My first job out of college was as a financial analyst at a large computer equipment company. Working at its headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, I got a firsthand look at the bureaucracy of a large corporation where great ideas that started out as rich in flavor as rocky road quickly were reduced to another form of vanilla. It was here that I coined the phrase, “Big companies demand excellence but promote mediocrity.” You rarely hear the statement, “Go big or go home” in a large corporation. Incremental improvement is favored because it involves less risk and doesn’t upset the natural order of things at the company.
Another example of this way of thinking was the Chicago Cubs baseball team, commonly known as “The Lovable Losers,” who always started out the year with enthusiasm and great expectations, only to collapse and end the year in the cellar. “Wait ’til next year” was the Cubs’ annual post-All- Star Game chant. The Cubs had patient ownership that was content with incremental improvement, and they hired managers who would hopefully “take them to the next level.”
The Cubs’ destiny changed in 2009 when the team was bought by the Ricketts family, who then hired Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations in 2011. Epstein inherited a team that had posted a 71-91 record, but here is where it gets interesting. He didn’t say to his team, “Let’s get to .500” or “Let’s try to make the playoffs.” Instead, he created a fiveyear goal to win the World Series and instructed his staff that, going forward, all plans and evaluations would be viewed with this goal in mind. Period.
The Cubs lost 101 games in 2012 and had two more losing seasons, but throughout this time, all recruiting, hiring, and player development decisions were made with the goal of winning the World Series. They let go popular players whom they believed couldn’t help them achieve that ultimate goal. They realized that, instead of hiring big-name free agents, they needed to develop their own players out of the minor leagues. They also took the best ideas from other clubs and morphed them into their own way of doing things. They then taught their unique approach to players and staff, making sure everybody bought into the culture. In 2015, the Cubs made it to the National League Championship Series and lost. In 2016, however, five seasons after hiring Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year championship drought and won the World Series.
Let’s think about our own businesses through the lens of the pre-2012 Cubs. I know that I have on occasion set the bar too low to just get to the next level. When you are trying to turn around an operation, it is hard to get rid of anybody— employee or customer—if you think it is going to make you take a step backward. How often do we tolerate a perceived high performer who bucks the system because we can’t afford to lose the sales he or she brings? How about recruiting your competition’s best salesperson because they would bring a lot of business, while overlooking the fact that they also bring a lot of baggage and bad habits?
What if we changed our perspective and set our goal as “winning the World Series”? What if, when reviewing an employee’s performance, we asked ourselves, “Can this person play a part in helping us win our version of the World Series?” Try it out. Suddenly, that salesperson who hits below the Mendoza Line (under .200 in baseball) but is a great utility position player or just a “great guy” doesn’t make sense. Why? Because you can’t win the World Series with a bunch of utility position players or great guys. Hiring the competitor’s top salesperson doesn’t make sense if that person’s ego will disrupt your team that is focused on the goal of winning the World Series.
With a definitive goal that is the equivalent of winning the World Series in five years, you can grow your own talent. Maybe you stop selling those customers who represent a lot of volume but are a drain on your profits. Maybe you look at your legacy product lines, businesses, or locations through the lens of, “Will they help me win the World Series?” and realize they need to go away. If you are the leader of your business and you are looking to change the direction of your company, why not borrow a page out of Epstein’s playbook and set your sights on what you feel is your World Series goal?
• Define the culture you want to have and set expectations accordingly.
• Divest employees who do not fit the culture, who are unable to help win your World Series.
• Hire only talent who are a good fit culturally, who want to win your World Series goal.
You then are approaching all your business and personnel decisions from the perspective of “Will this help me reach my World Series?” It’s still early in the season, so it’s not too late to improve your line up and create a winning team for 2018.