Competing in Baseball and in Business

By McCallum, John S. | Ivey Business Journal Online, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview

Competing in Baseball and in Business


McCallum, John S., Ivey Business Journal Online


Playing to win in business is like playing to win in baseball. Or at least it should be. The team that knows how to compete will be the team that wins, as this long-time baseball fan and management thinker and professor writes.

I have been a San Francisco Giants fan since they won the World Series in 1954, when they were the New York Giants. We got our first television in London, Ontario late that summer and the World Series was the first major sports event I watched. Willie Mays made "The Catch", Dusty Rhodes was the "Walk-off" hero and "The Barber" Maglie and Johnny Antonelli pitched. I was hooked for life!

Fortunately for a Giant fan, it has been a fairly long life. The baseball future has not exactly unfolded as this ten year old anticipated. The fun of regular future championships gave way to 55 "Wait til next year." The Giants gave new meaning to "Close but no cigar"; they perfected the "June Swoon". I came to realize no matter how well things were going, it was never too soon to start worrying.

Then last year! A most unlikely group of aging infielders, assorted role players, other team rejects, bigger than life characters ("Fear the Beard" Wilson, "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, "Rally Thong" Huff), a genius (at least for now) manager and a terrific pitching rotation (Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Sanchez) go on the roll of rolls. Fifty-five years in the baseball desert and all is forgiven. No more wait till next year! The Giants win the last game they play and it is a game that actually matters.

But this is a journal for executives. How do my baseball obsessions tie into anything that would be remotely of interest to executives? The hook is a quote in the October 30-31, 2010 Wall Street Journal by Giants General Manager Brian Sabean explaining the team's success: "The bottom line is we know how to compete and that's the first thing you have to do in sports - know how to compete."

Business is also a competition. An executive can't beat a reputation for knowing how to compete. Executives who know how to compete have great careers; their firms thrive. But what exactly does knowing how to compete in business mean?

First, competition determines winners. You cannot begin to compete if you do not know what it means to win. A baseball game is won by the team with the most runs; over the course of a major league baseball season, the winner is the team that wins the World Series.

Business is more complicated than baseball. For openers, winning depends on the type of organization. For public companies, winning involves some combination of survival, share price appreciation, short and long term profitability, growth and access to capital. In the not-for-profit and government sectors, it might involve the likes of client satisfaction, efficiency and service quality.

For an executive, winning is achieving the goal. The goal is the North Star that guides decision-making. The story is always the same: if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there. Because winning is difficult does not mean that executives should not seek clarity and precision around what it means to win in their line of business. That is partly why boards of directors and senior management teams exist.

Second, you cannot compete at anything if you do not know how to play the game. You need to know the rules. You need the basic skills. You need to understand strategy. In baseball there is a rule book. The basic skills are throwing, running, catching, hitting and hitting with power. Strategy is everything from the intentional walk to holding the runner to the sacrifice fly; it fills volumes.

There is no specific rule book in business. There is a legal framework covering the likes of corporation law, regulation, taxation, contracting, labour and human rights. The basic skills are management, accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, information technology and logistics. …

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