How do you convince your team not only to embrace change, but actually lead the transformation? One of the most successful senior business communication executives of our time, Mark C. Thompson shares his insights from studying the success of world-class companies that have confronted change. He shows audiences the factors that galvanize people to adapt to and lead change, and to generate teams that lead to unstoppable growth. Here, Mark looks at the power of “gutsy small ball vs. swinging for the fences”:
This World Series was an epic Hollywood screenplay as two teams that hadn’t won in almost two generations–the Kansas City Royals and the NY Mets (representing the smallest and largest markets in baseball)–faced off in the Fall Classic. The Royals hadn’t won the series since 1985, exactly 30 years since their first and only title, and the Mets were close behind with a 29-year drought since their last title in 1986. But the Royals were fresh off of a stinging World Series loss last year in Game 7 against the SF Giants (and an off-season of doubts, second guessing, and “whys?”). Defying historical odds, they came back from that excruciating loss and the whole team returned with a unified purpose that helped drive them all season long–a singular focus on getting back to the World Series! The Royals’ win is a story about two killer tactics that are Built to Last.
1. Tenacity: Focus on the Fundamentals. In the series, that meant that you get on base no matter how you do it and keep the line moving. Behind that seemingly simple mantra is a management team who has supported it by committing to building their organization for the long haul–patiently growing and cultivating a championship team despite having a relatively low payroll and the smallest market in the MLB. Ned Yost, the Royals’ long-time manager, reiterated in all of his post-game interviews last night that he puts an immense amount of trust in his players and lets them play “like they are 12 year olds.” He didn’t mean that they played with immaturity. On the contrary, he meant that they play consistently with the “small ball” fundamentals that they all learned in little league: batting, fielding, smart base running, studying the scouting reports, and taking calculated risks. In a modern game that worships and rewards the home run heroes, this Royals team won the hard way with only one solo home run shot in all five games of this World Series.
2. Audacity: Gutsy Small Ball Plays, not Swinging for the Fences. In Royals Baseball, the team that feels the pressure is the one that cracks, and the Royals’ brand of aggressive play kept the pressure on all their post-season opponents. They put that pressure on the Mets in the 9th inning of Game 5; and they never considered giving in and taking the series back to KC to win at home in a game 6 or 7. As no team has ever done in the post-season, when the pressure was on the most, the Royals stoically refused to bend, outscoring all opponents 51-11 in games with three innings left to play. In fact, all four of their World Series wins were come from behind wins, starting with a 14-inning marathon Game 1 in which the Royals overcame a two-run deficit in the 9th inning to go on to win.
In Game 5, the Royals found themselves in a familiar position. Though they were ahead 3 games to 1 in the series, the Royals were behind the entire final game from the first inning to the top of the 9th, and they had to get creative to pull out another win. In perfect Royals’ fashion, as they’d done many other times throughout the regular and post season, they came from behind in the 9th inning to tie up the game with a series of “small ball” plays–stolen bases and gutsy plays that capitalized on small errors by the Mets that most other teams in their position wouldn’t have done. They weren’t playing like they were ahead in the series, they played with urgency as though they were about to be eliminated.
An incredible mix of creativity, tenacity, and audacity characterized KC all season long. Arguably, the most audacious play was a dash for home on a tricky line drive between second and third base that caused the Mets defense to stutter in a split second decision to either try to get the runner out at third or throw to first (and then home) for a double play to end the game. Eric Hosmer, the Royals’ runner at third, was not going to let that 90 foot stretch of dirt get in the way of a championship this year – so he read the eyes of the defense and dashed for home as soon as he saw the move to throw to first. Risky? YES! Audacious? YES! But his audacity was based on deep knowledge of the other team and the play that was unfolding in milliseconds. He knew that the defense would have to make two perfect throws to nail him at the plate and all he had to do was watch for a flinch and run like hell.
Hosmer tied the game at 2-2, completely changed the momentum, and sent the game into extra innings after the Mets failed to score in the bottom of the 9th. Met fans will question coaching decisions by their manager, fielding errors, and their star pitcher Harvey’s refusal to give up the mound after the 8th inning–but truly the credit should go to the Kansas City Royals who gutted it out in “come from behind” wins in all four World Series game wins with key plays and substitutions that were expertly designed to throw the Mets out of their comfort zone.
KC manager Ned Yost consistently talks about how smart his players are and how much trust he places in them. The best part of Yost’s post game comments was his pride in the fact that every single Royals player–all the way to the bottom of the bench–got to play in this World Series and each one contributed tangibly to the victory. The player who knocked in the go ahead run for the Royals, Christian Colon, was a pinch hitter who hadn’t had an at-bat during the entire post-season. He waited patiently on the bench until Yost told him in the top of the 12th, “You’re up in the 3 spot”. Colon stuck to the game plan, “keep the line moving”, and did just that with a single in the 12th and an RBI that put the Royals ahead for good. Yost rattled off Colon’s shot and each of his players’ key contributions and smart plays one by one in his post-game interviews showing the whole world how much he values each and every member of his team. And rather than trying to dodge the celebratory Gatorade ice-bath as the players stormed the field — Yost ran straight into it, head first, just like Hosmer had done as he slid into home plate to tie up the final game.
The Royals organization’s focus on long-term success with a “home-grown” team, their devotion to small-ball fundamentals, the players’ tenacity to outlast the defense and believe in themselves all the way to the last strike of the last inning of every game got them back to the Series this year. But the undying trust that manager Ned Yost placed in his players to have the wisdom to make smart decisions and the audacity to make gutsy plays made the difference and took the Royals all the way this year. And along the way, they delivered great lessons to all of us that we can apply in our lives and work about the grit that it takes to pick yourself up quickly after a fall, the power of having a clear and unified purpose, and the trust that leaders should extend to their team once the game is on to know what to do to bring home a victory!
My thanks to Daria Wagganer for this play-by-play and an obvious affection for her native Royals, as she was there at their win three decades ago and now has high hopes that she won’t have to wait that long for the reprise.