Competing in baseball and in business

Playing to win in business is like playing to win in baseball. Or at least it should be. The team that knows how to compete will be the team that wins, as this long-time baseball fan and management thinker and professor writes.

I have been a San Francisco Giants fan since they won the World Series in 1954, when they were the New York Giants.  We got our first television in London, Ontario late that summer and the World Series was the first major sports event I watched.  Willie Mays made “The Catch”, Dusty Rhodes was the “Walk-off” hero and “The Barber” Maglie and Johnny Antonelli pitched.  I was hooked for life!

Fortunately for a Giant fan, it has been a fairly long life.  The baseball future has not exactly unfolded as this ten year old anticipated.  The fun of regular future championships gave way to 55 “Wait til next year.”  The Giants gave new meaning to “Close but no cigar”; they perfected the “June Swoon”.  I came to realize no matter how well things were going, it was never too soon to start worrying.

Then last year!  A most unlikely group of aging infielders, assorted role players, other team rejects, bigger than life characters (“Fear the Beard” Wilson, “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, “Rally Thong” Huff), a genius (at least for now) manager and a terrific pitching rotation (Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Sanchez) go on the roll of rolls.  Fifty-five years in the baseball desert and all is forgiven.  No more wait till next year!  The Giants win the last game they play and it is a game that actually matters.

But this is a journal for executives.  How do my baseball obsessions tie into anything that would be remotely of interest to executives?  The hook is a quote in the October 30–31, 2010 Wall StreetJournal by Giants General Manager Brian Sabean explaining the team’s success:  “The bottom line is we know how to compete and that’s the first thing you have to do in sports – know how to compete.”

Business is also a competition.  An executive can’t beat a reputation for knowing how to compete.  Executives who know how to compete have great careers; their firms thrive.  But what exactly does knowing how to compete in business mean?

First, competition determines winners.  You cannot begin to compete if you do not know what it means to win.  A baseball game is won by the team with the most runs; over the course of a major league baseball season, the winner is the team that wins the World Series.

Business is more complicated than baseball.  For openers, winning depends on the type of organization.  For public companies, winning involves some combination of survival,  share price appreciation, short and long term profitability, growth and access to capital.  In the not-for-profit and government sectors, it might involve the likes of client satisfaction, efficiency and service quality.

For an executive, winning is achieving the goal.  The goal is the North Star that guides decision-making.  The story is always the same:  if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there.  Because winning is difficult does not mean that executives should not seek clarity and precision around what it means to win in their line of business.  That is partly why boards of directors and senior management teams exist.

Second, you cannot compete at anything if you do not know how to play the game.  You need to know the rules.  You need the basic skills.  You need to understand strategy.  In baseball there is a rule book.  The basic skills are throwing, running, catching, hitting and hitting with power.  Strategy is everything from the intentional walk to holding the runner to the sacrifice fly; it fills volumes.

There is no specific rule book in business.  There is a legal framework covering the likes of corporation law, regulation, taxation, contracting, labour and human rights.  The basic skills are management, accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, information technology and logistics.  Key aspects of strategy include product design, promotion, distribution and pricing, balance sheet structure, acquisition and organic growth, compensation and other employee incentives, and planning.  Overarching everything in business is the need to conduct business ethically; shoddy ethics are not a foundation for enduring success as an executive.

Third, you do not know how to compete if you do not know how to be an effective part of a team.  It is the rare human activity that does not involve a group in one way or another and that is certainly the case with baseball and business.  Teams with superior talent can easily lose because they cannot come together cohesively.

Self awareness and humility are keys to being a good team member.  Self awareness speaks to knowing how you affect others.  The poet Robert Burns in “To a Louse” nails it:  “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”  Self awareness also speaks to knowing your role on the team, doing your job, being supportive of others trying to do their jobs and self control.

Ego is the opposite of humility and is lethal to teamwork.  The old expression “There is no ‘I’ in team” is a gem.  Ego puts the focus on the individual and it is rare that the goals of the ego-driven individual are aligned with those of the team.

The ultimate compliment to a team member is “Not only a skilled performer in their own right but their presence and example make everyone else better.” When your presence and example make others perform better, self awareness and humility are assuredly guiding principles.  Insensitivity and ego do not raise the game of those around you.  More often they stoke resentment.

Fourth, you cannot compete if you cannot handle pressure and adversity.  Being an executive is a walk in the park when the stakes are low and everything is going swimmingly.  When the stakes are high and everything is going wrong is when an executive earns their pay and shows what they have got.

Good movies are often the source of lines that, in a few words, make important points about the nature of people and situations.  That is partly why they are good movies.

There is a wonderful exchange between Al Pacino (The Devil) and Keanu Reeves (The Devil’s Advocate) in the 1997 movie The Devil’s Advocate, that very neatly ties pressure to competing:

Reeves:  “Are you offering me a job?”

Pacino:   “I’m thinking about it.  You have the talent.  I knew that before you got here.  It’s the other thing I wonder about.”

Reeves:  “What thing is that?”

Pacino:   “Pressure.  Changes everything.  Some people, you squeeze them, they focus.  Some people fold.  Can you summon your talent at will?  Can you deliver on deadline?  Can you sleep at night?”

Reeves:  “When do we talk about money?”

Pacino:   “Money’s the easy part.”

Lots of pitchers can hit the outside corner of the plate with a 90 mile per hour fastball in spring training, when it doesn’t matter and no one is watching.  Not so many can do so in game seven of the World Series with a tie game, the bases loaded, a three-two count in the bottom of the ninth with two out, 60,000 people in the stands going crazy and 50 million watching on television.  Same story goes for executives.

The key to dealing with pressure and adversity is focus.  Being able to shut everything else out and concentrate only on the moment.  Only focus will override the natural tendencies to panic and overreact.

Experience can enhance the ability to focus.  Focus sharpens with each experience.  Practice and a routine can also help.  But in the end, how your DNA is wired probably matters more than anything.

Fifth, you cannot compete if you are not physically and mentally fit to play the game at a high level.  That is obvious in baseball although “physically fit” may not meet traditional standards of physical fitness.  Hello Babe Ruth, who raised beer and hot dogs to the status of an official food group.  Fitness is equally necessary in business.

Part of being a good executive is having the stamina to carry on through exhaustion, unending travel, constant disruption and 15 hour days.  Stamina is directly related to physical fitness.  The gym in a hotel is a better choice than the bar.  Mental fitness improves with physical fitness and relates to an elusive balance of work, family, recreation, personal time and community service.

Sixth, you do not know how to compete if you do not make it a point to know everything you can about your competitor.  It is impressive. Just consider how the coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, always seems to have his team so ready to play.  He knows his own team inside out; he knows his opponent inside out; he wins Super Bowls; he wins games his opponents should win.  Reminds me of that line from The Art of War:  “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”.

Finally, you do not know how to compete if you are not motivated to work harder and longer than your opponents.  “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” has been attributed to legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.  I’m not sure I would go that far but you get the idea.

The baseball season is upon us.  Hope is everywhere!  My hope is that the San Francisco Giants do not spend another 55 seasons figuring out how to compete.  I do not have the time!

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact