Baseball’s lessons for business

Can execs learn anything from a guy who helped engineer 14 straight Major League Baseball division titles?

You be the ump.

I talked to Braves President John Schuerholz — not about last week’s controversial release of pitcher Tom Glavine — but about how to maintain high performance once it’s achieved. It’s one thing to have a good year or two. It’s quite another to have 14 in a row. I’d argue that such an accomplishment is even more remarkable, given the tough times the Braves have had lately.

“Creating excellence is a challenge. Sustaining excellence separates the great from the good,” Schuerholz, 68, said.

The formula for the unprecedented string of success, he said, had two essential ingredients: world-class research and development, and hiring veteran employees with a track record for winning.

First, the R&D. It’s critical, he said, to have a well-organized system to acquire and train new talent, which can provide a vibrant core for any organization.

In baseball, Schuerholz said, that means winning teams need a top-notch scouting system to identify promising players, including those from other countries. And, teams need a superior minor-league system to develop those players.

What’s more, that system, which amounts to research and development in the business world, needs to be nourished in good times and bad, he said. It can be short-sighted to cut R&D in tough times. The talent pool could run dry, compounding any weaknesses that emerge.

“All the teams that couldn’t do it long-term lacked R&D,” Schuerholz said. “If you develop your own players, you know if the winning spirit is there.”

That youthful core, however, lacks the leadership ability and winning ways to bring an organization to the top, he said. That’s where the second ingredient of experience comes in.

“You have to have a balance … a blend,” Schuerholz said.

He spoke of the importance of making moves when he was general manager in the early 1990s to acquire veteran players who were leaders and winners. He referred to several players who made a big difference when they joined the Braves, including Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton and Rafael Belliard.

But all good things come to an end.

The string of division championships ended three years ago and the Braves are trying to get their mojo back. Perhaps the release of Glavine, a future Hall of Famer who Braves’ execs determined could no longer pitch at the Major League level, indicates how badly they want to reach the playoffs again.

Repeating success requires a “clear and precise goal” that permeates the organization. For the Braves, Schuerholz said, it’s about winning the World Series.

Schuerholz regrets only winning one championship. That has provided fuel for the “naysayers” to minimize what the team has accomplished through the years.

“It bothers me,” he said, adding that another one or two World Series rings would have made all the difference in how the team will be remembered. The players and the team, he said, “don’t get the credit that’s due.”

But Schuerholz may be giving too much credit to the critics.

Even someone like me, who grew up in the Bronx enjoying all of the World Series championships won by the Yankees, can appreciate the Braves’ success.

I’m not that good in math, but 14 is a big number.

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