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Hurdle jumps

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. March 6, 2015
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Executive Summary
Leader. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Industry. Sports Key. Stepping back from work can make you a better executive, and person.

Onetime major league baseball manager of the year Clint Hurdle learned a great leadership technique from an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy.

In 2011, Hurdle asked the kids, who happen also to be his children, how he could be a better father. The answer was immediate, and piercing: Turn off your cell phone when you come home.
That seemed impossible to Hurdle, the classic definition of a baseball lifer, who was then in his first year managing the Pittsburgh Pirates. The job was a significant turnaround project, given the Pirates had one of the worst records in North American pro sports for 20 years and were likewise dismal in attendance. So being connected, constantly, to work was a given.

But Hurdle gave the task a shot. He put his smartphone on the fireplace mantle the second he walked in the door. He didn't look at it again until after the kids went to bed. Hurdle, looking back four years later, says the experience taught him a valuable lesson about leadership: Doing the right thing sometimes requires sacrifice, but the example you set for others is irreplaceable.

Hurdle, in simpler terms, calls it the “be where your feet are” theory. He says it's a big reason why he's been tagged a top “players' manager” in baseball. Hurdle also says, somewhat paradoxically, that encouraging players and coaches to spend time not on baseball has made them better at baseball.

“Over the years I've been able to help others, my players and my staff and even myself, find a way to create better balance in their lives, professionally and personally,” Hurdle says. “That makes us all better people.”

The results on the field back up Hurdle, a catcher and infielder who was picked by the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the 1975 draft. The Pirates, with spring training in Bradenton, had winning records in 2013 and 2014, and have even made the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Average attendance per game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh has jumped 55% in Hurdle's tenure, from less than 20,000 in 2011 to around 31,000 in 2014. Hurdle, who led the Colorado Rockies to the World Series in 2007 when he managed there, was the National League Sporting News Manager of the Year in 2013.

Hurdle recently spoke at an All Pro Dad event at a Manatee County elementary school. He also sat down with the Business Observer to talk about leadership. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:

What are the characteristics of a great leader?
The first thing for me if you want to be a leader, you need to initiate trust. The best way to initiate trust is through transparency. When you spend time with people and they realize you don't have a Plan B, you don't have an ulterior motive and this is truly not about you. That you are going to be a transformational leader, a servant leader and do everything you can to empower others and make their jobs easier.

It takes time to develop trust, and with certain individuals it takes longer than others, based on their experience and their history and how they were brought up. You truly won't be coached up by anyone until you can trust them.

Why is trust an important trait?
Whenever I walk into a new situation, from the time I was a kid, I have had one equation I follow. Whether it was junior high, coaches, pro ball, being traded, then being a coach, then being fired. I've always had three questions I ask: One is can I trust him? Number two is will they make me better? And three is do they care about me?

These are principles I keep in place today and revisit with our players at the start of every season. I ask where we are on that at the end of the season. We have an entrance interview and an exit interview for all our players.

What is your leadership philosophy?
The philosophy develops. You don't have all the answers coming in. My first managerial opportunity (with the Colorado Rockies in 2002) came all of a sudden two months into the season. I was a hitting coach and then one day I woke up and I was a manager. Even though I had managed six years in the minor leagues, there is so much that has to be learned at that level.
There's no practice, no playground, no seminar.

There are a lot of first learning opportunities. Things I really felt strongly about that were important then aren't as important now, and things I thought might not have been as important are very important now. I learned to adapt, improvise and overcome.

Who are the leaders you admire and try to emulate?
John Wooden would be at the top of the list as someone I've researched and spent a lot of time studying, especially his pyramid of success. There are other people I've researched with integrity and character, people who have met challenges. People like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Maya Angelou. I've had men in my life, starting with my father, Clint, and then (Colorado Rockies executive) Keli McGregor who were mentors for many, many years. I'm with a great group of men in Pittsburgh right now. We are all able to sharpen one another. Eleanor Roosevelt was another lady I've dug into.

How do you get 25 diverse people on a baseball roster to work together toward a common goal?
Give them opportunities to provide ownership. We've established a senior leadership council, where players vote on seven men who meet with me twice a month. We talk about what's going on, the good, bad, indifferent, on the field, off the field, in the clubhouse, on the plane. They've come to learn their presentation is important. Sometimes they just want to know, it's not that they disagree with a decision. And I will share with them what my thinking is, and why.

How do you remain decisive with outside input from multiple sides like that?
We all try to hold ourselves accountable to one another, that we will treat each other as we would want to be treated in a similar circumstance. When you show them that it's real, that it's not just words, and you make those words jump off the page, and you live them, and you put them into play with actions. And then when they have thoughts about something we change and it makes sense, and you change it, it empowers everybody.

And that's how you get the guys to really engage and pull on the same end of the rope. They all have played enough ball to realize that the teams around at the end of the season are the ones that have dealt with adversity and where no on cares who gets the credit. Their commitment is so real it becomes a mission, and when you are on a mission, you don't step back and quantify how much effort it will take. You just do it.

How have you handled the transformation in baseball decision-making, with the reliance on statistics and data?
You have to pay attention to the players and their skill sets and not just through the numbers crunching, but also through what your eyes tell you. If this was all about statistical analysis, you can get a lot of different people to do this. You also have to find people who have been in the game 30 or 40 or years and trust their gut, and what their eyes tell them. As much as we are in tune with the statistical analysis, it's still a game played by people and the human analysis part of it is just as important. When you can get a hybrid of the two, that's when you start making better decisions.


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