Archive for October 2014

Culture and Chemistry Matter

football fansOctober 30, 2014

Wow… that was an unbelievable World Series!  If you watched it passionately as I did, you know what I’m talking about.  Even if you didn’t and you don’t know or care that much about baseball or sports, there are a number of things that made this World Series remarkable and also some important things we can learn from it that go way beyond baseball and sports in general.

First of all, the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series title in five years.  That is almost impossible to do, especially in this day and age in pro baseball and also because each of the three Giants teams that have won the World Series in recent years (2010, 2012, 2014) didn’t have the most talent, the best record, or the numbers to “justify” their success.

Second of all, no one expected the Giants or their World Series opponent, the Kansas City Royals, to be in the World Series this year.  The Giants had a stretch of about two months this season where they were literally the worst team in baseball and they barely even made the playoffs.  The Royals as an organization hadn’t made it to the playoffs in 29 years, had almost no players on their roster with post season experience, and also barely made the playoffs themselves.  Both teams were “underdogs” the whole way and beat teams that were supposed to beat them.  Even when they were playing each other, it seemed like they were both underdogs in the World Series.

Third of all, and probably most important, what we learned from this post season, this World Series, and especially from these two remarkable teams who both “over-achieved” is that culture and chemistry matter!  In fact, they both showed that these things are actually more important than talent, statistics, and conventional wisdom.

I’ve had the honor of working with the San Francisco Giants organization since early in the season in 2010 and I’ve seen first-hand how they have built an incredible culture throughout their entire organization.  While some of the core players have stayed the same, a good number of players have changed throughout this incredible run. What hasn’t changed, and has only increased, is their focus on culture and chemistry, and the way they come together as a team at the most important moments.  It is not an accident they have had so much success over the past five seasons.

I had the honor of playing in the Kansas City Royals organization – they drafted me out of Stanford in 1995 and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to play pro baseball.  I played three seasons in their minor league system before an arm injury ended my playing career.  And while I no longer have many personal connections to the organization, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Royals organization and for Kansas City.  They have great fans and they haven’t had much to cheer about with the Royals for the past 29 years.

What I loved seeing and learning about this Royals team was how much heart, passion, and joy they played the game with… and how much they embraced the moment and enjoyed the incredible ride they were on.  In the post game interviews after losing a heart-breaking game 7 by a score of 3-2 (with the tying run just 90 feet away from scoring), many of the Royals players and their manager talked about how much fun they had, how proud they were of themselves and each other, and how amazing the fans in Kansas City are.  Of course they were disappointed, but they focused on some of the incredible aspects of what they had accomplished and what they appreciated about the experience.  That was not only classy of them, but remarkable and inspiring!

There are so many things we can learn from these two teams and from this World Series.  Whether in sports, business, or life – we have all had experiences of being around a group of people where the talent was strong, but the team wasn’t.  And, on the flip side, we’ve all been involved with groups of people where we may not have had “all stars” in every spot, but there was something special about how our team came together and performed as a unit.  This is the magic of culture and chemistry and it is as important as anything to our success… we just sometimes forget how important it is and spend way too much time and energy focused on talent, action, statistics, and outcomes.

Here are a few things we can remember and that the Giants and Royals taught us about the importance of culture and chemistry:

1) Appreciate what you are doing – Having fun is essential, even when we are faced with stressful or difficult tasks.  While baseball is a game, at the professional level and especially in the World Series, it is a HUGE deal.  There is a lot at stake on many levels for both teams, all the players, and everyone involved.  If you watched any of the World Series, you could see that these guys were having fun and appreciating what they were doing, in the midst of the tension.  Before he came to bat for the first time in game 7 of the World Series, the Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval smiled and winked at the camera, looking as though he didn’t have a care in the world.  He ended up getting three hits and was on base all four times during the game.

2)  Leave it all on the field – I remember my pitching coach Dean Stotz at Stanford saying to us, “Men, in baseball and in life, there are really only two things you can control, your attitude and your effort.  Everything else is out of your control.”  We spend a lot of time and energy focused on and worried about things that are out of our control.  However, showing up and playing whatever game we are playing with passion and, as we say in baseball, “leaving it all on the field,” are essential to creating a winning culture and the chemistry it takes to be a champion.  At the end of the final game of the World Series, you could see how exhausted both teams were, even though they were still playing with as much passion as possible.  They had truly left it all out on the field and it was a beautiful thing to see.

3)  Love your teammates – This may be the most important element of all… love your teammates.  Last year when the Giants all-star right fielder Hunter Pence gave a speech at AT&T Park after receiving an award, he said about his teammates, “I love every minute of playing with you guys.  I know some of you don’t like it when I say ‘I love you,’ you think it’s soft… but I think it’s the strongest thing we’ve got.”  He’s right – love is the most powerful force in the universe and the most important ingredient to culture, chemistry, and success.

After the final out of the World Series, the Giants’ catcher Buster Posey, who is their best overall player (although he struggled in this World Series in terms of results), and their pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who had just completed one of the greatest performances in World Series history, embraced in the middle of the field.  It was beautiful to see.  Both of these young men (Posey is 27 and Bumgarner is 25) have played together since they were in the minor leagues and have been key contributors on all three of the Giants’ World Series winning teams.  But, in that moment, it wasn’t about their statistics, their contracts, or even their results (although they were celebrating the ultimate results… winning the World Series), it was about their relationship and connection to each other, their team, and the entire fan base of the San Francisco Giants.  And, if you looked closely you could see Bumgarner say to Posey in his ear, “I love you, man!”  To me, it was the best highlight of the night and it epitomized not only the amazing culture and chemistry of the San Francisco Giants, but what it takes to be a true championship team!

Where in your life are you focused more on talent, action, and results than culture and chemistry?  What can you do to put more attention on culture and chemistry in a way that can benefit you and those around you?  Leave a comment here on my blog about this.

Comment on This Post

Are You In The Game?

guantone baseballOctober 9, 2014

I’ve been fascinated by the Major League Baseball playoffs, which started a little over a week ago.  As a former baseball player and lifelong fan, I usually watch the post season games…especially when one of our local teams here in the Bay Area is involved.  This year, both local teams (the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants) made it to the playoffs.  Unfortunately, The A’s got knocked out right away.  The Giants, on the other hand, are still alive and playing quite well…they seem to have some real October magic the past few years.

Although my personal interest and allegiance to the teams I like are what drew me to pay attention to the playoffs this year, I’m seeing, yet again, so many great life lessons involved in these games.  What’s been remarkable about the baseball post season so far this year is how many close games, twists and turns, and unexpected outcomes there have been.  None of the four teams left in the playoffs were favored.  In other words, each post season series has involved an upset, including seeing the Kansas City Royals, the organization which I played for back in 90s, advance for the first time in 29 years.

While these close games, upsets, and unexpected outcomes have been exciting for the fans of the teams still alive (and baseball fans in general), they have also involved a number of very successful teams and players not performing up to the level which was expected of them.  As a former player myself, I always think about the individuals and teams who lose and fail, and my heart goes out to them, because I know how disappointing, embarrassing, and downright painful that can be.  However, that’s all part of the game – someone wins and someone loses.  And, in all sports which have an ultimate “champion,” everyone involved, except for the members of the championship team, ends up losing.

Of course this is just the nature of baseball, and life in many cases.  And, as important as we take pro sports in our culture, at the end of the day, most of us realize it’s not a matter of life and death (although when our team is involved, it’s easy to forget that).  However, this fear of failing and losing, and specifically doing so publicly, is something that impacts most of us at some level personally.  We go to extraordinary lengths in our lives to make sure we don’t fail or lose, and to definitely make sure we don’t do so publicly.

Unfortunately, in baseball, like in life, if we aren’t willing to fail and lose, and even to do so publicly, we’ve probably signed up for the wrong game.  There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide – playing the game of baseball, just like living life, is ultimately a dangerous and vulnerable endeavor.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or how talented you are, on any given day you can lose and cost your team the game, and possibly the entire season.

Clayton Kershaw who pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and is considered my most experts to be the best pitcher in baseball, not only signed a 7-year, $215 million contract before the start of the season, had one of the best seasons by a pitcher in recent history this year.  He’s going to win the Cy Young award for the best pitcher in the league, and may also win the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award (which is rarely given to pitchers).  He lost both of the games he started in the Dodgers’ series against the St. Louis Cardinals and didn’t pitch anywhere nearly as well as he did all season long.  He failed.  He lost.  He did so in a big, public way.  His team got eliminated, even though they were expected to advance.

However, with all of this thought about failing and losing, and doing so publicly…as the saying goes, “We can’t win if we don’t play.”  And, even worse than losing or failing, is that we often don’t even show up for the game.  Or, if we do, we sit in the stands and comment on the game, instead of actually getting in there and playing.  Life happens in the game, no on the sidelines.  It can be scary in the game.  Sometimes you get hurt.  Sometimes you don’t get what you want.  Sometimes you fail.  And sometimes you even lose, and do so in a public, painful, and humiliating way.  But, so what?  We’ve all played and lost…and survived.  What are we so afraid of?

As a mentor of mine said years ago, “You’re living your life as though you’re trying to survive it.  You have to remember, no one ever has.”

Let’s stop trying to simply survive life, let’s get in the game and play.  And, if we have the courage to play, we may as well leave it all on the field and play with passion, heart, and authenticity.  Because when we do that, whether we “win” or “lose,” we can take pride in the fact that we showed up, put ourselves out there, and had the courage to go for it.

Where in your life are you in the game?  Where in your life can you put yourself in the game (even if you’re scared)?  Leave a comment here on my blog about this.

Comment on This Post

Get Mike’s Free Email Newsletter: