Mean Beane

The movie Moneyball recently reminded me of a situation I was in with a previous leader, and it raised the question –

Was there really a Billy Bean in my situation?

The movie is about Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, breaking away from conventional ways of building a professional baseball team. He hires Peter Brand, an fictional economics major from Yale, to identify the players they need to get to the championships.

They don’t look for individual star players. They looking for a pool of players where the aggregate will carry them to the top.

Billy argues with Grady Fuson, the scout who calls him out for disregarding the expertise and experience of the men working to identify valuable prospects to fill out the team.

Billy also argues with Arte Howe, the manager who refuses to play the team Billy built in the way Billy and Peter intend for it to be used. Art knows his craft and makes choices he believes he could defend if questioned. They are not what Billy wants him to do.

Ultimately, the team sees success as a result of Billy’s revolutionary way of approaching team management.

Billy represents the revolutionary thinker who breaks from tradition and achieves success (mostly) – this kind of character is a popular literary trope, drawing on the American rhetoric of the entrepreneurs who “defy the odds”, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, or go “from rags to riches”.

Grady and Art represent the establishment – “The way we’ve always done things.”

But there is one other important role – the hesitant follower who braves the unknown, trusting the unconventional leader, and does great things for the team – Scott Hatteberg, a former catcher who’s recovery from a ruptured nerve in his elbow, causing difficulties with his throw which resulted in the Billy Beane telling him he needed to learn to play first base.

This combination of roles – the revolutionary, the establishment, and the open minded – can be found in countless books and movies. It is so popular in our fiction that we seek it out in real life.

We all want to be the “game changer.” None of us wants to be “old fashioned”, “outdated”, or the “stumbling block”. Within an organization, the employees who get the greatest praise are the ones who “embrace change” and follow the leader who is “forging a new path”.

The cliches are nearly endless.

But in the oversimplification which comes from storytelling (yes, even a complex, well crafted story – or one based on real life – is a simplification of real life) it’s easy to mistake what role we are playing.

My previous leader, whom we’ll call Carol, stepped into an organization which had lost a number of key players during a time of transition. A lot of the tools and processes were outdated and inefficient. There was legacy staff who’d grown comfortable doing things a certain way. Sound familiar? Every organization faces this unless they are ones which somehow manage to live up to the ideal of constantly evolving.

The organization needed change, badly. I won’t deny that – I had, in fact, said as much to leaders before Carol joined us.

But Carol didn’t know the business. Didn’t know what work was required to get things done. Didn’t know the needs of the people in the organization. And the role was a stretch for Carol. We’ve all been in this situation, and how you handle it is critical.

Where Carol and I didn’t align was the use of information to inform how changes should be made, and how change should be managed.

Carol saw herself as the innovator, bringing a totally new way of supporting our customer, and she was not going to be constrained by things simply because that’s the way we’d done them. Very Billy Beane.

I, on the other hand, wanted us to use the data we had to inform our decisions, and expected leadership to engage people who were both passionate about the business, but skilled in the data analysis, and then to trust their input – basically to find themselves a Peter Brand and trust them the way Billy Beane did.

But that’s where things started falling apart. Carol loved numbers, but didn’t trust anyone to be Peter Brand. Furthermore, Billy Beane knew the game, and Carol did not. The people who opposed Carol generally were not pushing for doing things the way we’d always done them. They were people who were concerned that Carol was misinterpreting the data, and forcing change with an unclear picture of where things led.

Carol, on the other hand, used her considerable Excel skills to generate totals and averages and display them in colorful bar charts and line graphs to tell a compelling story to her superiors and her peers.

Carol was determined.

In the end, I don’t think any of us were either Billy Beane or Art Howe.

Carol got things done, but did it at great cost. Morale was down, customers were dissatisfied, processes relied on subject matter experts to fill gaps, but subject matter experts had been so badly disenfranchised that too many of them were looking for opportunities elsewhere.

In our real-life story, everyone wanted to be the data-driven savior who ushered the business into the future, but none of us were.

Take time to get perspective. And some of that perspective needs to be trying to understand how the other person sees things. Understand that you are living real life, not the story you’d like to tell yourself. We may like to see the world in terms of heroes and villains, but most of us are somewhere in between. Be humble. Be considerate.

We’re all in this together, even when it feels like we’re at odds with each other.