Earlier this week, a parade attended by a million people snaked by my office here in San Francisco.
It was a celebration of the San Francisco Giants baseball team's 2012 World Series championship. And the Giants' triumph has lessons that go beyond the ballpark.
The Giants made a stirring run this year that featured six wins in the playoffs when they were facing elimination as well as a four-game sweep of the favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series. What fired the Giants up and put them over the top? You'd be wrong to home in on their paychecks. The team ranked eighth out of 30 Major League baseball teams in payroll this year, at about $118 million. That's in the top third, but a far cry from the top three teams. The Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees all shelled out at least $173 million for their players' salaries.
The takeaway is that, yes, you've got to meet a certain threshold of pay to get quality talent and for people to feel respected. To, in effect, take pay off the table. But big bucks don't ensure success. In fact, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown, focus too much on pay and you risk throwing performance off.
What mattered more than pay for the Giants? The shared purpose of winning a championship. This sounds corny, I know. But there's a kernel of truth in the corniness. People will elevate their effort for a worthy goal. As kids, all ballplayers dream of winning the big one. And teams that rekindle that dream tap a powerful source of superior performance.
A championship vision is always latent for teams and organizations. The Giants found a way to make their vision vivid, to make shared success seem central and to fit their goal into an uplifting story of an epic journey. Losing their best relief pitcher to injury at the start of the year, not being sure if their star catcher Buster Posey could recover from a severe leg injury and then losing their best batter to a drug suspension halfway through the season provided the contours of this heroes' tale.
And then a couple of veteran players who joined the Giants midway through the year rallied the team when it struggled in the playoffs. The Giants credit their comeback against the Cincinnati Reds in part to a rousing speech from outfielder Hunter Pence: "Look into each other eyes! Play for each other! Win each moment! Win each inning!"
A playful ritual started with the Giants giving rah-rah speeches before games, tossing sunflower seeds on each other as if they were kids on a Little League team. And in a way that was true. They'd transformed into a team of big kids trying to make history.
The players made their mark. But it wasn't just them. Guiding their efforts was manager Bruce Bochy, who balanced decentralization with decisiveness. Bochy was a boring interviewee throughout the year. He declined to criticize his players in public and deflected praise back onto them. But through his soft-spoken demeanor, he broadcast a team-first philosophy.
Indeed, the team's marketing mantra during the season was "Together We're Giant." And that theme played out literally in the last inning of the final World Series game. Short, scrawny Sergio Romo, the Giants' closer, faced off against the tall, thick slugger from the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera, who during the regular season was the first hitter to win the Triple Crown in 45 years. A homer by Cabrera would tie the game. An out would seal the victory and the World Series for the Giants. Fueled by a desire to do right by his teammates, Romo struck Cabrera out. Then he leapt high into catcher Posey's arms.
By the Oct. 31 parade, the team motto had changed to one fitting not only victorious baseball teams but high-performing teams everywhere: "Together We're Champions."
P.S. Workforce managing editor Rick Bell and I debate whether pro athletes play for the love of the game or for the money in this CYA podcast moderated by human resources blogger Kris Dunn.
Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.