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Management lessons from the dugout

The players in this year's baseball playoffs may get the spotlight, but the teams’ managers guide their squads to success, largely unseen, through effective leadership.

Skillful dugout management techniques can be useful in an office environment, as well, as I learned when my son, Carter, worked as a batboy for the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts, a college-level summer baseball team outside Washington, D.C., when he was 10, 11 and 12 years old.

In addition to fetching bats, Carter’s job consisted of cleaning bats and helmets before the game, organizing on-field games for little kids between innings and chasing foul balls (since the team couldn’t afford to lose them). I was impressed with how seriously he took his responsibilities and pleased that he took pride in his accomplishments.

But while I initially focused on the life lessons he would learn, it occurred to me that many aspects of his experience -- teamwork, mentoring, individual empowerment -- offered lessons for corporate leaders striving to foster effective organizations.

Below are a handful of management concepts from the dugout -- the "Batboy Principles" - that supervisors can use to create effective teams in their own organizations (which hopefully have a more successful track record than the Thunderbolts):

1. Create a sense of belonging and teamwork

Although Carter’s junior role was highlighted by his small stature and his grossly oversized team jersey, the coach invited him to sing the national anthem with the players on the baseline and join the team huddle at the end of every game.

Even though he didn’t have any sage advice to contribute to the outfield post-mortem, the manager’s decision to include him in these group rituals made him feel like a full member of the team.

2. Let everyone own a task

Teamwork is great, but even the most junior employees should own a task for which they are solely responsible and whose results they can see (and be held accountable for). There’s not much that a 10-year old batboy can be put in charge of.

Cleaning the players’ helmets before games wasn’t exactly a mission-essential task, but it provided Carter something to focus on during the pre-game period, and it gave him a sense of accomplishment to see the players wear their shiny helmets at the plate.

3. Foster mentoring relationships

Most players didn’t pay much attention to the batboy. But Alex, a player from Taiwan, chatted with him, shared some hitting tips, taught him a few curse words in Mandarin, and gave him a cracked bat as a souvenir. The relationship made Carter feel appreciated and enabled him to learn some skills from someone more senior.

4. Empower staff to use their people skills

When Carter chased foul balls, he often had to negotiate with kids who got to the balls first, some of whom were older and bigger than him. If the team coordinator had picked up some Bazooka Joe at Costco before the game, Carter could usually buy back the ball with a few pieces of bubble gum. But other times he just had to be persuasive and explain that the team wouldn’t be around anymore if it had to spend money on new baseballs.

Such encounters enabled him to develop interpersonal and negotiation skills that led to concrete accomplishments. And the realization that sometimes you have to incentivize people to do the right thing was an insight that not everyone is focused on the common good.

5. A little competition is a good thing

Everyone on the team -- even the batboys -- got energized when they faced off against their principal rival, the perennially better (and better-funded) Bethesda Big Train. The energy created a stronger sense of mission, purpose and teamwork that the coaches used to get everyone excited for the game ahead.

6. Eat together

Food is a great connector. At the end of every game, the managers would provide the players (including the batboy) with pizzas and leftover hot dogs and hamburgers. The players inhaled the food in a matter of minutes, and they were grateful to the organization for taking care of them.

Breaking bread (or hot dog buns) facilitated an easy rapport among the players after their game was done. Wolfing down a hot dog alongside the players while they joked around made the batboy feel like part of the squad.

Engaging with a batboy was likely an afterthought -- a nice thing to do for a team whose fan base consisted principally of families with kids. But by integrating the most junior staffer into the team, assigning him clear responsibilities, and giving him room to take initiative and learn new skills, the Thunderbolts fostered independence, discipline and initiative in an eager new employee.

While the team never reached the top of its league and likely didn’t develop players for a future World Series, the coach offered some pretty good lessons that apply on the field, in the office and in life.

 

Larry Hanauer is a trade association executive in Washington, D.C., and a die-hard Washington Nationals fan.

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