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Ah…the start of spring.  The smell of freshly cut grass, trees and flowers in bloom, and (most importantly for me) the Major League Baseball season kicks off next week!  As spring trainings break in Florida and Arizona, the players have prepared their minds and bodies for the grueling 162-game season ahead in the hopes of reaching the playoffs.  With the promise of a new season, the teams have worked hard to set new targets and goals—incorporating lessons learned from last season—with their eye on reaching the playoffs.  

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had the privilege of playing baseball for many years and even had the opportunity to pitch in the Yankees farm system for a little while. The best leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with over the years—in business and sports—understand that their most valuable asset is their people, and I learned a lot from them about how to manage people, to lead teams, and to nurture employee loyalty.

The number nine holds significance in baseball—nine innings in a game, nine players on the field—and I’d like to share nine ways to cultivate employee loyalty.

1. Show Respect and Personalize Your Management Style

In baseball, the pitcher is the most visible member on the field. Before every play in an inning, all eyes are on the pitcher because nothing happens until he toes the rubber and delivers the ball. So, when the pitcher makes a mistake, everyone watching knows it.

One year when I was playing in the New York Penn League, we were leading a game in the middle innings when our starting pitcher began to struggle. I was brought in from the bullpen to close out the inning and to protect our lead. To make a long story short, I got beat up pretty badly, gave up the lead, and finished the inning with our team trailing by one run.

Feeling dejected and sure I was going to be pulled from the game, I walked slowly to the dugout. Before I could drop my glove on the bench, the manager walked up, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m going to put you back out there because now this is your game. You hold the keys to whether or not we can hold the other guys back while our offense goes to work to get some runs for you.” I was shocked. Instead of ripping into me for not doing my job, he let me know that he had confidence in me. And that was exactly what I needed to hear. Ultimately, our team did produce some runs, we took the lead, and I finished the game. It turned out to be a great team win.

Strong leaders understand that to build a top performing team, you need to understand your people and what motivates them. What works to motivate one employee may not work for another. Some may need encouragement and affirmation. Others may need to “ride-the-pine” for a while to get their attention. It depends on the person and the situation. But one management style doesn’t fit all. Treating people with respect and tailoring your management style to fit the situation and the person goes a long way in communicating value, building trust, and fostering loyalty.

2. Make Sure Your Team Knows Their Targets

Planning and preparation are critical to success. In baseball, coaches spend hours reviewing scouting reports, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. Likewise, pitchers and catchers study the tendencies of the opposing team’s hitters and develop a pitch-by-pitch strategy for each one. Both understand the plan before the game begins and do their best to execute it, making situational adjustments as the contest progresses.

But the success of the strategy rests on knowing the targets to hit and when to hit them. As a pitcher, if the catcher calls for a fastball low and outside, but you throw it belt-high over the middle of the plate, the consequences could be devastating.

In business, as in baseball, your team needs to know the targets they need to hit and when to hit them. Just as a catcher sets up his glove where the pitch needs to be thrown, a good leader needs to set the appropriate targets for the team as it relates to quotas, expectations, and goals. Ambiguity can be devastating to a team, leading to unsatisfactory results and poor employee morale. 

3. Project Stability at All Times

Most successful pitchers in the major leagues show little emotion when they are on the mound. Whether they are striking out the side or giving up walks and base hits, they normally project a calm, composed demeanor. They don’t get rattled when things are going badly. And they don’t get overly emotional when things are going great. They are professionals doing their job and remain focused on the business at hand.

The same is true in the business world. Great leaders project stability in both good times and bad. And team members thrive when they know—regardless of the obstacles that come along—their leader will remain focused on the end game and will be there to help pull them through.

4. Demonstrate Integrity and Trustworthiness

We’ve all witnessed sports teams that have extremely talented players on their roster, but they still struggle to win games. And that can be one of the most frustrating experiences for a coach. 

Years ago, a coach said something to me that really stuck. He told me that the best leaders on the team, and most admired teammates, were the players who understood that everyone on the team had a role to play—from the top pitcher in the rotation to the utility player coming off the bench—and no one was more important than anyone else. He told me to treat everyone with respect, do what you say you will do, and be trustworthy. In other words, he was saying, “Be a good locker room guy, and you’ll earn the respect and the trust of your teammates.”

5. Position the Team to Succeed

Major league teams shift players in the field to defend against certain hitters. Based on scouting reports, managers know with a pretty high degree of probability where certain batters will hit the ball. As a result, they will move players around to improve the team’s chances of getting an out.
Sometimes this may result in a third baseman playing in the shortstop position and the shortstop playing behind or on the opposite side of second base. While that may feel strange and unorthodox to those players, it may be the best way to give the team a chance to succeed in that situation. So, they make the shift.

The same is true in business. Sometimes you have to ask your team to leave their comfort zone to give the team the best chance to succeed. And that may be difficult for them to do. But, if you’ve taken the time to invest in your team and have established a trusted relationship with them, they will be more willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

6. Now and Then, Take One for the Team

When I was in high school, I used to get upset when my coach wouldn’t let me hit. Like most pitchers, I thought I was a good hitter. However, my coach knew that I was more skilled at pitching, and that if he let me hit, I would be taking the spot of a teammate who could produce better results or putting myself at risk of being hit by a pitch. I had to put aside my pride and get my batting fix in practice.

As a leader, every now and then you have to assess your own skills and operate in the area where you can provide the most value no matter how hard it may be to accept the answer. And, your team will respect you for it.

7. Share the Wins, Take Blame for the Losses


In post-game press conferences, great coaches praise the efforts of their players when the team wins and shoulder most of the blame when the team loses. They address poor player performance privately, never publicly. To the outside world, they make it clear that they are responsible and will do everything in their power to put the team in a better position to win the next time.

When business leaders do the same, they gain trust and respect from their team. And when team members witness their leader accepting the blame, they are much more likely to go the extra mile for them the next time.

8. Focus on the Bigger Picture

Competing in today’s business world is not unlike competing in the sports world. The teams with the best combination of leadership, talent, and commitment win most of the time. Attracting talent is vital to success. And developing and retaining that talent is a must. Taking the time to invest in your people will go a long way to building trust and loyalty and position you, and your organization, for success.

9. Have Some Fun along the Way

And as my final thought, I’d like to quote the great Whitey Herzog.  We can all benefit from following “Herzog’s Rules:”
    1. Be on time.
    2. Bust your butt.
    3. Play smart.
    4. Have some laughs while you're at it.

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