Don’t send your pitchers to batting practice

Leveraging beats fixing every time

Disclaimer: If you are not a baseball fan, you just need to know this one factoid about baseball players to understand this metaphor: Pitchers are generally very poor hitters.  If you are a baseball fan, you get it. 

You are the coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. You have a star pitcher who leads the league in every pitching category possible. He won 20 games and his ERA was 2.5 last year.  The “problem” is that his batting average was only .120.  You have a decision to make. Where do you want him to spend his “practice” time this season?   With a little practice, he could improve his batting by 25% and raise his batting average to .150.  Or, he could improve his pitching performance by 25% and win 25 games this year and lower his ERA to around 2.0.   What should you do?

The answer is clear.  If he raises his batting average to .150, over the course of a season that will represent approximately 4 more hits PER YEAR.  If he wins 5 more games, well, he’s won 5 more games for your team.  Now that you see the results of the equation, the decision is easy, right?  Then the bigger question is: Why do we do the opposite with our people all the time?

As business leaders, we are the epitome of the parent of student who gets excellent grades. The kid brings home a report card with 5 A’s and 1 B.  What is our first question?  What’s up with the “B” in History class? Why do we do that? Why do focus on where people fall short? If you are questioning this assessment of our current culture, think about the last performance review with one of your people.   It went something like this:

  1. What did you do well?
  2. Where did you fall short?
  3. Let’s put a development plan together to address your development areas.
  4. Where is the sections that says, “hey, remember that thing that you did that won all those sales awards? Do it 1000 times next year”!

Why do we always look to fix weaknesses? I believe it is because we, as leaders, want to show our profound ability to course correct, to be turnaround experts, to make our people perfect. It makes us look smart.  It is a failed strategy and a waste of time.

When you have a choice to leverage your people’s strengths or fix their weaknesses, choose leverage.   It is no different than the story above about the pitcher.   I had the privilege of managing a team one time that had three top performers.  And those three individuals were dramatically different but had the exact same job.  This was in medical device sales, and there were three core competencies of the job: clinical acumen (did they know the product and procedure), business planning (could they plan and execute their business) and sales process/skills (can they sell).  Each one of these individuals excelled in one of the areas. And quite frankly, they all three fell a little short in the other two.  Now, am I saying that you take the skills that they do not excel at and sweep them under the rug? No. Let me put it to you this way.  The coach of the baseball team above won’t have the pitcher spend much time in batting practice, but he may put him in the batting cage to work on his bunting.  Peter Drucker put it this way, “leverage your strengths to the point where your weaknesses are irrelevant”.  Doug McKinley, Psy.D., says it another way, “Manage your weaknesses so they don’t compromise your beautiful strengths”.

We fire winners all the time for the wrong reasons.  We look at lists of 6 required competencies, focus on fixing a winner’s four deficiencies, and when WE fail at fixing them, we deem that winner a loser. And here’s perhaps the more important point: Often times when we “succeed” at “fixing”, we have still lost. Because we have lost our most valuable commodity, and that is time. We strive to hire winners and when they miss on a couple of competencies, we forget that they are first, a winner. Now, importantly, don’t forget to first ask that question, “are they a winner”. If the answer is “no”, they need to go find a new team for which to play.

I know a sales representative who spent years in an industry as an inside customer service representative for a small family run business.   Based on her industry knowledge and relationships, she was given the opportunity to be an outside sales representative for a Fortune 500 Company.  When she started, she was very forthright in admitting to me the things she did NOT know about outside sales.  There were elements of the job that did not match her skill set or experience.  But the elements of the job that DID match her skill set allowed her to win an unprecedented five consecutive President’s Club top performer awards at this Company and is in the running for a sixth.  Never happened before, and in 25 years in the industry, I’ve never seen someone finish in the top 10% of a large Company 6 times in a row. What would have happened had the Company focused solely on her “development areas”?  She would have been stuck at square one, and more importantly the Company would have lost. Instead, the Company bet on, and leveraged her strengths.  And, coincidentally, along the way, she developed skills in many other areas of business.  I know this story intimately, because the person I’m referring to is my sister.

Folks, you can teach an old dog new tricks. My Dad is 78 years old and he just got an IPAD and a new digital camera.   He’s staying sharp as a tack, but digital media is not what makes him, him.  Don’t be afraid to work with your team to build their skill sets. But when it comes to driving business results, if you know you have winners on your team, encourage your people do what they do best.  Encourage them to do it all day long.

Now off to pitching practice. Put down your bat.