By: Holly Horning
The 2017 season is mercifully coming to a close and it’s about time, too. Now, the focus has turned to the managerial search and a hopeful broom of many of the familiar faces who fans feel have outstayed their welcome.
But it’s the face – and voice – of someone who lurks in the shadows who we really should be focused on. Chris Ilitch. This is his official first season in charge of the Tigers and what he does – or doesn’t do – will speak volumes about the direction of this team.
But it’s not whether he removes Al Avila, or a couple other people, that really matters. And it’s also not solely about how tightly he may control the purse strings.
There is one thing Chris can do that will have the biggest impact on this team’s future success.
He must change the corporate culture. That’s really all he needs to do in order to make the best, and most lasting, improvements to this team.
All successful organizations have one thing in common – a winning corporate culture. Adopting one is the key to getting struggling organizations, or teams, back on track. And if you read about the movers and shakers in today’s baseball world, they all have something in common. They went into a new organization and changed the corporate culture. People like Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein and Farhan Zaidi being the most notable.
So how does one define corporate culture? According to the Harvard Business School (HBS), you address at least 6 elements – vision, values, practices, people, narrative and place – and then you clearly communicate the standards and enforce the behavior. (The insiders joke that the graduate school’s motto is “There’s no BS, like HBS.”)
Theo Epstein is baseball’s master of corporate culture. He took 2 perennial losers and turned both around to win World Series while still in his 30’s and early 40’s. For a closer look at how he changed the Red Sox and Cubs, these 2 blogs are a must-read:
Now, let’s look at the Tigers’ corporate culture using just one example for each category. At best, it is a weak one. At worst, it is non-existent.
VISION – It is the mission statement and gives an organization purpose.
For over a decade, it has been about winning a ring for Mr. I. It has been about the immediate while ignoring the future and it’s left this team shattered. A barren farm system for the most part, star players gone, overspending and now the worst team in baseball.
VALUES – They are a set of guidelines on the behavior of the organization coupled with the mindsets needed to achieve the vision.
For this example, the Tigers were among the very last to develop a handbook on how to play the game. But if you look at the team, there is still no set standard of behavior or play. Players are left on their own to determine what to embrace. Do we even know the values of this team? Do the players?
PRACTICES – It is about ensuring that the employees consistently practice the values laid out by the company.
Was there any kind of uniformity when it came to running the basepaths? Fielding? Working the pitch count? Were the players even working together as a team? And other than Bruce Rondon, no one in management or coaching has, in recent memory, called out or benched a player for failing to follow the expected level of play.
PEOPLE – The employees are the engine that drives this train. For it to run, everyone must be willing to embrace and practice the core values. They must all be on the same page and working towards the same goals.
For a team and owner desperate to win a World Series, they hired a guy with no experience or fire in his belly to manage the team. The end result was a team overall lacking in motivation with widespread underperformance becoming the standard.
NARRATIVE – The ability to tell a story about your organization’s unique history and create a widespread interest and respect.
Despite being one of baseball’s original teams, the Tigers remain one of the few organizations not to have their own Hall of Fame or retire the numbers of their most famous players (who do not yet reside in Cooperstown). And when former players come up for Hall of Fame voting, the Tigers, unlike other teams, fail to support any of them in their bids to get elected. (Talk about timing! As I’m writing this, Denny McLain is on the radio railing about the Tigers’ failure to work at getting deserving players into the Hall.)
PLACE – How does an organization inspire its employees to practice the values and enhance everyone’s behavior? In most cases, it is about regular contact between management and employees and the ability to communicate ideas and concerns among all levels.
It is about the owner and GM visiting often and the manager interacting with his players in the clubhouse. In his last years, Mr. I was unable to interact with the team as much as he wanted and Chris Ilitch remains an enigma. The last 2 managers have stated that the clubhouse should be a “manager-free zone.”
So what do the Tigers need to do now regarding their corporate culture?
It starts with Chris Ilitch, not Al Avila. All successful corporate cultures start at the very top and trickle down. Chris has to decide the vision – whether this is a team looking to be better or a team that wants to be in contention on a regular basis. He needs to set the goal. The steps that follow must support the desired end result. And he must invest in the organization beyond players’ payroll.
The organization’s values must then be defined. Who is going to set the standards of leadership, responsibility, play and mental fortitude? Will the myriad of excuses being used for past shoddy performance still be acceptable or will people actually be held accountable? Will the standard of “being good” outweigh the old of “good enough” or “that’s baseball”? Nothing less than the best should be acceptable if you truly want to win.
With defined values, comes the practices. For this team, a defined standard of play. It’s not enough to have a manual on The Tigers’ Way. Who is going to oversee the emphasis on the long-forgotten way to play fundamental baseball? How will the team get the veterans to sign on and change their old habits? And the emphasis on loyalty over performance and accountability must stop once and for all.
Which brings us to the people. Can old dogs learn new tricks? Can you take the same failed culture and hope to create something new out if it? Of course not. Current employees have to personally sign on to doing things a new way – or leave. Fresh faces, new perspectives and updated ways of playing are the best and fastest way of instigating permanent change. And in this case, Jim Leyland and his extensive coterie of former coaches should be thanked and shown the door. It didn’t work then and it ain’t gonna work now.
Pride in the team and its history will be more important than ever so the narrative needs to be more high-profile. But forget trying to placate fans with memories of 1984. It’s sad. And desperate. And transparent. Gimmicks more reminiscent of a visit to the circus should be banned. Restore the roar and start working to raise the profiles of certain ’84 players who will be coming up in front of the Veterans’ Committee in Cooperstown. And start building a Hall to honor your own. Heck, make it part of District Detroit.
The new manager must make it a point to choose the place in which he will be seen the most. And for what is expected to be largely a group of young guys, he needs to be in the clubhouse more often, taking the pulse and leading by example. He’ll need to be a nurturer. And he needs to talk to Joe Maddon about how he bonds with his players.
But the best thing of all? A top corporate culture takes relatively little investment other than time and dedication. That should be music to Chris’ ears……
(The season may be over, but Totally Tigers rolls on! We will continue to publish daily so stay with us as we dissect the past year, analyze off-season moves and look into the future. We’ll cover it all!)
Totally Tigers reminds readers to follow the rules found above the Comment box as well as those listed under the Rules tab. Comments not meeting these requirements cannot be published.