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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Once in a Lifetime

In October 1988, I fell in love with baseball.

Being born and raised in England, I didn’t know much about the game.  I knew that batters had to hit the ball and not be caught, I knew there was something called a home run and I knew that Babe Ruth was a big deal, and that was pretty much it.

So when one day I found myself watching a one hour condensed show on Game 1 of that year’s world series, I didn’t really understand about starters vs relievers, had no idea what a closer was and the terms pinch-hitter and walk-off were as familiar to me as sanskrit.

And yet, when Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate to deposit Dennis Eckersley into the seats in right and win Game 1 for the Dodgers, I instantly fell in love with baseball and he became my personal baseball hero.

The Oval Cricket Ground in London

The Oval Cricket Ground in London, with unusual dimensions

Fast forward six years.  When I moved from England to Detroit, one of the things I was looking forward to most was seeing my first live MLB game.  By that time, I’d been playing softball for several years, and traveling to softball tournaments in the U.S., but had never seen a game live, with the exception of an exhibition game at The Oval in 1993, when a group of what were predominantly minor leaguers from the Mets and Red Sox were sent to London to try and rustle up interest in Europe in the aftermath of the 1993 strike.

So imagine my delight on arriving in Detroit when I found out that Kirk Gibson was playing for the Tigers.  Admittedly he only played for them for a couple months before retiring, but I got to see him play.  Indeed, I got to see him hit his last home run.

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

Last Opening Day at Tiger Stadium

I’ve been a Tigers fan since the first moment I walked into old Tiger Stadium in May of 1995.  And to be honest, being a Tigers fan was tough.  We sucked in the 90s.  The ball park was usually three quarters empty.  When there was a good crowd, more than 50% were Indians fans who made the drive from Cleveland because all the Tribe’s home games were sold out.

But there were a few things to remember.  Watching Tram and Lou play together for the last time, being at the game when Sparky suddenly decided to pinch hit for Cecil and everyone knowing that meant he’d been traded.  But for the most part, the team was so lousy that my memories are of how wonderful the stadium was, and hearing Ernie Harwell’s voice echoing through the stands.

I moved back to England for several years after 1998, but I always followed the Tigers through the wonderful new invention of the internet.  I even flew over for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, leaving England on Friday, watching the game on Saturday and flying back Sunday, landing at 7.30 Monday morning and going straight in to work (where I was a complete waste of space all day long).

When I finally moved back to Michigan, the Tigers were a better team.  Their owner, Mike Ilitch, was taking the same approach to the Tigers that he had taken for 15 years with the Red Wings – he wanted to build a winner.  And it was with that in mind that in the same year that I moved to Michigan, someone else moved here as well.  That man was Miguel Cabrera.

I remember everoneone thinking that this was a good move for the Tigers.  Miggy was in his mid 20s at the time and had already become a star, but I don’t think anybody, ANYBODY, knew that the kid who had just arrived was going to turn into arguably the greatest hitter any Tigers fan had ever seen.

Miggy’s first few years were impressive.  His first season as a Tiger he hit 37 homers with a .292 average, enough for Tiger fans to take him to their hearts.  And while over the following 3 years he always hit 30 HR, always hit over .300, and always knocked in 100 ribeyes, he never started an All-Star game.

Cabrera's 2011 arrest. AP Photo/St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office

Cabrera’s 2011 arrest. AP Photo / St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office

His on field heroics were occasionally marred by somewhat ugly incidents from his personal life.  An altercation with his wife in 2009 after a night of heavy drinking which led to a poor on field performance in a key game caused a few complaints.  His DUI arrest in early 2011 caused a few more.  And, to be honest, we had all seen careers fall apart before when a player was immature.  Would Miggy be another MLB cautionary tale of wasted opportunity?

But in 2011, everything started to change. and it started with Miggy’s journey towards getting sober.  And that first year was not easy.  The Tigers made the playoffs and while Miggy hit a career high .344 to win the A.L. Batting Title, his power and production numbers were down, barely scraping into the 30HR / 100RBI club.  Don’t get me wrong, these are still very good numbers, but when the 2012 season began, many Tigers fans were anxious to see which Cabrera would show up – great Miggy or still-troubled Miggy.

As it turned out, neither showed up.  Instead we got God Miggy, as Miguel Cabrera truly began his quest to become arguably the greatest Tiger of all time, and the most feared hitter of his generation.

Despite the numbers he started to put up, fans around baseball still failed to recognize him as being truly a great player when they voted Adrian Beltre the All-Star Game starter at 3rd base.  To be fair to Beltre, Cabrera had only just moved from 1B to 3B when Prince Fielder arrived in Detroit, so he was not immediately familiar at the hot corner.  As such, it seemed he would have to do something superhuman to get his name recognized in the upper levels of the stratosphere.  And as the season progressed, we slowly became aware that superhuman was what we were seeing.

It had been 45 years since anyone had achieved baseball’s offensive holy grail, the Triple Crown.  Some commentators had talked about the fact that Cabrera had a shot as early as July, thought without any real conviction.  However, as the season ground into the dog days of August, the wistful handful of comments became a steady flow, then a torrent, and then a flood.

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown Tribute 2012

It pretty much went down to the final day. Cabrera had an unassailable lead in Runs Batted In, but could still conceivably have been caught in Home Runs (by New York Yankee and former Tiger Curtis Granderson and Texas slugger Josh Hamilton), and in average (by  Angels rookie phenom Mike Trout).

When the season’s final game arrived, Tigers Manager Jim Leyland didn’t cop out by sitting Cabrera to protect his average, he played him.  And though Miggy was hitless on the night until replaced to a standing ovation in the 4th inning, he finished the season with a .330 average and 44 home runs, just enough to become only the 3rd living Triple Crown winner.

He was, rightly in my opinion, named the A.L. M.V.P., beating Mike Trout in a battle of old school vs sabermetric analysis and the question then became what would he do the following year.  The answer should have been clear when Miggy abstained from a clubhouse pennant celebration even though the dowsing champagne was non-alcoholic.  This was clearly now a complete baseball player, and one with singularly sharp focus and dedication.

As I write this in mid-August 2013, it has become clear that we are seeing a grandmaster at the very height of his powers.  While second in HR to Baltimore’s Chris Davis (39 vs 44, though the gap is closing), Miggy leads the A.L. in RBI (117 to 113) and average (.358 to .335).  People are talking about the possibility of a second straight Triple Crown (which is possible), and a second straight MVP (which at his current pace is likely, barring injury).

Last night, Cabrera smacked his 39th homer of the year, a walk-off solo shot to lift the Tigers 6-5 over the Royals at Comerica.  At the end of the on-field interview after the home run, as Cabrera walked back to the dugout, the interviewer handed back to the studio by saying  “Fellas, he is the best hitter on planet earth”.

The jury is no longer out on who is the best hitter in the game.  It’s not even worth talking about.

Miggy

Cabrera started at 3rd base in the All-Star game for the first time this year, and the vote wasn’t even close.

Opposing managers almost without exception identify him as the best hitter in baseball.  His peers are no less effusive.  And play by play announcers and color analysts from Joe Buck to Ken The Hawk Harrelson are filled with admiration.

I hope the fans in Detroit, and baseball fans around the league, truly appreciate what they are seeing here.  Because what they are seeing is a player performing at a level that people will still talk about long after we are all dead..and…gone.

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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Baseball, Sports

 

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Comms Principle #6: Translating Strategy into Execution

And so, we reach the final post in this series about Change Project Communications.  When I originally listed the key subject areas, I indicated that the sixth and final post would be called “Translating Strategy into Execution”, and it is, but now that I have reached this point I realize that I have covered it as an inherent part of several previous posts.

However, once again, there is a lesson to be learned here and, once again, I draw on an experience from the past.

Communications - always under the microscope

Communications – always under the microscope

A few years ago, I started work on a new project – one that had been failing, of course – and when I set out my engagement strategy to the Board, the most senior member there (one of whom I was kinda nervous because as well as being very senior he had an innate ability to spot gaps in thinking and pounce on them with inconveniently astute questions) said “Well, communications will be critical to the success of this, so I’ll watch with great interest.”

Simon (for that is the name I will give him) didn’t know me particularly well and was, I believe, relatively unconvinced that I would deliver anything of demonstrable value.

So, I set about executing the strategy.  I subdivided the stakeholders and cross mapped them.  I developed a modular suite of communications focusing on functional areas but all capable of building to an all-encompassing whole.

I reviewed the comms channels available, selecting only those that were well known and familiar to my audience.  I leveraged existing networks, cultivating the folks who managed the networks.  I spoke with key individuals around the world and identified local comms advocates in the Asia Pacific, Africa, Middle East and Latin America Regions who, with their regional experience and contacts, could help me drive the communication deeper than I could do on my own.

I engaged the experts who knew the detail at Global H.Q. to assist with developing the content, and developed a manageable cadence so that interacting with me would not become a chore.  I also syndicated draft materials with experts working in the Operating Companies and End-Markets to see what resonated with them and what they resisted before circulating the finished pieces.

I listened for feedback.  I ensured not only that the voices in the field were heard, but that the people knew they were being not just heard but also considered.

And then, after 6 months, I ran a survey of 500 global stakeholders to find out what they knew about the project, what they thought was missing, and whether they believed the communication had been good.  The recipients ranged from Junior Managers to Heads of Functions, Directors of Operating Companies to Regional Directors.

I was, if I’m honest, somewhat worried about the results as they would form the basis for the follow-up presentation I had been asked to give to the Board on the progress of communications against the established comms strategy.

I pulled the results into a 25 slide PowerPoint presentation, with graphs showing the responses for all the key areas, broken down by geographic area, by function. To my amazement, I had received nearly a 70% response rate on the survey (I had hoped for maybe a 1 in 5 response rate).

The Board required all presentation materials to be pre-circulated before the meeting, so as I stood up to present, everyone already had all the details.  And before I got a word out, ‘Simon’ smiled and said “Robin, it must be very hard to be humble at moments like this.”

The results were staggeringly good.  97% of people remembered seeing the communications, 89% knew who to talk to if they wanted more information or to raise concerns, 85% felt the communications had been timely and informative.  Best of all, 82% described the comms execution as good or excellent.

If this sounds like I’m bragging, please don’t think of it that way.  While I got the credit on the day, I would have achieved nothing had I not had the most awesome team of advisors, collaborators and advocates, and the visible support of my Project Executive.  While I had written and sent out all the communications, it was the knowledge and commitment of others that made them worth reading.

I worked on for a few more months, and was then asked to move to another struggling project.  The existing one had a new manager brought in, and a senior Comms expert from one of the Big 4 consultancies was brought in to manage the communications work-stream.

A year later, I had occasion to catch up with a colleague and ask how things had progressed.  I found the results to be surprising.

Communications was now under attack.  People felt disengaged, uninformed and undervalued.  In a further survey, nearly three quarters of recipients had indicated that communications had been inadequate or poor.

My first reaction, perhaps predictably, was to be thoroughly pissed off.  But then I thought maybe I could learn something useful so I spent a couple of days finding out what had happened.

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

The new Senior Executive had, as I mentioned, insisted on bringing in an external Comms Consultant.  This consultant (at the not inconsiderable rate of $2000 a day) had then spent 3 months criticizing my Comms approach as being too simplistic and labor intensive, and had developed a new strategy calling for dedicated comms channels, new databases, a new area on the intranet, and the development of an impressive array of comms pieces, from animated videos to Computer Based Training modules.

And then, with the strategy complete, the Consultant had said “OK, well, my job is done”.  When asked what how the strategy would be implemented, the Consultant seemed to take the view that that was not her role.

She was, however, more than happy to bring in a team of consultants from her company that could execute the strategy (about 8 people, all billing around $1200 a day).

This was by now about 5 months after I had moved off the project.

Over the next 3 months, the Comms Consultant team came on board, started developing the materials, engaging with the experts, pulling information together at the center, and finally beginning to communicate.  Everything they sent out was immaculate, impressive looking and hugely detailed.

The results were awful.  People didn’t recognize the communication, didn’t know who to ask questions of.  They didn’t know where to find documents when they needed them.  They called and emailed and were thanked for their input, but never heard any more.  In short, they felt as though they were cogs in a wheel rather than partners.

Hopefully, that little story tells you more about the process of communication than I ever could.  Yes, I know I just told the story, but you know what I mean.

In case you missed it however, I will end by mentioning the 3 key learnings that I took from this ghastly collapse.

#1 – If you are a Senior Manager, don’t abdicate responsibility for Communications.  If you are going to take the coward’s way out and use Comms as a convenient scapegoat in the event of failure, then your support for and engagement with the communications process while it is ongoing needs to be absolute.  Throwing the ball over the wall to an expert and telling them to just get on with it is stupid, stupid, stupid.  Listen to your Comms Manager, if you don’t agree tell him or her why, and give them a chance to convince you.

#2 – Don’t reinvent the wheel.  People are creatures of habit.  From a communications perspective when you are trying to get people to support changes in working, or measuring, or even if you’re trying to convince turkeys to appreciate Thanksgiving, you have to talk to them in language and through channels that are familiar to them.  Don’t ask them to learn a new job and a new way to communicate.  They won’t appreciate it, and you will bear the brunt of their disaffection.

#3 – Do some real work.  Please, please, please remember this one.  Comms Strategy is terribly important.  It is critical.  But if you don’t execute it properly then seriously what was the point?  Comms should always be built on a sound strategic foundation but in the end it’s basically well-organized common sense and bloody hard work.  It’s about writing, revising, listening, revising again, distributing in a regular and consistent manner, listening and starting again.

Cat Herding - The furry underbelly of Communications

Cat Herding – The furry underbelly of Communications

I love communications.  It is fulfilling, creative, informative and constantly evolving.  At the same time, it can be infuriating, thankless, monotonous and indefensible.  A roller-coaster ride of emotion and iteration, commendation and censure, exasperation and gratification.

People that “get” communications understand this, and are willing to be supportive, trusting and committed to your strategy.  Project Managers and Executives who understand the difficulties of herding cats will make it their business to give you visible support and to make sure that other members of the team are enablers, not inhibitors of communication.  If you find yourself working with people like this, you need to treasure the experiences because they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Many of my senior executives stayed in touch with me after I had moved off the project, some became dedicated and hugely appreciated mentors to me, and I remain friends with them to this day.

In my career I have worked with a handful of people who “got” communications.  I still treasure the insights I gained from the (sometimes hard) lessons I learned, and I believe that the experience has made me a better communicator.

Roberto, Simon, Gerson, Lorrie, Tom, Chris, Paul, plus a few others, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and wish you all nothing but success.

 
 

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