December 11, 2013
Reputation is a funny thing. Sometimes, you get adulations for a strong performance that you can’t seem to lose (think Jack Welch and what he did while CEO of General Electric, or someone like Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines). Other times, you see people who work and toil and do great things (like former Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein ) but never really get the credit they deserve for their steady hand and solid style. If you have been in the workplace for any time at all, you probably have seen another type as well: the person who continually gets over-the-top plaudits and kudos for no apparent reason. These people usually have giant egos, are generally about style over substance and seem to get the benefit of the doubt at every turn. They also don’t get much critical scrutiny from anyone, and they leave everybody wondering: How do they manage to keep their job? Can’t think of anyone like this? Well, here’s a good example that comes to my mind-- Oakland Athletics vice president and general manager Billy Beane. Even if you don’t follow Major League Baseball, Beane’s case is instructive for any manager or executive anywhere, because Beane is one of these guys who is lionized at every turn for his skills as an evaluator and manager of talent without much factual evidence to back that up. He was glorified as an out-of-the-box thinker and organizational strategist in the book Moneyball, but to me, the book simply overhyped an interesting management premise that, at least in Beane’s case, hasn’t made all that much of an impact. For example: • Beane’s Oakland teams have never reached the World Series, never won a league championship. They’ve won some division titles, yes, but have never had any great success. • He’s dismissive of the other managers who work for him and seems to place little value on what they do. For example, he fired manager Ken Macha the year Macha took his team to the American League Championship Series (so much for appreciating good work), and as columnist Ray Ratto in the San Francisco Chronicle points out, “Beane’s well-known view of managers [is] that you can find them working Wal-Mart aisles. His is part of the new view of the manager’s place and value … that the [field] manager works for the general manager and cannot be allowed to be a competing center of power. Beane is wrong on this, of course, otherwise there would be no such thing as a Bobby Cox, or a Tony La Russa, or a Joe Torre.” • He will follow his Moneyball approach over the cliff, even if it means sacrificing a season as a result. This year, Oakland was competitive (within three games of a playoff spot) in the American League West race until early July, when Beane started dumping the team’s most talented and marketable players under the misguided premise that he was rebuilding for next year. You probably know managers and executives like Billy Beane, and it raises the question: What does a guy like this have to do to get fired? Can any business executive anywhere afford to write off an entire season? No, they generally can’t, because real managers can’t afford a rebuilding year. As one San Francisco-area blog, beyondchron.org, put it, “Beane’s lack of a championship would have had him removed from more winning-oriented teams long ago. But the Bay Area sports fan often puts style over winning. ... The progressive Bay Area does not want to cheer for Goliath; we like a David who uses smarts, rather than superior resources, to prevail. And Beane’s approach fits this perfectly, even though too many fans forget that David actually slew Goliath, while the [New York Yankees], and now the well-funded [Los Angeles] Angels, consistently beat the A’s.” Reputations get made and reputations get shattered, but sometimes in business and in life, reputations get lifted up for no discernible reason. It drives me crazy, but were it not for the example set by the Billy Beanes of the world, I’d have a whole lot less to write about.