World Series Managers Show How to Make Any Organization a Winner

Companies can learn a lot from the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and the Indians’ Terry Francona

By Lacy Lusk Oct 25, 2016
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Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon stands in the dugout. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)​

​The Chicago Cubs haven't won the World Series since 1908 and the Cleveland Indians haven't since 1948. One of these teams, though, will win it all this year and have a massive parade in their city. Ultimately, the winning team and its fans will have a manager to thank.

Companies everywhere can learn from the dugout leadership of Joe Maddon in Chicago and Terry Francona in Cleveland. The managers share common traits that can translate into success in other industries.

Here are three "don'ts" that have worked for Maddon and Francona as they have led the franchises with the two longest current World Series title droughts into the 2016 Fall Classic.

Don't be afraid to make unconventional decisions. With fans and the media watching every move in October, it's common for managers to make "by-the-book" choices or to stick with what worked in the regular season. But that's not always what does the job in the postseason.

[SHRM members-only Toolkit: Managing Employee Performance]

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.Most teams use their best reliever as a "closer" in the ninth inning—or maybe both the eighth and ninth. Francona, though, puts his 6-foot-7-inch relief ace Andrew Miller in games as early as the fifth inning, when the other teams' best hitters come to the plate. Miller shut down the Boston Red Sox in the first round and then was the most valuable player of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

"First of all, [Francona] does such a good job of setting the tone in the clubhouse," Miller said Oct. 19, when the Indians clinched their spot in the World Series. "It's loose. That's his style. I think players in a sense run [the clubhouse]. It doesn't mean we're not prepared, it doesn't mean we're not working hard. ... His ability to just put us in good situations and his ability to communicate from maybe the front office or ownership to us or whatever is asked of us, it's exceptional, and he's special."

Maddon, a bespectacled 62-year-old who never made it out of the low minor leagues as a player, also has broken with convention by being one of the first managers to rely heavily on defensive shifting. He has given his players breaks from batting practice so they are better rested during the grind of a 162-game season.

At the press conference after the final game of the National League Championship Series, Maddon said he appreciated openness from his bosses, including Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who previously built a winning team in Boston.

"It's wide-open communication," Maddon said. "They're different because they're able to process the new methods as well as the old methods. And that's what I think sets them apart."

That kind of communication within the leadership group would also be a positive at your company. It's important to have a consistent message to pass along to the employees. 

Don't use history as a crutch. There are occasional exceptions for each franchise, but over their histories, the Cubs and the Indians have been two of the poorest performing teams.

In baseball, such long stretches of disappointment are often labeled curses, even if the real reason for the struggle is a continuous lack of strong leadership or not enough elite talent.

The Cubs have the "Curse of the Billy Goat," after a fan and his pet goat had to leave Wrigley Field during a 1945 World Series game, apparently because of the goat's strong odor. The Indians have what sportswriter Terry Pluto has dubbed the "Curse of Rocky Colavito," named for a 1950s and '60s player they traded away and later traded for at the wrong times in his career.

That's all bunk to Maddon and the 57-year-old former big leaguer Francona. After all, Maddon is the only manager to take the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series, and Francona skippered Boston to the 2004 and 2007 World Series titles, smashing the "Curse of the Bambino" that supposedly had kept the Red Sox from winning the championship since 1918.

"Obviously we know that it's something that's going to be talked about with the history of the organization, but it's really not something we focus on at all," Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "So we just kind of disregard it and go out and play."

Whether your organization has a centuries-old tradition or is just starting up, history can be rewritten at any time.

Don't ask employees to do more than they're capable of, but do expect the best out of them. When the Indians lost two of their top three starting pitchers to injuries late in the season and another starting pitcher was sidelined because he cut his pinky finger while repairing his drone (yes, repairing his drone), Francona laughed more than he cried. He assured the team that they had the personnel they needed to win the American League pennant.

No one was more indicative of that next-person-up philosophy than 24-year-old pitcher Ryan Merritt, who had only 11 innings of major league experience and throws a well-below-average fastball that doesn't touch 90 mph. In the clinching game that sent Cleveland into the World Series for the first time since 1997, Merritt pitched into the fifth inning and didn't allow a run.

"What I hoped would be that he would be himself—because I thought that was a tall task under the circumstances," Francona told reporters after the game. "If he was just himself, then you let the chips fall."

Later that same week, the Cubs reached the World Series for the first time since 1945 as Dartmouth College alum Kyle Hendricks, an eighth-round pick who was overlooked by many scouts, outdueled Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, a former first-round pick and a three-time winner of the National League Cy Young award as the league's top pitcher.

The Cubs and the Indians have both needed depth to overcome injuries and to respond in pressure-filled situations.  Similarly, companies are at their best when they use their whole roster. To be the best, no matter what the business, it takes forward-thinking management and a team that's dedicated to the mission at hand.

You can get the full World Series schedule here. 

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