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8 Tips for Turning Around a Truly Terrible Team: Lessons from the 2013 Red Sox

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By Nancy Settle-Murphy and Mike Gilronan

Few teams ever make the leap from the truly awful – sloppy, apathetic, unfocused and disconnected – to the sublime, where members achieve an absolutely stunning performance that leave everyone else to scratch their heads and ask: “How on earth?”

The 2013 Boston Red Sox has been such a team. They went from last place to first place in less than a year, the fastest turnaround in the history of the franchise. They outscored every other team in baseball, and led the league in a whole host of other stats as well. When it comes to assessing the team’s Most Valuable Player for 2013, about 10 different names come up. That’s because everyone has banded together to work as one unified team, in stark contrast to the 2011 Sox, who self-destructed due to disunity, disloyalty, and dysfunction, leading them to an epic collapse in the last month of the season.

In this issue of Communiqué, I explore how a miserable team found a way to turn itself around to become an unstoppable machine that went on to achieve the best record in the league. Was it magic, or a confluence of factors that produced spectacular results? Maybe a bit of both. Let’s look at some of the lessons we’ve learned from this turnaround.

  • First, eliminate the toxins. The team jettisoned a truly dreadful manager, Bobby Valentine, at the end of last season, an obvious choice. Shortly before that, they traded several bad apples —- overrated players with bloated salaries and egos —- that spoiled the bunch. Management crafted a deal to offload the underperforming, overpaid players in exchange for lesser-known players with promise, and none of the attitude. With the dark forces gone, a cloud lifted. The relief was palpable. High-maintenance superstars may have their moments of brilliance, but beware the cost to the team.
  • Just have fun. This is a group of guys who love their work, and seem to really like each other, too. (All those crazy beards are only part of it.) They beam as they trot out to the field. They laugh in the dugout. They rush up to greet each player as he crosses home plate, regardless of the score. They are each other’s best cheerleaders. Imagine the boost to your performance if your colleagues started hooting and hollering every time you accomplished even a minor achievement! It’s no surprise to learn that Sox scouts were instructed to find “guys who love to play baseball” as a job requirement when staffing for 2013. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
  • The manager has your back. John Farrell, the team’s former pitching coach, has restored dignity to the corner office. He treats each player with respect, cultivating their strengths and giving them opportunities to realize their full potential. He has faced what the Boston Globe called “the carnivorous media, the angst-ridden fans and the daily fires that must be extinguished” with grace and equanimity. And most important of all, said Sox chairman Tom Werner, “Whether communicating with our core group of stars or the role player coming up and down from the minors, he has everyone’s trust.” When asked about Farrell, the word players most often use is communication. “We are the first ones to know things,” said one player, “and in our environment, that’s essential.”
  • Every team needs a Mojo Man. David Ortiz, a.k.a. Big Papi, is the beloved and charismatic Sox veteran and powerful clutch hitter. When the Boston Marathon bombing tore the city apart at the start of the season, it was Big Papi who warned terrorists everywhere: “Don’t **** with our city!” His commanding presence helped rally fans shaken by the horrific incident. Meanwhile, doctors, trainers, and teammates convinced him he could overcome the injuries that plagued him in 2012. “They inspired me to work my butt off every day.” It shows, big fella! By the end of the season, he was leading the team in most offensive stats, and playing as well as he ever has in over 16 seasons. Says one sportswriter when assessing which Red Sox player deserves the Most Valuable Player award: “Big Papi has the personality that can bring the new guys and old guys together. He has the perfect blend of goofy, bubbly personality and hardass competitiveness that made this team so fun to watch.” Without Big Papi, many agreed, the Sox would not be where they are today.
  • The comeback kids. Call it what you will. Determination. Grit. Moxie. Resilience. The entire roster of players has taken turns coming through in the clutch, refusing to give up, even when sportscasters and fans believe the game is all but over. They pull themselves up by their bootstraps and push themselves (and each other) for just one more hit, another impossible stolen base, a great defensive play, one more gutsy pitch to work out of a jam. They believe they can do it, so they do. They’re confident without being cocky, and always manage to find that last little bit of chutzpah to bring it on home. No wonder they have a stunning string of come-from-behind victories and walk-off wins this year.
  • Everybody contributes. Talk about bench strength! Every player has taken a star turn, whether on the field, at bat, in the dugout or in the clubhouse. Though some may have more brand-name recognition or more impressive stats, every night a different guy steps up to the plate to deliver. Much of the credit goes to management for knowing how best to combine the players’ strengths and skills into one sizzling team. But teams that look great on paper sometimes fail to materialize on the field. (Three-quarters of baseball experts surveyed at the start of the year pegged Toronto for the playoffs. At the end of the season, they languished 23 games behind the Red Sox, whose own prospects were seen as dim.) This Sox team has many stars, and each has been given a chance to shine as brightly as the next.
  • It’s all about the team. Rather than hitting the long ball by default, these Red Sox players are both strategic and creative about getting the runs across the plate. They can cobble together runs in the most imaginative and often unexpected ways, confounding opposing teams, rendering their playbook useless. The same kind of all-for-one, one-for-all teamwork applies on the field as well, where each player has the other’s back. And if the ball should drop, we see no finger-pointing or deer-in-the-headlights expressions. Just a lot of hustle to get the ball back in play, followed by a sheepish grin.
  • Know how to close. The rest of the team might be doing everything perfectly, but if a closing pitcher makes just a few false moves, the other team can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in seconds. Find your best closers — the ones who can stare down the fiercest adversary, shrug off tension, and perform their best under stress — to deliver the final product. For the Sox, Koji Uehara is that guy. When the season started, no one would have guessed he could go from an effective but limited reliever to baseball’s most reliable closer, shutting down every opposing team he faces. But as he did with so many other players, manager Farrell saw his potential, and Uehara accepted the challenge. Fist-bumps, high-fives and hugs have become the team’s common language.

By the time this Communiqué comes out, the Red Sox may or may not have won their first round of divisional playoffs.  Regardless of their post-season play, this bearded Red Sox team has taught us many valuable lessons about teamwork. Most of all, they’ve reminded us how much more we can achieve when we trust and like the people we work with and work for, expect the best from ourselves and each other, and remember how important it is to have fun, whether we win or lose. Facial hair is optional.

Mike Gilronan  is a SharePoint Practice Director for McGladrey LLP, an accounting and advisory firm focused on middle-market clients.  He’s passionate about collaboration, knowledge management, and baseball.  He bats and throws right-handed, and his best pitch is his forkball.

Thanks to my good friends Nick Bonifanti and Carol Hokana for fact-checking and reviewing. We Red Sox fans demand accurate reporting!

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Links

We also learned valuable lessons about the epic collapse of the 2011 Red Sox – here’s my Communiqué of two years ago, written with a heavy heart. See related Communiqués: Mentoring from Afar Can Help Grow Top Talent and Cultivating Trust from Afar in Tough Times.

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