Thoughts on Mariners leadership

Friday’s dismissal of Seattle Mariners general manager (GM) Jack Zduriencik provides the organization with an opportunity to change their trajectory after over a decade of mediocrity and substandard performance. Only the Toronto Blue Jays have a longer postseason drought than Seattle does and, barring a September collapse, Toronto will end their era of ineffectiveness this year. The continuous drumbeat of Mariner miscues has left many fans wondering if playoff baseball will ever return to Safeco Field. Alex Carson eloquently expressed the hopes, fears, and frustrations felt by thousands of lifelong fans when he poured his heart out in his Prospect Insider piece on the day Zduriencik was fired.

Now that club president and chief operating officer Kevin Mather has taken the first and most difficult step by releasing Zduriencik – it’s never easy to let a loyal employee go regardless of performance – the burning question on every one’s mind is who’ll be charged with returning the Mariners to the postseason?

Help wanted
The most recent piece from Prospect Insider founder and executive editor Jason A. Churchill delivers an extensive list of candidates, plus his usual sage analysis on who might be the best fit for the Mariners organization. Until a new GM is announced, Mariners faithful will be forced to wait to find out the name of the person who’ll be tasked with transforming Seattle into a contender and prevent another Carson manifesto sometime late in the 2022 season.

Mather’s initial comments on what he’s looking for suggests that he’ll focus on hiring a GM with previous experience in running a baseball operation. In the minds of some, that means that the Mariners are looking for a “retread” GM, but that’s not necessarily the case. Mather certainly could hire a former GM, but he’s not going to settle for a failed former baseball executive or just a “baseball guy.” The Mariners need someone far more extraordinary.

Why do I feel that way? Well, I didn’t play professional baseball – I wasn’t any good at playing baseball actually. But, I’ve been lucky enough to observe numerous corporate and military leaders – both good and bad – during 33 years of service in the U.S. Navy. When I combine those observations with my own executive-level experience and apply them to the leadership void that the Mariners have experienced, I believe that baseball knowledge – although important – won’t be the overriding factor in Mather’s selection. He’ll be more concerned with finding a gifted leader who can foster a culture of excellence, which hasn’t been existent in Seattle for a very long time.

Don’t overvalue knowledge
Until the Mariners hold a press conference to introduce their new GM, the talking heads on the national outlets will offer numerous suggestions on who’s most likely to take the reins in Seattle. Most of the time, their opinions will be purely speculative in nature. The two most mentioned factors will be history with the organization and baseball knowledge, so expect that every living former GM and any career baseball person who ever had a layover at Seattle-Tacoma International airport will be thrown into the mix.

Although a familiar face would certainly help inspire confidence with ownership, a past relationship with the team shouldn’t should be a primary selling point for an organization with a long history of ineptitude. Just like familiarity with the team, baseball acumen can’t be a candidate’s best attribute. Bear in mind that Zduriencik was a “baseball man” with a strong background in scouting and player development – neither were considered strong suits for Seattle during his tenure.

Being a baseball savant isn’t necessarily a good thing if you can’t effectively communicate your ideas, your vision, your expectations, and your frustrations to your subordinates. The ability to build and guide a cadre of professionals – at all levels of the organization – is far more crucial to sustaining success than the expertise of a single person.

Embracing change
The optimum choice to reinvigorate the Mariners – or any struggling operation – is a leader who’s both approachable and capable of facilitating the free exchange of ideas. I’m not suggesting anarchy or even a democracy. Rather, a participatory process that promotes open dialogue between professionals with varying perspectives without fear of reprisal. Having opposing opinions in the room is healthy and creates a culture of continuous improvement when the conversation is unrestricted.

Quite often, the best innovations originate on the ground floor and not in the executive suite. If new thinking is never heard or not welcomed, they’ll remain on the ground floor or leave with the employee when they go to an organization that values their input.

Based on his comments on Friday, Mather agrees with me. He says he’s looking for a GM “smart enough to know that you gotta check all of the data points and smart enough to know that I can’t know all of the data points. I need to get could good people around me who can help me with that and to listen to them and bring everyone together.” As Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times pointed out, that hasn’t been going on in Seattle for the past seven years. For Seattle’s on-field product to prosper, the new GM has to change that business practice.

Morale builder, not suppressor 
The further I progressed in my career, the more I realized that the boss (me) couldn’t have a bad day – at least not publicly. What leaders pay attention to and how they communicate their frustration is vital to developing a strong organization. If you’ve ever worked for a boss who wore their emotions on their sleeve, you know exactly what I mean. When that boss is having a bad day – do you enjoy being in the same office, conference room, or even the same building with them? Do you dread having to deliver bad news?

How management approaches performance – good or bad – is so crucial to the organization’s health. If not properly tempered, the GM’s reaction can cause a ripple throughout an organization. As Baker illustrated, these social and psychological factors have been negatives – rather than positives – with the Mariners for quite some time. This behavior can be demoralizing to a workforce. If the new GM can’t change this, the team will continue to put an inadequate product on the baseball field.

Good idea factory
As I became a more senior officer, I learned about the “good idea factory” – the staffers who supported our more senior leadership. These folks had little-to-no understanding of how day-to-day business operated, but that didn’t stop them from injecting unqualified suggestions. As with any organization, the people who run the day-to-day operations can only thrive when permitted to do so.

The Mariners’ good idea factory – their ownership and upper-management – has been notorious for interfering with the baseball side of the business throughout its tenure. In 2013, Baker wrote a piece describing meddlesome nature of team CEO Howard Lincoln and Mather’s predecessor, Chuck Armstrong, based on the accounts of former Mariners employees.

Baker’s article revealed the inner machinations of a front office that wasn’t capable of fostering a strong, positive work environment. It’s important to note that the intrusive nature of Lincoln and Armstrong predates the Zduriencik era. The team’s most esteemed GM, Pat Gillick, reportedly left Seattle out of frustration with the team’s upper-management, which Jason alluded to when Armstrong retired in 2013 and the club president job became available.

Lincoln, Armstrong – and even Zduriencik – have attempted to brush aside the complaints of former Mariners employees mentioned in Baker’s piece as nothing more the complaints of disgruntled workers, but the root cause of their displeasure is an indictment of their collective behavior, which has resulted in the Mariners putting a second-rate product on the field for many years.

It’s somewhat ironic that Lincoln – who’s been entrusted by Nintendo of America to act as the de facto owner of the Mariners – hasn’t demonstrated the same level of trust with his baseball people during his long tenure as CEO.

Heat shield
Since it’s quite possible that meddling and coercion will remain fashionable with ownership, the new GM will have to be confident enough to deflect heat away from their employees – rather than at them – when things don’t go well. That doesn’t mean take the fall for an individual’s indiscretions. It means be a “heat shield” for your people when they’re acting with the organization’s best interest at heart. Great leaders possess this quality in all industries, including throughout baseball. For prominent examples, look no further than Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein – who both flourished under meddlesome and – sometimes oppressive – oversight in New York and Boston respectively, while leading their organizations to world championships.

Be flexible like Gumby
Regardless of who takes the helm as GM, there will be be setbacks along the road to respectability. One of the more frequent observations made about the previous regime was its perceived inability to pivot away from adversity in a timely manner. Regardless of the misfortune – bad player acquisitions, disappointing player development, ineffective on-field play, or injuries – the team seemed incapable of improving the roster by moving on from a player who no longer fit. The next GM will have to be more adept when reacting to unexpected curves in the road. Otherwise, they’ll be the “same old Mariners” that so many fans lament about.

Mather’s moment
The Mariners baseball operation is in dire need of a leader who is capable of motivating others and making everyone around them better, including their superiors. The fact that Mather is searching for an astute manager and dynamic leader – with a background in baseball – is an encouraging development.

With that in mind, Mather’s decision could become his most defining moment with the Seattle Mariners. He has to get it right because – as the overextended stay of Zduriencik illustrates – this organization isn’t quick to amend their mistakes.

If Mather gets this wrong, the Mariners will continue to reward their fans with mediocrity and Mr. Carson will be emphatically sharing his displeasure with the team at Prospect Insider in five-to-seven years from now.

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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