A legend at building baseball teams says his biggest hits can translate to business. How? Don't skimp on trust. And empower your best employees.
He began his professional life as a teacher in his native Baltimore, and after more than five decades in Major League Baseball front offices, in many ways John Schuerholz remains an educator.
The legendary Atlanta Braves executive was recently in North Port in southern Sarasota County to attend the topping off ceremony of the team’s new spring training headquarters in the West Villages. Although the Braves originally expected to move its spring training operations from the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World next season, the team now plans to play only its final 2019 spring training game at the new stadium before relocating to North Port prior to the 2020 season.
The $110 million facility, which will seat 6,200 with an additional 1,000 capacity in berm seating, marks the latest success in Schuerholz’s 28 years with the team. Coming to the organization in 1990 as general manager from the Kansas City Royals — which won the 1985 World Series under his leadership — he inherited a team that had posted six straight losing seasons, taking over for Bobby Cox, who was headed back to the dugout.
The turnaround was immediate. Schuerholz and Cox engineered 14 straight division-winning seasons and a World Series championship in 1995, one of the most successful runs in baseball history. After 17 years as general manager, Schuerholz became president of the Braves in 2007, and now serves as vice chairman emeritus.
The 77-year-old Schuerholz was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, joining his friend and compatriot Cox. Schuerholz, after the ceremony in North Port, spoke with the Business Observer on topics from building a winning team to sustaining excellence.
Q: You began your career with the Baltimore Orioles, a break that came when you sent a letter of inquiry to team president Frank Cashen. Who were your early mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: I was fortunate to start out with my hometown Baltimore Orioles. I was born and raised there and was an educator there before I worked with Frank Cashen, Harry Dalton and Lou Gorman. They were all great baseball executives, and I cut my teeth in baseball watching them work and analyzing what they did. I made mental notes and took what I learned from them about understanding people and being able to lead them so they have trust and respect in what you are saying because you have the knowledge and have prepared yourself.
Q: What do you look for in assessing leadership qualities?
A: Someone who understands and values and appreciates and honors and has the ability to communicate clearly your expectations, someone who recognizes the vision of the organization and the exact plan and goals you set and leads by example.
Q: What can a business executive learn from your experience as a baseball executive?
A: Hire people who have commitment, who have dedication, who have work ethic and who have trust, backing you as you back them.
Q: During your time as Braves’ general manager, you had a 14-year run at the top of the game. What is your strategy for maintaining that level of excellence over a long period of time?
A: My strategy is one principal centerpiece, and that is to hire very good, dedicated, talented, committed people to their work and baseball, and I've been fortunate to have been able to surround myself with those kinds of people and build winning teams on a consistent basis. We had a celebration of our 14 consecutive division championships in Atlanta a couple of years ago, and that was because of following that philosophy and honoring, empowering, trusting and respecting those people, let them do their jobs with clear understanding of what the vision is and what the plan is, and to act upon it.
Q: While enjoying such sustained success, how do you guard against complacency?
A: That is easy to set in, and we didn't continue that 14-consecutive season winning trend. Afterward, we fell into a bit of a rut, but we fought our way through it, which I think is good for any organization as a wake-up call, a refocusing opportunity, and we did that. And we've now gotten back to the center core of the building of a championship team philosophy.
Q: Many of today’s successful businesses fought their way through the recession and emerged stronger as a result. Can that kind of experience be compared to what the Braves went through after the 14-year run?
A: Without a doubt. Success is easier to sustain than a comeback. And you have to do that. If you’re not smart enough to learn from the hard times, then you're not going to be in your business, or be a success in your business, very long.
Q: In a business where field managers are hired to be fired, how did you manage to maintain such a great working relationship with Bobby Cox for so many years?
A: That was a great relationship with someone who is a fellow Hall of Famer. I’d always admired Bobby from afar. We had watched each other work and we had mutual admiration and respect for one another. When I was hired by the Braves, it took a nanosecond for he and I to join each other at the hip and walk side-by-side along the pathway of success, working with each other and supporting each other though not always agreeing with each other. When you evaluate human beings or players, you're not always going to agree, but when we left the room we were in unison, and we led the organization in that manner.
Q: What was the most difficult decision you’ve had to make in your career?
A: There were a multitude of them because you're always dealing with human beings who have families. When you make a decision that this player is no longer as valuable to your franchise as he once was and you could get someone better — and I have made friends wth many of the players — and it’s hurtful to have to tell that person whom I admire and respect and honor that he is no longer going to wear our uniform and he's going to move somewhere else and play for another baseball team.
Q: In a sport where it seems like a revolving door should be installed in the clubhouse, how do you avoid the pitfalls of turnover?
A: There is no sense in making change when change is not required. We like longevity, we like consistency, we like people who know the legacy of the organization and honor it and work hard to keep us as a gold standard organization. We have found people who do that and we continue to find those people.
Q: What were your biggest mistakes?
A: I've made several of them, but they are the things that make you look in the mirror and reflect on how it happened. How did you get yourself into a position where you made that decision that turned out to be not as good or productive or valuable to you as you thought it would be? I used the same process with every deal I ever made as a general manager, and that was to trust the people, to get the input from people and analyze what they had to say to help make that final decision. I did that with every trade. Many of them were good, some were not so good.
Q: Your business relies heavily on statistics to make player evaluations. How do you balance data with personal factors when assessing individuals?
A: We're in an age now not only of statistics, but analytics and sabermetrics. We've hired 15 new employees and most of them are charged with analyzing data down to the deepest level possible. What we used to call statistics and statistical analysis now is deep diving analysis. We combine that with the judgment of our scouts who make judgments of character, of makeup, of commitment, of work ethic and adaptability, and all of those elements you have to be a winner.
Q: What challenges lie ahead for your sport?
A: We live in a changing world and the changes are coming more quickly. You have to be flexible and fluid and light on your feet and understand in advance what is coming around the corner, not when it already comes around the corner and smacks you in the face. You have to have people who have the ability to look forward, to expect what is going to happen and to deal with it when it does happen.