Good Things Happen When you Swing the Bat

At a talk last week, new friend Petter Østberg told me an old story with a new twist. It takes a great sports metaphor for achievement – and steps it up a notch to leadership.

First, the metaphor at Level One.

If You Don’t Do A, You Can’t Get B

You’ve heard this one before as, “If you leave the putt short, you are 100% guaranteed to miss the putt; never leave it short of the hole.”

Or maybe you know The Great One, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  It’s not just about scoring percentage, in other words, it’s also – very much – about shots on goal.

You also know, “No pain, no gain.” “You’ve got to pay to play.” One of my favorites is the thundering voice from heaven that comes down to the whining loser who is kvetching about never winning the lottery: “Do me a favor – first, buy a ticket.”

All these metaphors remind us of the need to take risks. In our misguided efforts to avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing (call that Type 1 error), we end up not doing the right thing (call that Type 2 error). And in life, as in nearly every sport, it is that Type 2 error that ends up being the Big Bomb.

To not take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Petter’s story started out this way. A deceased dear friend of his helped run the Little League programs in their town. One of the lessons he taught kids was, “Good things happen when you swing the bat.” If all you do is “take” the pitch, you’re likely to end up striking out.

(Apologies to the non-baseball countries out there, but you get the idea).

Good, good. The youngsters are being taught this Big Truth as well, all’s joy in Mudville.

Getting People to Take Risks

But as David Maister points out powerfully in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the trick is not cognitive. Just realizing you’re fat and shouldn’t smoke doesn’t mean you’re going to stop gorging and emulating a chimney. Would that it were that simple.

The failure of most corporate training programs (not to mention the people who take them) is to believe that cognition implies action. Entire classes of professions (lawyers come to mind) believe that if they can simply understand something, they have acquired the only thing they need to act upon it.

When it comes to algebra, fair enough.  Maybe even learning a foreign language.

But when it comes to altering substantive human behavior, that belief is So – Not – True.

So it is with golf, hockey, baseball, and I’m sure with cricket and futbol. Armchair athletes from the business world nod sagely as they receive this wisdom from Tiger, the Great One, His Airness, you name it.

“Yup,” they say, “that’s just how it is in my world; you gotta take that risk.”

But they don’t. They really, really don’t.

So: how do you get people to take risks?

Leadership and Role Modeling are Key to Change

Answer: you do it through role-modeling, and you do it young.

Back to Petter’s story.

The Little League coach didn’t just encourage his team to swing the bat. He told the kids’ coaches and the kids’ parents to tell their kids to swing the bat, and with the passing of this dedicated coach just before this year’s baseball season, you now hear his mantra – “Good things happen when you swing the bat” – echoed on every playing field in his town.

The kids got the message, but here’s what he told the coaches:

Look, guys. I know you all mean well. But when a kid swings at a pitch a foot over his head, what do I hear you tell him?  “Lay off the high cheese,” you yell, gesturing with your hand high above your head, “wait for a good one – wait for your pitch. ”

And that is just wrong. These kids look up to you. You’re their leader. This is one of the few remaining times in their lives they’re going to listen to someone, and it’s you they’re listening to now.

These players are very young, and they’ll get more coordinated, that’s nature, but they won’t become better batters unless they swing the bat. There are plenty of other people who will teach them over and over the dangers of taking a swing; don’t you add to that.

Because if they wait for life to serve them up “their” pitch, they’ll lead wasted lives, waiting for that pitch. In life, that pitch rarely comes.

Don’t do that to them. Instead, teach them that if you swing, all things are possible. If you don’t, nothing is. Don’t you wish someone had taught you that?

I know I do. Thanks Petter for that story, and lesson.

Flipping the Company or Flipping Beliefs?

I heard two young spirited entrepreneurs, working their butts off creating a new and wonderful company, totally devoted to clients and to their technology—talking about how they were going to flip the company in a few years.

Is this entrepreneurship at its best, creating and then moving on to let others manage?  Or are these a couple of cynical short-termers?

I think it’s something deeper.

I think it’s a fundamental shift in how we see things—and in what we believe in.

What if this is the new mainstream?

It’s easy to caricature it as a selfish, short-term oriented, monetize-everything approach, to be contrasted with the social good of building a lasting organization.  By that view, it rhymes with abandonment of employees, looking for the fast buck rather than the ongoing value. And let’s thrown in skepticism about the loyalty and dedication of whatever employees are left after the original founders are left.

Passing judgment is generally what generation now-minus-two-or-three does when faced with change.  We condemn the moral decay the change represents.

But—what if “entrepreneurship” becomes the norm?

You’d end up not being able to flip companies for very much, because they wouldn’t last long.  But the people who worked in them after the flip wouldn’t be working very long there either, since they too aspire to flip—their own careers.

Is this a recipe for cynicism? Must it be incompatible with customer service?

Not necessarily—not if you love learning and building a business and helping customers. Which is what I heard going on.

Sometimes, it is our beliefs that drag us down, hold us back. The beliefs from a generation or two ago. What are they? Let’s take stock:

1. Employee retention is good, to be maximized. Not really—the goal is engagement. Retention was always a second-order indicator that’s now fraying.

2. Sustainable competitive advantage is the goal. Sustainable for a bit is all we need; welcome to disposable businesses.

3. Built to Last. No thanks, it only has to last long enough.

4. Boundarylessness. Yes—but not limited to within the corporate walls.

5. Loyalty.  Companies can’t be loyal, only people can. People who are loyal to companies are in one-sided relationships.

If we’re going to critique trust in new businesses, we need to be careful to distinguish the core elements of trust from the ways in which trust happened to be manifested in the past.