What I Learned from Joe & The Chicago Cubs

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  I wrote this in the midst of the Chicago Cubs pursuit of their first World Series win in 103 years. (AND IT HAPPENED!!!)  I was fascinated by Manager Joe Maddon's leadership style and wrote about how I thought it related to the communications business.  As always, confidential and proprietary information has been removed 

Apologies in advance to those of you who think this crazy Cubs fever is, well, a little crazy. It probably is. I know the nervousness and excitement over a series of baseball games seems a little excessive, but it has been a lifetime (actually several) coming, so let’s just accept it for the seismic emotional event that it is and say “YES” to this Cubs fever thing and enjoy the ride.

And for me, taking nothing away from the players themselves, or the great owners and management for that matter, I tip my brand new 2016 Cubs World Series hat to their fearless leader, Joe Maddon, who has demonstrated the kind of leadership that I not only value, but aspire to emulate.

I’m sure many of you have heard about Maddon’s ‘Embrace the Target’ speech at the beginning of Spring Training. The speech would be easy to dismiss that speech as a stereotypical sports rah-rah ‘win one for the Gipper’ motivational rhetoric. But ‘Embrace the Target’ was actually Maddon’s vision and plan boiled down to a single sketch on his iPad.

I’ve studied that drawing many times and am fascinated by its inspirational simplicity. Here it is and I’d like to share what it means to me...and more importantly how that translates into what I think is my obligation to you as your leader.




Embrace the Target

Not getting to the World Series for 71 years has a way of increasing the pressure on a team that was a pre-season favorite to win it all. Joe Maddon convinced his team that “Pressure is a Motivator, a Positive, an Indicator You Are in the Right Place.”

Being an agency’s largest office and coming off a record growth and profit year in 2015 certainly helped put us in the target. And the thing about success, be it baseball or business, is when you achieve some, people expect more. People who just might happen to work at our parent company for example. Now that’s what I call pressure. But like Joe Maddon’s Cubs, we are in the right place to handle that pressure too. We didn’t get to be the biggest by accident. Wouldn’t we all rather be THE target than chasing one?


Set Aside Personal Agendas

What Joe means here is not just ‘there is no I in team.’ He also means that as the Cubs leader, he has to make objective decisions. As he said, “I can't play favorites and hope this guy gets a hit or that guy gets an out. I have to make decisions based on data and common sense. I have to manage every game to win."

I know exactly what he means. When we are putting together a new business pitch, what I always want to do is bring the team that did all the work into the room to make the pitch to the client. But, sometimes those people aren’t our best presenters. We have to bring the best presenters in the room – so I have to set aside my personal agenda (which is often to reward people) and make sure I manage every game to win too.

All Do Our Jobs

The interesting thing to me about this one is less about what Maddon meant (which was that no matter what position he asked you to play or where you were in the lineup, he expected his player to execute what they were asked to do) than it was about how it was interpreted by one of his young star players, Javier Baez. Javy said, “Hey coach, you mean try not to suck, right?” At first blush when I heard that I thought, well isn’t that aiming a little low? But as I have watched this team play so loose and have so much fun, I realize that ‘try not to suck’ was the exact right way to motivate this team, because they definitely don’t.

Does this mean I should I tell you all “Try not to suck?” Probably not. But what I can tell you is what I do tell you consistently. What matters is that you are good at your job – and that you develop specific skills and keep on honing them. When we are all good at what we do, we deliver great work to our clients, we make money, we win awards and put ourselves in a position to enjoy the fruits of our success...and, I like to think, have a lot more fun along the way

Know We Are Not Perfect But We Can Be Present

Joe Maddon says he doesn’t want his players to be afraid of making a physical mistake because he is convinced that will lead to a mental mistake, which he thinks is far more dangerous to a winning ball club. In Joe’s baseball world, being present means just focus on the at bat right now...not the last 5 hitless ones.

In our world, we are certainly not perfect either, but sometimes our desire “not to lose, “or “not to get called out by the client” or God forbid, “not to present an idea that the client hates,” causes us to play it safe and not push as much as we should for a good idea, or not call the client out (tactfully of course) when they are wrong. So to me – Joe’s advice to “Be Present” means we should trust ourselves and each other and not be afraid to fail, but rather to commit to success even if there are some small failures along the way.

We Are Our Own Little Planet and Rotate Around Same Goal

Maddon’s Cubs have remarkable blend of experience and youth. In describing the clubhouse atmosphere, Maddon says, "The older guys watch out for the younger guys. They can be hard on them when they do something wrong, but they're the first ones out of the dugout when they do something right."

I like to think the same can be said of us. We are a great mix of seasoned PR-native thinkers mixed in with a bunch of people from a digital/social background or advertising creative among other backgrounds who approach things very differently. And that’s a GOOD thing! But we need to make sure we aren’t judging, but rather always looking out for each other too. Like the Cubs – a team with Willson Contreras AND David Ross, we’ve got a pretty special mix too.

Do Simple Better

One of my favorite things about Maddon’s leadership style is his spirit of fun. He wants his players to remember that they all were little boys at one time playing a game they loved. In fact every August, Maddon holds an American Legion Week letting the players arrive at the ballpark later than usual and fool around a bit before practice to remind them of those fun childhood baseball days.

I sometimes get so caught up in the business of running the business of the office that I can lose sight of why I got into it in the first place. The power of what we can do with our communications skills can be amazing.  And honestly as I look back on my own career of crazy opportunities -- it has also been plain old FUN quite often.

My lesson from Joe Maddon is to get more involved in the work – not just the business.

But without a doubt the most important lesson I take from Joe is not written on his “Target” but rather it is in his unwavering commitment to it. He doesn’t second-guess. He doesn’t panic when things don’t go well. He knows his strategy is right and he has confidence in his team. He is staying the course...and that course has taken the Cubs to the World Freakin’ Series!

It is no secret that this has been a tough year for us. We started our year with some big revenue hits. But that didn’t make any of us less talented, or any less committed. And it certainly didn’t make our 3-Ps strategy (PEOPLE: Be the Best Place to Work, PRODUCT: Deliver great work and PROFIT: Grow and be profitable) any less right. It is testing our mettle to be sure, but like Joe, I have confidence in our talent and I have faith in your commitment. And you are showing me everyday in your work that I can trust that you share in that vision too.

We may not get to our ‘World Series’ this year in terms of the growth we hoped to see, but the Cubs didn’t get there last year either, and look where they are today!

What it All Means to Us

As you sit back and revel in the sports fever overtaking Chicago today, I encourage you to think about the strategy that brought the Cubs to the precipice of winning the World Series. It’s simple but applicable. It works. Its principles are universal. And, it can work for us, too. Thank you for all you do. We’re rounding the corner to year-end, so Embrace the Target!