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Finding Talent: What IT Can Learn From Baseball

IT organizations and pro baseball teams both need talented players. IT can take lessons from a small-market team that stays competitive in a league dominated by big payrolls.

How do you attract and retain talented people when your competitors have bigger brands and deeper pockets? I had the chance to hear how the Cleveland Indians baseball team navigates these challenges, and I thought these insights were applicable to IT.

Mark Shapiro, president of the Cleveland Indians, addressed the talent issue at the 18th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference, a day-long series of talks at the Wharton Leadership Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Professional athletes can earn outrageous salaries, and baseball is no exception. But unlike some leagues such as the NFL, which have revenue-sharing programs to help small-market teams maintain parity with big cities, payroll disparity is the name of the game in Major League Baseball.

Of the 30 MBL teams, the Indians come it at number 26 for salary and payroll, at approximately $83 million for 2014, according to Deadspin. Compare that to the $235 million of the LA Dodgers and $203 million of the New York Yankees, which sit at the top of the money list.

Given this enormous gap, the Indians and other teams have significant limitations when it comes to attracting big-name, high-priced players. At the same time, the Indians have to be successful on the field to keep the fans coming to the park.

This means it’s absolutely crucial for the team to hire the right people;  people who can contribute immediately. “Each person’s performance is not necessary—it’s integral,” said Shapiro.

[Learn how to take risks and embrace creativity in your organization with Rob Cordova's Creative Leadership workshop at Interop New York.]

Shapiro said every new hire that comes through the door, including players, management, and operations, have to be able to answer the question “How will you make things better the day you get here?”

To ensure that hires will have a positive impact, Shapiro shared his matrix for talent acquisition—again, both for on the field and in the back office, including management, coaching, scouting, and marketing.

When Shapiro considers a new hire, he looks for qualities that fall into two general buckets: baseline and separators. The baseline bucket includes four qualities:

  • Talent: Does the person possess requisite talents for the position?
  • Adaptability: Will the person continue to learn while on the job and respond to changing conditions?
  • Dependability: Does the person seem reliable, and will they show up day in and day out?
  • Meaning: Is the work important or meaningful to the person?

Shapiro described separators as qualities or characteristics that would bridge the difference between good and great. They include:

  • Toughness: How does the person handle setbacks and adversity?
  • Accountability: Is the person willing to own up to his or her mistakes?

Shapiro emphasized accountability, saying “The excuses are always there, but it’s a leader’s job to find a way and take ownership.”

Of course, while Shapiro faces significant challenges in the market, he also has an advantage that many organizations outside of sports don’t: there are only so many professional baseball teams in the U.S., and a limited number of roster spots, even on top-paying teams. There are a far greater number of people who want to play professional ball, which means Shapiro still controls a valuable commodity.

Shapiro also has an advantage that IT organizations don’t necessarily have: an incredible amount of statistics on player performance, not to mention in-person scouting, that helps the team determine the right fit.

That said, I thought Shapiro’s list of qualities could be easily applied to IT organizations, both when hiring new employees and looking at how to develop employees internally.

Raw talent is always great to have, but if you can find and nurture employees who are adaptable, dependable, mentally tough, and accountable, such investment can keep you in the big leagues.

Drew is formerly editor of Network Computing and currently director of content and community for Interop. View Full Bio
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Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
7/7/2014 | 10:42:40 AM
Re: Talent Is Everywhere
That's a good point. There's still a role for imagination and ideas, not just number-crunching and metrics. If you can combine the two, it could be really powerful. Imagination is also important because once every team in the league brings in the stats nerds, you lose some of that first-mover advantage.
Lenny Heymann
Lenny Heymann,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/3/2014 | 4:56:58 PM
Re: Talent Is Everywhere
The Indians are obviously taking a "Moneyball" apporoach but they're not getting Moneyball - Oakland A's - results. While A's GM Billy Beane was one of the first to latch on to an analytics approach to evaluating talent (ironically enabled in part by a Harvard-educated economist he hired away from Cleveland), it was his instinct and creativity that let him see there was another way to run a baseball team.

While Shapiro's list for evaluating prospects is a solid double, i wish he'd also call out imagination. We can always use more of that in the technology ranks. Business leaders are rooting for IT to swing for the fences and bring home creative solutions.
User Rank: Author
7/3/2014 | 2:45:46 PM
Meaning is Key!
I love this blog! The requirements can be helpful to anyone looking to bring in new talent that is eager and likely to help drive business forward. I especially like the fourth baseline requirement - meaning. I think it is so true - most of us want to feel connected to the bigger picture and know we are making an impact. 
Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2014 | 4:03:30 PM
Talent Is Everywhere
Another interesting point Shapiro made is how they look for talent all over. For instance, they found a blogger who wrote really intelligently about baseball stats. He turned out to be a college student at Columbia, so they offered him a string of summer internships, which eventually it turned into a full-time position.
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