From Diamond to Day-parts

St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak translates baseball leadership into c-store lessons.

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

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Baseball. From sandlots to playgrounds and streets, baseball has often served as a metaphor for life itself, from patience to partnerships, forbearance to daring, relinquishment to resilience.

For business leaders, baseball has another banner, a proper blend of gut and instinct. And with the recent release of the fi lm adaptation of “Moneyball,” baseball’s barometer of business success, whether you’re a small operator or a large chain, has returned to the forefront.

This parallel of baseball and business has been echoed by authors and industry executives alike. In his book “Management By Baseball,” Jeff Angus proposes that the game “refl ects more general management principles more clearly and more broadly than any of the academic teachings we normally use in organizations.”

And Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes senior executive vice president Fran Duskiewicz has said “Moneyball” “helps crystallize what the real contribution to our companies should be: identifying and enforcing the key operational metrics.”

In this spirit, we recently spent time with St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak for his insights on baseball and lessons we can learn.

First Inning: The Brand & the Franchise

“The St. Louis Cardinals are an historic and iconic brand. Baseball is a competitive fi eld in the sense of wins and losses, so you can always look at the standings. We want to make sure that people are proud of this organization and understand that our success is based upon our fan support, so understanding our fan base and making sure that we are satisfying their needs is of the utmost importance.

“One of the things I did when I fi rst got this job was to make sure that I was accessible. I make myself available and participate in the local radio shows so that I can engage and I give them the forum so that they know people can know what we are thinking.

 “The key is that if we are keeping that group happy, that is where our focus has to be. We cannot take our eye off that ball.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Treasure your franchise—and your franchise is your fan base.
  • Remain accessible to your customers.
  • Keep your eye on the ball; your fan base is your franchise.

Second Inning: The Product

Talent doesn’t guarantee victory. Building a winning a team starts with establishing a culture grounded in the right organization. For Mozeliak, his products are his players and his product pipeline is eight minor-league teams that will yield most of his major-league lineup.

“It is a bottom-to-top approach, one that we spend a lot of resources making sure that we are getting right.” What does “right” mean? What is the culture Mozeliak seeks to create? “To ensure that the product we are putting out there is working. As we look at our talent acquisition to fi ll the pipeline, we have a character assessment. When you look at why you hire certain people: Is it convenient? [Is it because] they accept your wage? Or is it because they are the type of person you want for your company?

“There is a decision as to the types of players we are trying to bring in here that we think will fi t the mold, that will uphold the standards this organization has become true to. Those players that seem to get it fi gure it out ... not only on the fi eld, but also the part of how important it is to be in St. Louis and how special it is makes it so much easier. You see it with retention. Why guys want to sign contract extensions, why players want to come here ... because it’s a great place to play.

“It’s not only ownership or management or how we treat people. They like the history. They like knowing that they are going to play in front of a crowd that believes in them. When we bring players here, they see it and they want to be part of it.”

Those players include past names such as Mark McGuire, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, and present ones such as Matt Holiday and Chris Carpenter.

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Build your team with employees, from front-line to headquarters, that possess both physical skills and personal character consistent with your culture.
  • Make your franchise a great place to play.

Third Inning: Managing and Getting the Most out of Players

When Mozeliak became Cardinals general manager, he inherited an on-fi eld culture led by respected manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. For nearly 30 years, this duo has uniquely succeeded in reviving the careers of pitchers thought to be past their prime, with an impressive list that includes Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Chris Carpenter.

“Dave looks at your strengths and make you pitch to your strengths. It seems simplistic, but he looks at what you can do well and makes sure that this is what you are repeating. He will also teach and help develop a secondary pitch or approach, but he really makes you work on your strengths.”

“In Tony’s case, he understands how to push players and motivate them to prove that they still have something to bring to the table. He has that natural ability to get people to do things that maybe others could not.”

Beyond the critical contributions of LaRussa and Duncan, Mozeliak recognizes how much team chemistry, both on and off the fi eld, can affect a season’s outcome. “When you think about the 2010 St. Louis Cardinals, one of the concerns was the attitude we had down in the clubhouse. When we started identifying players that we had interest in acquiring, we wanted to make sure they [not only] had positive statistics on the field, but off the field in what they would bring to the clubhouse. That is why we identified people like Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman, because we knew that once they were in there they would have a positive impact on our team, bringing a higher level of positive energy. And that is exactly what happened.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Ensure your players focus on what they do well and repeat it.
  • Coach for excellence to bring the best out of every player.
  • Build your clubhouse for positive energy.

Fourth Inning: Execution & Fundamentals

“Any business—baseball, convenience stores—is about understanding your core and what you need to do well. If you can’t accomplish that, the likelihood of having a positive outcome is going to be an outlier ... not going to be happening. Starting with the basics of what we have to do to play good baseball, that is how we approach spring training. “Even if you are a 10-year veteran, we are going to treat you as if it is your first year and bring you along. This way we leave nothing to chance. Our players know what is expected of them and they are not frustrated as they know we are preparing them to have ultimate success, and that is why we have their buy-in.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Know your core competencies and practice often.
  • Review your fundamentals with everyone—even the veterans. Leave nothing to chance.

Fifth Inning: The Intangibles

“What makes you change the way you value a player? We feel like we get the analytical world, we know how to capture it and we understand it. “What is difficult to get a handle on is trying to quantify how someone might end up better than just what the statistics show. This is where you need people on the ground, our scouts. How hard they work, the effort that they put out, is what we try to capture. “This is a challenge for any business. Getting to know people, paying attention to their habits and engaging in that side of it really allows you to start to capture what might drive a player from good to great.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Know your players’ motivation and drive.
  • Be aware of tendencies that can make a good player great.

Sixth Inning: The Pennant Drive & Setting Goals

With 10 world championships in 119 seasons, the Cardinals have the most of any National League franchise. This is under a 10% success rate, but it’s second only to the Yankees in all of baseball. As both a baseball man and businessman, it’s crucial that Mozeliak recognize the goals of the franchise, both for the individual season and for years to come.

“You are trying to position your organization to reach the ultimate goal of being a world champion, but to truly look at success, you have to look at it through a different set of lenses. … In sports, there is the tendency to get caught up in the short view, and as the leader of a business you have to be able to look at it both ways. If the short view is not looking good, you need to make sure that the long view is going to have positive outcomes.

“From a leadership standpoint in the business world, you always have to deal with today, and there is no doubt that you are always focused there. But sometimes you have to take a step back and make sure that you are preparing your company for tomorrow, to make sure that you can withstand threats that will send you backwards. If you are neutral, you are going the wrong way. You always have to be moving forward. “We care about now. We want to win now, but we also spend a lot of time looking at what the out years are going to look like.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Position your organization to be world champions every year, but be prepared for the out years.
  • Use different lenses for short-term and long-term views.
  • Neutral = going backwards.

Seventh-Inning Stretch: The Community Beyond the Fans

Let’s pause the game for a moment and go off the fi eld to look at a franchise that is consistently near the top of the league in attendance, despite its location in the 24th-largest MLB market. The Cardinals, like any good sports franchise, represent more than just a team. It is indelibly part of a community, a source of pride and fandom, around which people of different backgrounds and interests rally around. At the same time it’s an epicenter for the community, and the community is a source of comfort and home for the team’s players and managers.

“One of the reasons for our success is we make sure that we are part of the community. People from St. Louis understand that this is sort of a public trust, and we want the next generation of Cardinal fans to be more excited than the last.

“To embrace that from any level of business is a very smart and strategic move no matter what community you are in. St. Louis is very unique in that a lot of people identify St. Louis with the St. Louis Cardinals and look at this as a very rich and historic baseball city. On the management and ownership side, we cannot take that for granted.

“When you look at this from the outside in, what can people learn? Any time you can align yourself at a community level that isn’t just strictly social, that has benefi ts to growing education or helping at a park or some way that embraces yourself to the community, it will make you a much more attractive company.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Embrace being part of the community in meaningful ways.
  • Strive to make your brand part of a “public trust.”

Eighth Inning: Leadership & Strategy

Having started at the lowest rung as a batting-practice pitcher, Mozeliak has climbed the proverbial ladder. “It was enlightening to see the interactions of what happens at the major-league level for someone who did not get the opportunity to play it. It gives a perspective that as I have evolved in this game and have seen different levels of management in working my way up, it helps you understand where people are. “I always draw upon that as an asset. I have seen everything from a baseball perspective, and it helps me to relate to all levels of employees.”

“My job as a general manager is really no different from any other leader of a business. The importance of my job is in leadership and management. There are a lot of different attributes that go into being a GM: negotiating skills, handling media, speaking in public. But when I look at this job in the sense of making sure that the product that we are putting out there is working and is right, it really comes down to understanding the leadership role and the ability to communicate it to others in making sure that our strategic plan we want in place is being followed through.”

Scorecard Takeaways:

  • Gain perspective of all layers of your team in developing your plan.
  • Take full leadership in communication of your strategic plan.

The Ninth-Inning Closer: Long-Term Investments

Mozeliak entered the 2011 season with the same pressure he faces every year to make it to the post-season. However, 2011 also marks the last season the Cardinals have Albert Pujols—one of the game’s most dominant players over the past decade— under contract. With negotiations during the off-season failing to lead to a new contract, Mozeliak is continually bombarded with questions about whether or not he’ll be able to resign quite possibly the greatest player of a generation. Although both the Cardinals and Pujols have kept quiet on this topic during the season, no interview with Mozeliak would be complete without at least broaching the subject.

“He is an iconic player, and it seems like it would be the right fi t for him to be in St. Louis. But in fairness we decided not to discuss it, and we will reassess where we are in October and November. … It’s all I can do.”

 Even in his relative silence, Mozeliak offers important insight in how he’s handled the Pujols situation. With experts suggesting Pujols could command the highest contract baseball has ever seen, re-signing him certainly qualifies as a longterm investment for Mozeliak and the Cardinals. And although Albert has clearly established himself as a future Hall-of- Famer during his first 10 years in the game, the investment is not without risk. Albert would be 32 years old at the start of next season—a point in his career when injuries and natural decline could destroy the value of any contract. Still, Albert is the face of the Cardinals, and his effect on the franchise cannot be measured simply on the field.

It’s no easy decision. The fact that Mozeliak has taken his time and refused to rush into spending more than what he believes the team can afford provides a key lesson in how any business should handle long-term investments.

Scorecard Takeaways

  • Pursue the right fits for long-term investments.
  • Assess when to take a risk and what you’re willing to lose if it doesn’t pan out.
  • Don’t allow the long term to distract you during the season.

The Post-Game

At the end of the season, we are all measured by how we finish in the standings—whether that measure of success is in games won or products sold.

Joe Torre, an all-star player with the Cardinals and later an iconic manager who helped the New York Yankees win four World Series, once said that managing is all about putting your players in position to have success.

Legendary Baltimore Orioles skipper Earl Weaver said that pennants are won in December with your off-season moves and plans, and that championships were lost in July by how well you executed.

Truly, for the GMs of baseball and c-stores, the season never really ends. There are highs and lows, unexpected wins and unthinkable losses. And the unshakable belief that tomorrow is another day. 

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