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As a Chicago Cubs fan, I looked forward to getting behind-the-scenes access to the team in Tom Verducci’s new book, The Cubs Way. What I didn’t expect, though, were the general business lessons I took away. Here’s how the Cubs went from bad to great and radically changed their culture, and how their sports story can help your business:
Place a premium on character.
When Theo Epstein, president of Cubs operations, joined the team in 2012, he was no stranger to turning a long-suffering organization around. After all, he helmed the Boston Red Sox as their general manager when they broke one of the longest droughts in sports. But, even in the few short years between winning in Boston and joining the Cubs, the landscape of baseball started to change. The “moneyball” style of baseball strategy depicted in the popular book by Michael Lewis and the later movie — in which a team utilizes an advanced analytic approach to signing players and constructing line-ups — went from a cutting-edge secret weapon to commonplace in the sport.
In search of a new competitive advantage, Epstein and the Cubs organization turned to a seemingly old-school approach: Emphasizing the athlete’s make-up. Epstein said in The Cub’s Way, “We’re not going to compromise character for talent. We’re the Cubs. We’re going to have both talent and character.”
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Be intentional about culture.
One of the key ingredients in the Cubs’ championship run involved putting the right manager in place. The Cubs found theirs in Joe Maddon, a manager who is anything but prototypical. Maddon’s touch not only made an impact in game strategy, but also in sustaining the morale and focus of the team from spring training in March to the World Series in early November.
He built this relationship with a foundation of trust, then further strengthened the bond between himself and his players by providing them with direct and constructive feedback. I was surprised to discover from Verducci’s research that most managers don’t conduct performance reviews, but it made sense that Maddon’s approach of including the players became crucial in aligning the team.
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For the Cubs, it wasn’t just about making sure that the physical skillset of the players complemented one another — it was about relationships.
“If we can’t find the next technological breakthrough, well, maybe we can be better than anyone else with how we treat our players and how we connect with players and the relationships we develop and how we put them in positions to succeed. Maybe our environment will be the best in the game, maybe our vibe will be the best in the game, maybe our players will be the loosest and maybe they’ll have the most fun and maybe they’ll care the most. It’s impossible to quantify,” Epstein said.
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Align your organization.
The title of the book, “The Cubs Way,” comes from the 259-page internal document collectively assembled by key members of the organization over the course of four days just after Epstein’s arrival in Chicago. During this summit, representatives from a cross-section of the Cubs’ brain trust deliberated on defining the organization’s standards. Coaches, scouts, executives and other key figures filled a budget hotel in Arizona to contribute their perspective and to debate everything from the merits of the types of players they should draft to whether a player should touch a base with the right or left foot as they round a bag.
The first step — creating a defined operational manual with the input of key members — is a crucial part of establishing a strong culture. What the Cubs did next probably was more important in getting it to stick, though; they made sure the newly branded “Cubs Way” was instituted at every level of the organization.
Then, taking a page from the Jim Collins book Good to Great, they got the right people on the bus. Those who didn’t buy into the team concepts were phased out of the organization.
To build a winning organization in sports, business or any place else, you need to set out with some basic principles. All teams start with people. Perhaps your greatest strategies will be the ones that bring your personnel together in a cohesive fashion. Whether your team is on a hot streak or a 100-year drought, focusing first on your people and culture is always a winning move.
Chicago native Marty Fukuda is the chief operating officer of N2 Publishing, overseeing operations at its corporate headquarters in Wilmington, N.C. He first joined the company as an area director in 2008 after working in the direct sales a…