St. Louis Cardinals: A Great Coaching Lesson

The youth, the veterans, and the new manager are all working together in a system where players are developed from within.

By Tim Hagen, Chief Coaching Officer, Sales Progress & Training Reinforcement Partners

I’m an avid Milwaukee Brewers fan, but after the recent game when the Cardinals clinched a fourth berth in the World Series in 10 years, I realized this is not only a great organization, but one that quietly and subtly applies coaching principles needed in the business world. What a wonderful parallel! (And just for the record, I don't hate the Cardinals. I hate the Chicago Cubs.)

First, what does every successful team or business have? It has a leader who can guide the team and support it when struggling.

Second, teams comprise rookies, veterans, and everyone in between. Getting various demographics to work together and support one another is challenging.

Third, many teams have aging veterans who are ignored. An opportunity here is appreciating them without providing preferential treatment. For example, the sales veteran whose manager says, “Well, that’s Bob and I don’t like to challenge him because he’s near retirement.” What a horrible message!

Fourth, believe in youth. Young people are amazing so we need to give them a chance (to maybe fail), but one management swing of the bat can ruin a young employee. Years ago, I recall an aggressive manager calling out a young salesperson about low sales. He looked mortified. I asked the manager how long that rep was on board, and he said six months. I gave him a look of astonishment, and he said, “Wow, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Lastly, every team needs supporting players to encourage and pick up the team when slumping. I would love parents involved in youth sports to teach this team spirit. All too often, they think of “I” and not the team. If parents position their child to get a better chance than another, they encourage their children to “suck up to the boss” and sabotage co-workers. This is all to get ahead?

Now let’s look at the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals. Two years ago, they lost future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa and the best player in the game at the time, Albert Pujols. Most teams would have folded or made excuses like some in the corporate world. For example, ask a salesperson why he’s having a good year and he’ll tell you all the reasons, but ask why he’s having a bad year and it’s the bad economy or customers not buying. You get it—it’s NOT about them. The Cardinals could have complained and talked about people leaving. Instead, they found a first-time manager in Mike Matheny. I told my friend and client in St. Louis, “Cheri, when this is all said and done, you are going to be thrilled with this guy and he is going to be the steady hand the Cardinals need right now.” As the game ended, she texted me, “I’ll never doubt you again.” We shared a laugh.

Businesses need to train and coach their employees to overcome adversity and not be quick to attribute a lack of success to bad circumstances.

Let’s review why the Cardinals have been successful:

Mike Matheny

Mike is an ex-Brewer, and I’ll always remember an infamous play when he was beaned in the jaw during a game. Most players would have crumbled to the ground. Mike looked at the pitcher, spit out blood, and walked to first base. His reasoning was “I had to show the pitcher and my teammates I won’t give in to anything.” That’s a leader who exemplifies a “follow me and we’ll get there” attitude. No player or employer will ever challenge this type of leader’s toughness. Mike’s persona during the game is quiet and focused. You rarely see him yelling at players; he looks them in the eye and shows them he is trustworthy. Managers can learn from this.

The Fundamentals

For years, the Cardinals have been one of the best teams in executing fundamentals such as bunting and strong defense. What’s the parallel? I quit sales training for one reason. I stress using open-ended questions yet hear groans from salespeople because “everyone” knows what they are and it’s condescending to revisit trivial fundamental selling skills. I believe this is the No. 1 reason salespeople fail. They show up without prepared questions and ask close-ended questions that pigeonhole them. They also rarely demonstrate active listening (the ability to state back or paraphrase) to a prospect or customer. We tend to forget the fundamentals. Ask sales reps for three new things they learned about a customer they met with. If they can’t answer, they were talking too much, not listening, or both. In this case, open-ended questions would have been helpful. Yes, fundamentals are the key to any team’s success.

The Aging VeteranCarlos Beltran

I cannot tell you how often organizations say, “Don’t even bother with him, he’s close to retirement.” Why are we so quick to give up on the notion we “can’t teach an old dog, new tricks?” Maybe we’ve ignored them so long, they stopped caring about themselves. The Cardinals are masters of this. They signed Carlos Beltran (they did the same thing a few years ago with Lance Berkman) from the New York Mets, and their management talked about how happy everyone was for him. By the way, he won one of the games with a homerun. We should never give up on the older workforce. One instance is a firm here in Milwaukee called Patina Solutions. It is a placement firm for older employees, but describes them this way: “accomplished and specialized professionals.” This is a great market position as many people view older employees as retirement candidates, but this business correctly positions them as “seasoned and accomplished.” I love that.

The Youth—Trust Comes From Believing in Them

We need to give young people room to grow and learn. Worry less about results and focus on effort and progress. Corporate and sports youth need to be coached to improve, not focus on results. The Cardinals had more than 20 players on their team from their own minor league system. Too many companies spend money on firms to get them the “right” candidate. If companies adopted coaching as a management practice, staff can be nurtured and developed from within. This saves money on recruiting and reduces turnover. Finally, many employees find when they leave, the grass is not greener on the other side, especially when they leave a coaching culture. Huh, I wonder if Albert Pujols thinks I’m right.

Supportive Players

While everyone wants to play, every team needs support players without attitude. Parents complain about “their” kid’s playing time. If every parent asked questions and encouraged their kids to think about the team first, this would translate to a better workforce. The Cardinals get this. David Freese had an up-and-down year, but he always plays without attitude when called upon. Freese killed the Milwaukee Brewers a few years ago but now seems to have fallen off a bit. Yet when players come into the dugout, he’s one of the first players to congratulate teammates who are playing. This is a great example of support. Similarly, in the business world, I had a client where a young employee did not get a promotion and called me really frustrated. What made it difficult was he now was reporting to the lady who got the job. He asked what to do. I said, “You have to make her look great, and every action you take has to be in accordance with her leadership. Show the team you have her back because no one will expect it, thus, you will demonstrate great teamwork and leadership.” Nine months later, he received a similar promotion.

This article was tough to write because the St. Louis Cardinals have beaten up on my Milwaukee Brewers the last few years, but it is a great coaching story. The youth, the veterans, and the new manager are all working together in a system where players are developed from within. Fortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers seem to be up and coming as they’ve taken a similar step in promoting their youth, and it should be fun to watch!

Tim Hagen is chief coaching officer at Sales Progress and Training Reinforcement Partners, which help organizations build coaching programs for greater management to employee engagement, performance, and profitability” For more information, call 262.377.5655 or visit www.SalesProgress.com. To schedule a meeting to learn about coaching programs, visit https://www.timetrade.com/book/21SCJ

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