Lesson From The Cubs’ Success: Culture Matters

Image courtesy Matt Alaniz via Unsplash

The biggest reason for the Chicago Cubs’ recent on-field success has to do with the culture its leaders have created paired with the talent they have assembled.

I’ve been a fan of the Chicago Cubs since I was born. A picture hangs in my parent’s house outside of my childhood bedroom of me as an infant donning a Chicago Cubs jersey.

Before I even knew who I was — before I could talk, crawl, walk, eat solid food, stand, dress myself, count, tie my shoes, drive, run; before I ever picked up a baseball bat or ball as a kid; before I ever went to school, got a job, then a career — I knew, perhaps subconsciously, that I was a Cubs fan.

My childhood consisted of many trips to Wrigley Field, the historic ballpark where the team plays their home games. I even got to go on the field and sit in the dugout with the players before a game when I was 10 years old, thanks to my mother’s job with the team’s then-owner, Tribune Co. My name was on the scoreboard.

Being a Cubs fan for me isn’t just about baseball; it is a deeply personal experience, one that is often hard for others to understand.

The Chicago Cubs, of course, have a history steeped in baseball futility. The team hasn’t won a World Series, Major League Baseball’s coveted championship, in 108 years. For those doing the math in their heads, the year was 1908. It is the longest championship drought in North American sports, and in each year that the Cubs have fielded a team worthy enough of overcoming their demons — a rare occurrence — something bad always happens, dashing the hopes of lifelong fans everywhere. Many believe the team is cursed.

My favorite memories as a kid include watching Cubs games with my grandfather, who passed away, like many others, without ever seeing his favorite baseball team win a World Series. So when this year’s 103-win Cubs team entered the playoffs earlier this month as the favorites to win the World Series, Cubs fans everywhere, myself included, entered a sort of odd state of hopeful panic.

How would they blow it this time? Would another black cat run onto the field? Would another unsuspecting fan accidentally interfere with a critical foul-ball out? Is the famous Curse of the Billy Goat real? Or would they finally break through and find a way to end the drought? The Cubs have calmed some of their fans’ worry by beating the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the playoffs Tuesday night to advance to the National League Championship Series, where they will face either the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers starting Saturday. The team is four wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Outside of the deeply subjective and emotional experience of being a Chicago Cubs fan is an opposite, objective view of this year’s team. By all standards, the 2016 Chicago Cubs are far and away the best team in baseball, boasting a league-best regular season record. Its roster is deep, with talent cultivated over the course of many years.

In many ways, this Cubs team is a case study on what it takes to build a winning organization, both in sports and in business. It is also a lesson in how culture can have an outsized impact on team performance and success.

In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games. It was the first year under Theo Epstein, the team’s new president of baseball operations who a few years earlier had orchestrated another drought-ending championship team with the Boston Red Sox. The Cubs hired Epstein to do the same.

Much of Epstein’s approach to building the Cubs involved tearing it down and starting from scratch — hence the 101 losses in his first year. To start fresh and enable the organization to develop its foundation of young talent, Epstein traded overvalued veterans for young prospects and future draft picks. Now the team is built solidly with a core of young, homegrown players poised to succeed on the Cubs for many years to come.

But as Epstein has said in interviews throughout the Cubs’ rebuilding process, acquiring the talent is only half the battle. The other half of the Cubs’ rebuilding required the organization to establish a winning culture. This meant devising a “Cubs’ Way,” as the team calls it, a document that standardizes the organization’s philosophy that applies to everyone, from Epstein himself to the star first baseman, minor league scout, ticket office attendees and front-office summer interns.

The second part in building the Cubs’ winning culture came when the team hired quirky veteran Joe Maddon to manage the team in 2014. Maddon is essentially the CEO of the Cubs’ on-field product, determining team strategy, setting the lineup cards and making in-game decisions. But the heart of Maddon’s role, like in any organization, is managing his players and creating the team’s locker room environment. And it is this part of Maddon’s job that in my view has contributed the most to the team’s on-field success.

He’s done a masterful job establishing high expectations for his players while also keeping them loose and even-keeled — important elements during the grind of a 162-game season. Thanks to Maddon, the Cubs don’t shy away from the pressure of winning as the best team in baseball. “Embrace the target,” he says. “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.” “Do simple better.” “Try not to suck.” After every Cubs regular season victory under Maddon’s leadership, the team holds a 30-minute impromptu dance party in the locker room with a disco ball, lights and fog machine. After a loss, the team is only allowed to sulk about it for 30 minutes before moving on to the next day. This stuff matters.

The parallels between how the Cubs rebuilt its organization and what it takes to succeed in business are clear. Yes, talent is the most important resource when it comes to driving performance, but without the proper organizational philosophy and culture, even the most talented teams won’t accomplish their goals.

When Epstein joined the Cubs in 2011 with the mission to turn a 100-loss team into a perennial World Series contender, acquiring talent was a no-brainer. But what makes the 2016 Chicago Cubs stand out most for me is the special culture and attitude of going about their work that the team has created.

Sure, maybe this year’s Cubs won’t win the World Series. Maybe the drought goes to 109 years. With the talent and culture the Cubs organization has put in place, it’s a little easier to swallow the possibility — because, sooner or later, the combination of talent and culture is too powerful. Executives who aren’t spending enough of their time creating culture should take notice.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To read more Talent Economy content, visit talenteconomy.io.

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