I was the manager for my son's Little League team this spring (his final Little League season) as well as last fall. I enjoyed working with the boys as they get ready to transition to the next level of baseball and it was a great father and son experience also.

My son, Sam, started playing Little League in 2002 when he was 5 years old. He has many friends from being on 15 teams (Fall and Spring Season every year) of Little League. Two of his very good friends from baseball live in other parts of our neighborhood. He probably would not have been friends with them had it not been for baseball since one goes to private school and the other is home schooled. One of those two boys has been Sam's teammate on 7 of those 15 teams including the first season of Tee Ball and the last season of Majors.

I managed a team (the Yankees) in the Majors Division, for 11 and 12 year olds. This division has some extremely talented players as well as players who are out there playing baseball even though their skill level has a ways to go. This division is the first step towards more competitive baseball for many of the players since playing time is not all equal and winning does matter. I am as competitive as anyone. Many of you know that I still play baseball competitively in an adult baseball league. At 50 years old, I still have that competitive fire. I wanted the Yankees to win a championship but to win with grace and teamwork, where everyone contributes.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons from the managerial experience - to help me as a parent, as a leader, and as a consultant to business leaders. Here are some of my key lessons learned from this experience (names have been changed to protect the kids' identity):

Learning #1: As a Leader, Tell Team Members (Individually) That You Believe in Them

Telling the team members you manage that you believe in them may seem uncomfortable or unnecessary to many of you. To some people, this may seem a little too "touchy-feely." I don't see it that way since I believe most direct reports want to know that their supervisor is hoping for their success and is not working against them. Telling them you believe in them is a vote of confidence and a validation of their worth. Don't assume that they know what you think as a leader.

As a Little League Manager, I found that my attention and communication was never equal between the players. You wouldn't expect it to be. I had to consciously remember to talk to individuals and tell them I believed in them as well as telling the team I believed in them.

It must be genuine -- so if you are a leader of a team in business and you really don't believe in one of your team members, you need to work on accepting the individual's weaknesses (and help them improve) so you can believe in them. If after some time/effort to accept their weaknesses (and help them improve), you still can't genuinely believe in them, then you might need to consider how the team member can move on.

Learning #2: Every Team Member Needs to Contribute to the Team's Success

In baseball and Little League baseball, a team's success is very dependent on contributions from everyone -- no matter whether they have the most skill/talent on the team or whether they have the least. In last fall's season, we had a player, Eric, who may not have possessed the skills of a star player but found ways to contribute. He was our model outfielder because of how he backed up the infielders on just about every pitch and every play. Although his hustle and backup not only saved us from some bad plays becoming worse, his greatest contribution was that through his hustle, he became a leader for other outfielders to follow when it came to backing up the infielders. When I drafted my team in the spring, Eric was someone I wanted to draft and was able to draft. I drafted him, not for his traditional skills, but because he was a leader and contributor in so many less obvious ways.

It is no different in organizational teams. Team members often have different roles in contributing to the overall team success. Rightly or wrongly, some of those roles and those team members are considered higher value than others. In executive leadership teams, the CFO, the VP of HR or the CIO are often seen as not having the value that the revenue producers or production managers do. We can debate the value of each role but for a team to succeed, every team member can and must contribute in different ways. A very talented VP of Production should appreciate the HR VP's contribution of a talent development strategy that results in lower retention costs and higher production revenue.

Learning # 3: Find the Higher Purpose for a Team

A team needs a purpose. That purpose can motivate the team beyond the goal itself. The goal of winning a game or winning a championship can set the target and the direction. But a purpose makes the goal have meaning.

The Florida Gators, our team in the fall season, found out that one of our players, Aaron, was in the hospital with pneumonia and wasn't responding well to the medication. We began dedicating our games to him and the boys sent notes to him in the hospital. I think our players realized that they were lucky to be playing baseball and that they wanted Aaron to feel a part of each of our games by dedicating the game to him. They learned that winning had more meaning when it wasn't just about them. Aaron did rejoin us for the second half of the season and that team went on to win the championship.

In the spring, the Yankees decided to "adopt" a Dream League baseball team (baseball for kids with disabilities). Our players raised $2,000 to sponsor a team and they also acted "angels" to shadow the Dream League players during their games. Our players came together for a reason other than playing their own baseball games -- to help these kids (with special needs) play baseball too.

Business teams often create Mission or Core Purpose statements. Those that find a purpose that gives the team meaning can see the difference in their performance while those that struggle with finding their purpose often struggle with achieving performance targets also. From the article "Building Company Vision" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, the following are a couple of Core Purpose statements that must have given meaning to the company's goals and objectives:

Merck - "To Preserve and Improve Human Life"

Disney - "To Make People Happy"

Learning #4: A Leader Needs a Strong #1

Whether it's Little League or an HR Leadership Team in an organization, a team leader needs a strong #1 (key assistant leader). The #1 will connect with certain team members differently than the leader and will bring different experiences and a different style. In both seasons of Little League this year, I had excellent #1's. Coach Ramon was my #1 in the fall season and he was an experienced Little League manager that could really connect with the kids. He not only helped a number of kids with their batting and fielding technique but he was also a great advisor to me on decisions in game situations. Coach John was my #1 in the spring. He helped me in so many ways but one was pretty memorable. I had to make a decision to put my own son in as a pitcher to close out a game. I couldn't make my mind up until the last minute because I was probably too over-concerned about showing favoritism toward my own son. He told me "He can do it. You have to have confidence in him." I learned not to let what people think impact my decisions. Because of that, I was more confident in letting my son start our first playoff game and he did an outstanding job to help us win our first playoff game.

Learning #5: 11 and 12 Year Olds Can Improve Trust Within Their Teams Just Like Adults Can in Their Teams at Work

With the leadership teams I work with, trust and working relationships between team members is a common area for improvement. Part of the team development process involves a team meeting where each member shares one of their strengths and areas for improvement. Then other team members have an opportunity to provide input and feedback on strengths/areas for improvement. This process allows team members to get their frustrations out about each other and the receiver gets to hear more of what people are thinking. As a neutral party, I can facilitate that discussion and make it safe/productive. I almost always get good results from this process because it is an important first step in improving working relationships/trust.

In our spring Little League season, our team started strong with a 3 - 0 record but then began to slump. I could see some opportunities for our players to become closer as a team. I decided to have a team meeting/party at our house one evening after school. All 12 players came over and they ate pizza and played baseball in the street (with a tennis ball). After playing for an hour, we went inside and had a team meeting. I decided to take a risk and see if they could improve their trust in each other by using a very similar process with them as I do with my corporate teams. I knew these boys were 11 and 12 so they may not be comfortable opening up -- but they did. One boy heard that he was being disruptive in the dugout and that he was cussing too much (which was a rule of mine that there would be no cussing in the dugout). Another boy heard that he let too many good pitches go by without swinging. Another boy heard that the other players wanted him to talk more. The players had some fun and came up with nicknames for each other like "Big Mac", "Little Giant", "Destroyer" and "Mechanic." They used these nicknames with each other the rest of the season. The meeting must have worked because they seemed to be a closer group after that plus they started winning more games following that meeting.

Learning #6: Every Team Member (and the Team Leader) Needs to Have a Short Memory About Mistakes/Problems

When Little League players make mistakes or don't perform up to their expectations, they can easily beat themselves up over it and either start crying, lose confidence or take it out on other players. I made a simple rule - have a short memory. Once a mistake or failure has happened, it is in the past - whether it's your mistake or someone else's mistake. There is no benefit in dwelling on it. You can learn from it but that comes at your next practice/game.

As a manager, I had to live by the same rule. In a playoff game last fall, we had the bases loaded and the pitcher walked our batter. The runner on third, Jim, jogged home and must have looked up to see the fans cheering and missed home plate. As soon as he went into the dugout, the catcher got the ball and stepped on home plate and our runner was called out. A dumb mistake that players that age should never do. Jim was crying and felt horrible that he let the team down. I am sure that our other players were not happy with him. I was very upset about it and feared this would turn the momentum from our team to theirs. But I told myself to follow the rule that I set for my players. I got the players together before they went out into the field and said, "Remember my rule. You have to have a short memory and this is the time we must follow that rule." To make a long story short, Jim ended up getting a key hit near the end of the game as well as a nice catch in the outfield in the last inning of the game. I am not sure that we would have won that game if it had not been for Jim's contributions and his short memory.

I also must have got my point across to another one of my other players - Scott. Scott is a very confident kid who was always willing to take on the next challenge. He earned the right to move up in the batting order and be one of our regular infielders. A couple of days ago, I found out he didn't make the All Star team. I sent a note to his parents to tell them that I was sorry to hear that he didn't make it. His mother wrote me back and said that when Scott found out, he was upset until he quoted his favorite coach who told him "You have to have a short memory." I hope he always remembers that.

Business teams should follow my rule too. We all see way too much "analysis paralysis," rumors about what someone did, bringing up 2 year old issues that were never discussed, etc. Like a Little League team, those mistakes and problems are done and over with. We can try to learn from them but we shouldn't dwell on the failure or impact longer than we have to. I have found that most people are trying to do the best they can. Some may not be as competent or talented as others but dwelling on mistakes/problems doesn't usually help them perform better next time around.

Learning #7: Achieving Strong Performance and Team Member Development Can Be A Difficult Balance

Being a Little League manager for the last 2 seasons was a great experience for me. I love baseball and like to watch kids develop their skills and their confidence in playing the game. These were 11 and 12 year olds. Each of them should be challenged and have the opportunity to grow as a player. But baseball is like most games. You keep score. It is the competition that drives you to play at your best. 11 and 12 year olds are old enough to start learning about how the competition can drive you to achieve more and keep it from working against you.

I personally struggled with balancing the priorities of winning (and having the best players play the key positions) with the priority of player development -- to improve their capabilities. From what I am told, I probably balance those priorities better than some Little League managers. And I know that Little League is supposed to be fun and developmental. But I had to make decisions as a leader to help the team win because that was still the primary goal during a game. Practice is when the players should develop and become more capable to be able to contribute in a game. I had one player, Randy, who was constantly asking me when he was going to pitch but in practice he wasn't able to get the ball over the plate with any consistency. I tried to work with him outside the normal practice but he didn't really think he needed to adjust his delivery. Finally towards the end of the season, Randy told me he was practicing pitching and he was making those adjustments we worked on. Should I have given him as well as 4 or 5 others an opportunity early in the season to try pitching to see what they could do? Even if they didn't seem ready based on our practices and practice games? Should I have tipped the scales more towards developing the kids even if it meant losing some more games? Or was I developing the kids more by teaching them about competition and, in this case, about earning their opportunity to pitch?

It is a tough balance. What I will tell you is that we had the fortunate opportunity that our last game in the regular season did not mean anything in the standings. So I made the decision to let everyone who didn't have the opportunity to pitch or catch to do those for one inning. It was one of the most enjoyable games of the whole season to watch those kids have that opportunity. It included Randy, who pitched a great inning. It also included Eric (from #2 above) who caught the first inning. Everyone on the team was happy for these boys and others as they stretched themselves by trying some things they had not had an opportunity to try yet for our team. In the last inning, I was going to let Wayne (who had pitched for us before) pitch the final inning until we asked Eric whether he wanted to try pitching since it would probably be his last chance in Little League. He said he didn't care and we said you should try it -- and he did. When Eric went out on the mound to warm up, his mother was very nervous and I said, "Don't worry. I can take him out any time if he struggles." Because parents can often be more nervous than their kids, she said, "I think now is a good time to take him out." Eric pitched a really good inning and did much better than everyone expected he would.

I was really happy that I gave Eric and all those other boys the opportunity to develop in that last game. I learned to never underestimate the ability of any team member's ability to contribute. It also reminded me of the dilemma as a leader -- giving people the opportunity learn/fail is as important as making the decisions you need to maximize team performance. It is no different for business leaders. The pressure to perform and achieve is very real. But there are opportunities to let people develop, where it won't be the end of the world if they fail. If you are a leader in business, do you have the right balance between achieving performance targets and developing the capabilities of your people?

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I have always believed that baseball and other sports are great for kids to learn about the challenges of life. I learned a lot of lessons when I was a young ballplayer that have helped me as an adult. I continue to learn lessons about contributing to a team goal as I play in an adult baseball league now as a spry 50 year old. Being a Little League manager will help me be a better executive/leadership coach. I learned some great lessons. Yogi Berra, that famous baseball philosopher knew how to learn, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2009

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