blueprint consulting services

Baseball and the Importance of Great Teams - January 2014

I recently had an interesting experience that unexpectedly made me think about the importance of great teams and the strong bond that can be created between perfect strangers if they are aligned with common goals and intentions. It was unexpected because the experience that inspired this blog was finally getting to Cuba and becoming excited again about a sport that has been a huge part of my life – baseball.

My baseball experience started around the age of five when I joined my first little league team. Baseball quickly became a consistent part of my summers growing up through playing on teams and watching the Mariners on TV. The experience of being at the game, rooting for my teammates to do well, celebrating a great win and lamenting a hard loss has been an important part of my growing up. I still remember the first home run I hit and how great it felt to have all of my teammates waiting for me when I touched home plate. That team camaraderie continued for me through high school and continues through old man softball leagues and taking my nephews to Safeco field (if I’m lucky, when the Yankees are in town).

I recently took a trip to Cuba to go see the “forbidden island” as the customs agent called it. As my wife and I stepped off the plan in Havana, I had a laundry list of things I wanted to experience, but the most important item on the list was to see a baseball game. The second night of the trip, we hopped in a ’55 Chevy taxicab and headed to the Estadio Latinamerica to see the Havana Industriales play the Guantanamo Indios. As we walked into the stadium, I felt like I was walking into a scene out of The Natural. No big screen video boards, no padded box seats, no plasma screens showing replays or highlights. This was baseball set in the 50’s (en Espanol of course) – bench seating with at least five coats of paint the railings, announcers blaring players names over the loudspeakers, families coming straight from work and school paying the equivalent of four cents for a ticket, and ex-Cuban national players mingling in the stands and signing autographs for the local adoring fans.

The Industriales won the game in dramatic fashion by a score of 4-3 improving their seeding in the upcoming playoffs. We walked out of the stadium the newest fans of Havana’s pride and joy. The next day, we set out of the hotel early. I was wearing the new shirt I bought at the stadium – a bright blue t-shirt with the large white Industriales logo on the front. We found out very quickly that our experience as tourists in Havana had completely changed from the day before. Yesterday, I was another tourist, possibly Canadian or British, not likely American. Just the potential for a taxi driver to get a fare, a shop owner to get a sale, or a local to get a chance to practice English. Today, I was an Industriales fan. Today, the taxi driver asked me who won the game last night, the shop owner wanted to talk about how the Tres Hermanos played and who I thought would be the toughest challenge in the playoffs, and the maid in the hallway gave me a cheer as I walked past her to the elevator. We were all suddenly part of a community with an immediate commonality as perfect strangers even though we spoke different languages.

This same camaraderie has existed with many of the great teams I have been a part of throughout my career and has conversely not existed on many teams that have failed to be successful. Even with some of the best individual performers, companies can still struggle to find success. On the other hand, companies that have great teams will almost always be more successful even though the team members may not be as qualified or have as much experience as their counterparts. I’ve found that a great team in business can also build bonds that spread far outside of the workplace. For me, that includes working with some of my best friends, wanting to spend time with my teammates outside of the office, and attending very personal events of coworkers like weddings and funerals. These strong bonds are made by being part of a great team and the commonality that comes with it. A great team gives a sense of identity to the individuals who are a part of it; ideally a sense of pride for the team as a whole, not just for the individuals or the outcomes. We show this by displaying a company logo on our clothes, by representing our team in the community, or, most importantly, by talking with pride about the talents and accomplishments of the teammates who were often times perfect strangers prior to joining the team.

The challenge for all of us is how to build great teams both as a leader and as a member of a team. It’s very easy for me to buy a t-shirt and immediately be accepted into a group of fiercely loyal fans, even on an island where the only Spanish baseball phrase I picked up at the game was “robba da base” (which I yelled at every runner – yes, the gringo got a few looks…). What I’ve learned is that great team building is not about the background or personalities of the people on the team. People of all ethnicities, cultural and economic statuses, can find a bond if the intention is clear. It’s more about having clarity around the purpose and intention of the team and having buy-in from the people who area a part of it. This is what makes teams and ultimately the companies they are a part of successful.

- Ryan Neal, President
Blueprint Consulting Services