Holy Cow! Learn from Theo Epstein How Focusing on the Little Things Can Break Curses & Win Championships
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Holy Cow, Cubs Win! For the first time since 1908, the Chicago Cubs are World Champions, and the longest championship streak in major sports is over. But for the iconic franchise, championships eluded them for 108 years. Their brand was seemingly built on top of their icon ballpark’s ivy walls and sun-soaked bleachers than the product on the field.
In 2016, the narrative changed for good. Following-up on a surprising run in the 2015 playoffs, the Cubs game into 2016 as the prohibitive favorite to win the championship. With a young core of young superstar hitters and a stable of top pitchers, the Cubs rolled through the National League, winning 103 games and dominating their division by 17.5 games.
The playoffs pushed them to the brink, but they roared back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series and won one of the most amazing games in baseball history to standing at the end as World Champions. The Chicago Cubs, lovable losers no more.
Winning the championship was the end of a long journey, starting somewhere around 1908, but more recently beginning in 2009 when Tom Ricketts and the Ricketts family purchased the Cubs. Looking back now, it’s hard to remember that the Cubs finished last place in their division in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, & 2014. The goal for the Cubs rebuild was not to just win one fluke championship, but to put together a team that competed for titles each and every year.
Our lesson today begins on On October 12, 2011 when Theo Epstein agreed to a five-year contract worth $18.5 million to rebuild the Cubs . He came with the credentials to make you believe it would happen, leading the Red Sox to the 20o4 World Series Championship and ending the Red Sox 86 year championship drought.
Expectations were high when Epstein was hired and the Cubs faithful believed a turn around was eminent. But Epstein saw the writing on the wall; the Cubs did not have the talent to compete at the Major League level, the Farm System was in shambles, and a quick-fix was not in the cards. So he had a decision: spend big bucks and try to win in the short-term or put together a plan to tear the team down to the studs and build it into a perennial contender.
Here’s what he did and how you can learn from his success to improve your business or job.
Pass on Short-Term Gains for Long Term Success
In business terms, being a .500 team (81-81 record) is like a lifestyle business. You’re paying the bills, but you’re never going to get rich. You’ll have some good days. You’ll have some bad days. But truly meeting and exceeding your goals is much, much further away than it seems.
Epstein could have signed a few more high-priced free agents and won a few more games when he started to ensure some early success. But that would have used valuable resources to build mediocrity.
Rather than focusing on short-term goals that don’t help build for the future, spend your resources on activities that build your brand for the long-term. Rather than spending budget on short-term goals to hit an artificial number, focus on strategies that can help grow your business for long-term success.
Go Against Conventional Wisdom to Find Market Inefficiencies
In the MLB draft, young, cost-controlled pitchers are highly coveted. Finding “Top of the Rotation Talent” is hard… and expensive, especially in free agency. Most teams, when given the choice, pick pitchers with upside over hitters in the same class.
Theo Epstein focused on finding the best bets and drafted them in bulk. MVP Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber were picked in the top 10 over pitching. The Cubs traded young, talented pitcher Andrew Cashner for a young hitter with upside named Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs built their core with young hitters who lived up to the billing.
Just like in baseball, businesses don’t have unlimited resources. Focusing on the market efficiencies allow you to get more value out of those resources. It takes creativity and guts to go against the grain, but to the victor, go the spoils. Be creative and find areas where you can be great.
When You Have the Right Plan, Prove It with Analytics
Sticking to the plan is easy when you’re winning and things are going well. It’s naturally much harder during the lean times. Epstein believed in his plan and every move he made was part of that vision. He was able to find small victories and check-points to ensure the plan was working. It’s wasn’t a blind belief. Epstein had numbers and analytics proving that the plan was working.
When in 2012 the Cubs were losing 101 games in 2012, Epstein was acquiring Kyle Hendricks (3rd in Cy Young), Jake Arrietta (2015 Cy Young) & Pedro Strop (top set-up man). Each year, the Cubs minor league organization got more top prospects and became more highly ranked. The Plan was working, even if results were harder to articulate.
When analyzing your plan, don’t just look at the bottom line. Develop KPI (key performance indicators) and set goals for activities besides just revenue. Learn how to measure success in your industry and execute your plan using data and analytics that prove it’s working. And when it’s working, have conviction and don’t deviate.
Go All-In When You Have The Right Cards
In 2014, the Cubs only won 73 games and finished 5th in the division. But the young players started gel-ing and the team showed signs that they were ready throughout the second half of the year. Theo and the front office didn’t have a royal flush, but they started to cash in some of their chips. In the offseason, they brought in Jon Lester (2nd in the Cy Young voting) to the largest contact in Cubs history, at $155M and hired Joe Maddon to coach the team. Many felt it was one year early, but it was time to make a splash.
The Cubs ended up as one of the best teams in baseball and got a year of winning under their belt with lower expectations. The season was a resounding success and the future looked bright. And that’s when Epstein pushed his stack in the middle of the table, signing Jason Hayward to the new largest contract in Cubs history, bring in John Lackey from the Cardinals to shore up the pitching staff, and signing Ben Zobrist to help bring a veteran leadership to a young core.
The gamble payed huge, but it only was possible because of all the work building the core in the years preceding it. And that’s the lesson. Work hard, grind, but when it’s time to take a risk, don’t hesitate. When you understand the plan, understand how it’s coming together, and have an opportunity, don’t let it get away.
Build a Culture & Bring in Great Fits
One of the most overlooked aspects of the Cubs championship team is the culture. It starts at the top, with owner Tom Ricketts hiring the best and getting out the way. Epstein has a dream team front office staff, who are often talked about as options of other jobs, but they are loyal and have so far stayed put.
And the essence of the culture fit for the Cubs is manager Joe Maddon who was hired last year. Known as one of the top managers in the game, Maddon bring a fun approach to a young team that needs to stay lose. Maddon uses players like chess pieces, moving players around to maximize the outcome he wanted.
In 2015, Maddon went against baseball’s unwritten rule and batted the pitcher 8th in the line-up for most of the year. This year, he moved guys in an out of positions to ensure they had the best match-up each and every day.
And the Cubs players bought in. It helps that they drafted players from winning organizations who are good guys. Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo fought and beat cancer for goodness sakes. They drafted “baseball rats” who love the game and want to get better. And they found creative ways to un-tap the potential. The Cubs even wear their pajamas on some road trips and dress up in Super Hero costumes, never taking themselves too serious.
Understanding your culture and building a foundation for your business must start at the top. Hiring the right people who understand their role will set the tone and give your company a chance to build an amazing culture.
Try Not To Suck
And last, but certainly not least, Try Not To Suck. This was the 2016 Cubs rallying cry and the theme for the year from manager Joe Maddon. It’s brilliant really, focusing on the future, the next play or the next at bat. It leaves room for failure, but an expectation that you will continue to work and grow.
This is a sentiment that is easily transferred to your business and your daily routine. No matter what you are doing, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, try not to suck. Because it’s all the little things that matter. They add up to the big things and lay the foundation for a season like the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Champions at last.
While you may not have the opportunity to turn around one of the most storied franchises in America’s Past Time, you do have the ability to make a huge impact on your business, no matter what your role. Be patient, be bold, and when the opportunity presents itself, strike!