steps.
(1) Set the Team (Talent)
The up-and-coming ballplayers are the building blocks of any business’s future and you’ve got to get and/or grow the best possible raw material for your team as cost-effectively as possible, which in the major leagues actually means as early as possible. It’s too bad that there’s not a farm club system for every industry and this is a real issue for startups because you have to manage a mix of energetic young people and experienced older folks when you’re growing quickly since not everyone can be learning the ropes as they go. OJT is great, but too many people with too much rope can get your company tangled in knots.
One really important thing to note is that the Cubs aren’t just looking to recruit and grow their own talent on the ball field– they’re applying the same approach to every part of the organization. In a business like baseball that is so people-centric, the gap in impact and effectiveness between a good team member and a great team member isn’t 2X; it’s more likely 5X to 10X. That’s because in a service business everything happens every day on the front line and there’s no time to consult a rule book or a manager– you’ve got to go with your gut, and with what you’ve been taught, seen and internalized. You’ve also got to use your best judgment in the moment since you won’t get a second chance to make a first (very critical) impression.
Initiative, creativity and empathy are force multipliers and the hardest challenge in an expanding and rapidly-growing people business is to keep these qualities alive in your team members as they age, grow and progress in your organization.
(2) Set the Table (Tools)
If you don’t give your team the best available resources, tools and technologies they need to be successful, within whatever your realistic cost constraints may be, you’re asking them to play one-handed. This won’t get you very far. The Cubs are spending more than $600 million on bricks and mortar alone to leapfrog the entire league and move from a sorry last place to the No. 1 position in the country in terms of athletic facilities, training and rehab resources, technology, nutrition, etc. I’ve seen the new spaces and they are astonishing.
Here again, there’s an underlying element that is critical. My good friend Harper Reed, who is awesome, always says that contrary to popular opinion, building a great corporate culture isn’t about snacks, hammocks or foosball. Culture is about creating an environment where talented people who respect each other can work together to take on important challenges and make a difference. Respect is the key word.
The Cubs set aside a substantial empty space in their new clubhouse digs for the players’ lounge, but then the designers stepped back and let the players decide exactly what screens, games, instruments, etc. would be in their space and how it would be set up. This wasn’t about toys or technology– it was about respect for the players’ opinions, their downtime, and their desires and giving them some ownership in the overall process and the outcome. The players’ pride in “their place” is palpable.
(3) Set the Schedule (Timing)
Nothing this big or this costly happens overnight, but something happens every day and everyone notices. In today’s world, if you’re not moving forward, you’re losing ground to someone. Momentum means more than size or scale. An ounce of momentum is worth a pound of acceleration. So it’s critically important to establish some targets and then to hit them. They don’t have to be home runs – they can be singles and doubles, but they need to point people in the right direction and show them that there are big innings ahead and that things will only get better from here. And these milestones need to be recorded and celebrated throughout the business on a regular basis. Lastly, it’s death to overpromise and under deliver. If you want people to believe your promises about tomorrow; it helps to have kept your word from yesterday.
(4) Set and Manage the Metrics (Thermostat)
What gets measured is definitely what gets done. Even more importantly, there’s no sway and no confusion when you’re talking about performance against previously agreed-upon goals and standards. You make your numbers or you don’t. And there’s really no such thing as a good excuse in a well-run business. Or getting by blaming the other guys or laying it off on circumstances beyond your control. You take your medicine and you move on, but you also take away and apply the lessons going forward.
If you’re gonna sit by and watch things happen to your business, you might as well be sitting in the bleachers. It’s not enough to be the thermometer and just passively record the results; the best managers are thermostats whose actions raise the heat and improve the outcomes.
This may seem a little easier to do in a game that tracks at-bats and hits and runs than in your industry, but every business needs to develop effective and relatively frictionless ways to keep score for everyone’s benefit and also to establish and implement these criteria at every level and for everyone in the business. The continued emergence of new and inexpensive measurement technologies is making this responsibility easier and more essential all the time.
(5) Step Back (Trust)
Once you’ve put everything in place, there’s another critical element in the process that really separates the winners from the copycats and the folks who are just going through the motions. You can’t “ape” your way to a winning culture. You can’t buy a mission statement at the mall that means anything real. You need two-way trust. You have to take a step back and trust your players and your people to get out there and get the job done.
You can’t do it for them. In fact, you can explain things to them-; over and over again -; but you can’t understand this stuff for them. You can talk your way into their heads, but it’s what’s in their hearts that makes all the difference. They have to know three things: that you trust them; that the system is objective, not subjective; and that you’ve got their backs -;rain or shine-; as long as they give it their all.
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About the Author
Howard A. Tullman, CEO, 1871
Howard Tullman has over 45 years of start-up, management, IPO and turn-around experience and an extensive operations background in web development, online services, large-scale information assembly and delivery systems, database design and implementation and the development, creation and production of all types and formats of multimedia, computer games and audio/video digital content. He has designed and developed GUI and natural user interfaces, interactive and immersive games and instruction systems and other electronic entertainments, training products and services, as well as other information-based products and services in a variety of fields including automotive, insurance, CRM, employment, real estate, consumer goods and social media.