Issue No. 31 November 16, 2016

The announcement of Kris Bryant as the National League's Most Valuable Player gives us the opportunity to once more celebrate the Cubs' historic World Series victory. The team won 103 games during the regular season, the best record in baseball, with a group of talented young players and a few experienced veterans. To many fans, it still seems like a dream.

The Cubs turned that dream into reality based on a well thought-out strategy and the determination to carry it out. But more importantly, the leadership changed the culture of the organization, creating a high-performance environment where every member of the team contributes to its success. There are lessons here that transcend sports and can apply to leaders in any organization.

At the Center for High Performance, we have many offerings to help organizations develop leaders from within. For more information, visit the CfHP website. I would also welcome your suggestions on great leaders for future interviews. Please feel free to contact me.

Maddon on holding players accountable

Joe Maddon talks about the challenges of managing young players after the Cubs hired him in 2014.

Watch more CfHP videos.

Cubs Win! (and provide lessons for business leaders)

The Cubs last won a World Series in 1908. Among the reasons for that dismal history is a culture of blame that festered for far too long. Whether it was a goat, a curse or a hapless fan reaching for a ball, it was always someone else's fault. That's not the way high-performing teams behave. When they encounter adversity, they don't point the finger elsewhere--they welcome the challenge and turn it to their advantage.

CfHP research found that long-term success hinges on the work environment. Strategy and execution are important, but by themselves they are no guarantee of high performance. High-performing organizations create an environment in which people believe they can be successful and want to give their best.

Brad Mangin/MLB Photos

The Cubs have had outstanding individual players over the years, but even the best talent cannot succeed in the wrong environment. In a high-performance environment people feel valued, are not hindered by emotional constraints and are encouraged to seize opportunities. The 2016 Cubs have created that environment.

It started when the Ricketts family took ownership in 2009 and gave the team the resources they needed to succeed. Crane Kenney, Cubs president for business operations, said he presented chairman Tom Ricketts with a list of 12 expensive projects in 2010, hoping he would give the go-ahead to three or four of them. Instead, Ricketts said, "Let's do them all."

But beyond the resources, the new owners had a vision for success. Kenney explained, "There's a saying in business that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast.' And there were a lot of strategies over the years. But we proved that culture matters most. The Ricketts family brought a new culture to this organization when they joined us. They told us to think big. They told us to stop cutting corners. They said, 'Hire the best.' They said, 'Build the best. Don't settle for second. No one has a time clock on any of you. Do it right, and do it always.' They changed our culture.’"

The change continued when Ricketts brought in Theo Epstein as president of baseball operations in 2011.

Epstein brought a detailed plan for transforming the Cubs, reminding people calmly and repeatedly that getting there would take time. He told fans, "Right now we are in a mode where we are trying to do everything we can to acquire young talent. And we are doing it because we want to create a perennial contender." High-performing organizations embrace long-term thinking. And their leaders articulate a vision of success that makes others want to be part of their team.

When pitching ace Jon Lester visited Chicago in late 2014, Epstein told him how he could help deliver "one of the most significant championships in the history of sports." Lester joined the team in 2015.

Ricketts and Epstein also lured manager Joe Maddon away from the American League. Epstein has said that bringing in Maddon was the final major piece in the construction of a Cubs' World Series championship team.

With his hipster glasses, his quirky aphorisms and his penchant for stunts--bringing a magician into the clubhouse, having the team dress in onesies for a flight back from the West Coast--Maddon might not seem like a business leader. But look at who he's managing: a whole lot of millennials, who value and look up to someone who encourages fun in the workplace. One of the hallmarks of a high-performance environment is the ability to have fun, which releases tension and paves the way for success.

Maddon praises players for good work but never gets down on them when they make mistakes that lose games. Like other leaders of high-performing teams, he does not blame others for failure, and is not afraid to make unconventional tactical moves.

His behavior prompts players to accept challenges and turn them into opportunities for success. As he explained, "Running toward expectations and running toward pressure was really important, as opposed to running away from it."

All Maddon asks is that his players give their best every game. "When it comes down to individual effort," Maddon has said, "it takes absolutely zero talent to try hard or play hard every day." Realizing that a can-do attitude is within their control, players responded.

Maddon helped write a fairy-tale ending to a story that has taken 108 years to unfold.

Are the Cubs going to continue their winning ways next year, and into the future? Cubs fans may worry about another drought, but CfHP research shows that the odds of sustainable success increase in a high-performance environment such as the one created by Ricketts, Epstein and Maddon. "Wait 'til next year" now has a whole new meaning.


We can help you develop great leaders

With competition intensifying in every industry, the ability to cultivate individuals who can lead a company to sustained high performance is critical for success. The Center for High Performance offers customized leadership-development programs including courses on modeling high-performance behaviors, leveraging your personal leadership brand, leading a high-performance senior team and strategic leadership for women. For more information, please visit the Leadership Programs page at our web site, and follow the prompts there to contact us.

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