Iacocca & Epstein on Character

In my last post, I discussed the importance of having a nucleus of high performance players reporting to a high performance leader.  But are there other attributes outside of functional skills and intellect that matter when constructing the core of a high performance group?  I would argue emphatically yes!  You need people of good character if you want a long-term successful team and culture.  During a recent conversation with a serial entrepreneur friend of mine who is building an early stage business backed by blue chip VCs, I asked him what he’s doing differently this time.  He said he’s getting rid of people faster.   If they don’t fit the culture, regardless of their talent, they are moving on.  This may sound easy, but it’s difficult to do in practice.  Or, it may sound cruel to you, but its critical unless you want to take longer than necessary and take on more risk.

Hearkening back to the Iacocca autobiography I mentioned in my last post, he speaks pretty frankly about what he thinks it takes to succeed as a high performance team member and manager:

“There’s one phrase that I hate to see on any executive’s evaluation, no matter how talented he may be, and that’s the line: ‘He has trouble getting along with other people.’  To me, that’s the kiss of death.  ‘You’ve just destroyed the guy’ I always think…if he can’t get along with his peers, what good is he to the company?  As an executive, his whole function is to motivate other people.  If he can’t do that, he’s in the wrong place.”

As for Theo Epstein and the Cubs?  As mentioned in this Fortune article, and in even more detail in The Cubs Way:  The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse, at the core of the Cubs rebuilding process was the desire to find four everyday field players as the pillars to build around.  Yet at this point in his career versus his time in Boston, the strategy of simply leveraging the Moneyball statistical tools  was no longer enough.  Everyone else was doing the same thing, and Theo had learned a thing or two.  So he turned to the locker room.  He turned to character.  To players that would exhibit the traits that made the difference outside of numbers – leadership, hard work, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc.  I’ll end this post with another (long, sorry) quote from the Iacocca book.  This excerpt is from a conversation Lee had with Vince Lombardi.  Iacocca asked him, based on his years of experience, what was his formula for success?

“You have to start by teaching the fundamentals.  A player’s got to know the basics of the game and how to play his position.  Next, you’ve got to keep him in line.  That’s discipline.  The men have to play as a team, not a bunch of individuals.

But there have been a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game.  Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another.  You’ve got to love each other.

Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and saying to himself: ‘If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken.  I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.’  The difference between mediocrity and greatness is the feeling these guys have for each other.  Most people call it team spirit.  When the players are imbued with that special feeling, you know you’ve got yourself a winning team.”