Lessons from ‘Moneyball’


I’ve been a fan of baseball since I was a kid. I’m dating myself when I say I watched Willie Mays play centerfield at Candlestick and later saw his final out during the seventh game of the World Series as the A’s defeated the Mets in October 1973.

I’ve read the book “Moneyball” twice. The movie of the same name isn’t about baseball, it’s all business, specifically how a small market team (The Oakland A’s) tries to compete against larger, better-funded competitors like the New York Yankees.

It’s similar to what is now taking place as small and midsize businesses are being raided by larger companies offering higher salaries and better benefits to lure employees away.

Let me share four critical scenes from the movie that demonstrate the changes in perspective that the general manager (GM) of the A’s experienced. He had to find a different, non-traditional way to gain a competitive advantage to compete and win against his competitors for major league talent.

GM meets with the team owner

That’s my bar. My bar is here. My bar is to take this team to the championship,” the GM explains to the owner as he asked for more money to pay for higher salaries because that is what he believes is needed to field a competitive team.
Every owner should aim to win. It can be OK to end up in second place, but is that what you aim for? I believe you and your team should be in it to win it. The key question every owner should ask is, “What is winning to me and how will I share with my team what this is?”

The GM meets with his scouts

The packed table of scouts tout one particular player saying “He passes the eye candy test. He’s got the looks; he’s great at playing the part.”

A common mistake owners make is recruiting team members simply because they look the part. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if on paper, someone’s perfect. You want people who can actually do the job. Get good at seeing contributors others will pass on.

After a few rounds of back and forth, the GM says to the scouts, “You’re not solving the problem. You’re not even looking at the problem.”

Most businesses are created based on building a better mousetrap. Often, only the person at the top has the vision to identify a fundamental problem in their industry and the stamina to stay focused on solving that problem.

Don’t get distracted by all the things that are swirling around the actual problem. Don’t listen too closely to those that have years of industry expertise and are attached to the status quo — it may well be that they are part of the problem. Figure out what the actual issue is, and solve it.

The GM goes on to say, as he is discussing the competitive landscape, “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”

The takeaway is don’t play the game using your competitor’s rule book — despite their success. If they wrote the rules, chances are, they were written to favor themselves. Write your own rules.

GM meets a baseball newbie

In a scene-stealer borrowed from “The Empire Strikes Back,” in a conversation with a recent college graduate in his very first job, the general manager hears: “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players — your goal should be to buy wins.” (Yoda stated “Do or do not, there is no try.”)

Owners get wowed and hire people based on a resume with lofty titles and non-verifiable successes. A better way to recruit is to think about buying outcomes. What do you need from the person you are hiring? Don’t hire a captain when you really need a sergeant.

GM, coach meet with free agent

On the road on New Year’s Eve, there is a visit to see a free agent who believes his baseball career is over. An offer is extended to join the A’s, but not as a catcher, as a first baseman. The player objects and the GM counters with “Hey, anything worth doing is hard. And we’re gonna teach you.”

The ability to teach is one of the single biggest levers any owner has. It’s one of the biggest benefits you can deliver to engaged employees. Higher salaries and better perks might be available elsewhere but, at your company, unlike the competition, people can learn things.

If you’re willing to help people fill in their gaps, in knowledge or experience, you create lots of value — for them, and for you.

Ken Keller is an executive coach who works with small and midsize B2B company owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs. He facilitates formal top executive peer groups for business expansion, including revenue growth, improved internal efficiencies and greater profitability. Email: [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of the SCVBJ. 

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