I have not mentioned much on this blog that I am a sports fan. Particularly, I am a Seattle sports fan and my first sports love has always been baseball. I fell in love with the game when I was watching the Seattle Mariners seemingly come from nowhere to make it into the playoffs in the memorable run of 1995. Well, its been a period of hard times for the team the past twelve years, as the last time they made the playoffs was 2001.
That’s probably enough background context for the purpose of this. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about why this team, the Seattle Mariners, has the culture and problems it has. My friend Tim recently pondered this too on his blog. Tim points to the need to look beyond just the failures of ownership and I agree. What I see is that the Mariners, at least from my fan perspective (without any insider knowledge), have what seems to me to have become a culture of failure, with great leadership challenges or absences. So admitting these observations, let’s see what insights can be gained (if any).
When doing anything, an organization needs to have a strategy or game plan, and needs to be consistent. As Peter Drucker reminded and asked constantly as one of his most important questions, “what is our mission?” (Drucker, 11). If strategy is not consistent, and the overall mission of a team or organization seems unclear, not only can the mission become muddled but the results will be too. It only follows then that outcomes will be disappointing or not as satisfying. The need then is to really define what your mission is, and have a strategy for really living and realizing that mission.
As for our example of the Mariners, I would say their objective would be to be a winning baseball franchise, and like most other teams, to win so that they can “win it all” by winning the World Series. I will give the team the benefit of the doubt that this is still the case. Questions could be raised though about whether or not other interests and concerns such as plain revenue, fan attendance, ballpark food, or other things might take precedence over the wins and losses. Whenever these other concerns take precedence, there is a higher propensity for muddled mission and organizational drift.
Within an organization, there needs to be an ability to entrust leaders with resources needed to succeed. One of these resources is investment. Another is simply trust. A third, is time. When the objective is to win, and to win often at what seems like all costs, time may not be something that a company or team can offer its leaders.
Perhaps this sheds light on our example of the Mariners. Recently, their manager Eric Wedge announced that he would not be returning as manager because of a difference of views. One might read between the lines on this, but it seems apparent there was a difference of perspective and approach between him and someone or some people in the upper reaches of management and/or ownership. The fact of the matter for the Mariners in terms of their culture and history is that they are not an organization which is known for long term successful leadership. No manager other than Lou Piniella has been manager of the team for longer than four seasons. This helps point to what seems to be the lack of a consistent strategy. Think about private companies. Imagine if your company’s CEO was replaced every four years? Would your company be doing well in the financial markets? Or, imagine if you are a part of a local religious congregation and your senior pastor changed every four years or less? That’s a lot of transition without much time for growth, wouldn’t you say?
Whether or not the previous reflection makes sense, when the results are poor, such as losses and losing seasons in baseball or a reduction in customer satisfaction, outcomes aren’t pretty. People might not have very nice things to say about your organization or establishment. There may be a lack of trust by the consumer of the organization. There might even be a toxic sense of mistrust and cynicism. This leads to no positive expectations and little hope for positive change. How this shows up and is realized varies, but for a sports team you can often see this in a drop or stagnation in attendance and/or revenue. In the Mariners case, when you haven’t been to the playoffs in 12 years, its rational to expect that attendance numbers, TV viewership numbers, and overall revenue might plateau if not decrease.
This pondering raises the question, how can an organization change the culture and strategy? How can they “pivot or persevere” to use the ideas written about in the Lean Startup? For the Mariners, how can they move forward, improve, and gain and regain fan trust in the team?
If there were easy answers to these questions I would offer them here. What do you think? What strikes you about these rambling ideas? If you are a baseball fan, and especially a Mariners fan, what is your take? What are the insights for leadership in general out of this (if any)?
As for me, if I had an ability to prescribe an ideal course of action, I would suggest the Mariners make a commitment to a leader for at least four years. I know this goes against the larger popular culture of “win now,” but I honestly think that in order to really grow a culture of winning, there needs to be an investment in a philosophy of continued growth. A team can’t just live by the home run and sign people to just one year contracts here and there. Additionally, there needs to be greater transparency for fans to know what upper management is thinking and why they are doing what they are doing. This would show the fans that the team values them beyond just them being consumers, and at a much deeper level. It would show a relationship. Leadership, like all things in life, are based in and on relationships. Would you agree?
Peter F. Drucker, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, (New York, NY: Crown Business, 2011), 149-178.