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Why You May Not Be in the Lineup

“How come I’m not in the lineup, Ham?” (My baseball players called me ‘Ham’). Keith was emotional; he had reason to be. He just hit a pinch-hit home run off an ankle-high fastball in the last inning to win an important conference game against one of the best pitchers in the conference.

It’s an age-old question so many coaches must be ready for. You face these in leadership too; it may resemble, “how come I didn’t get that client”, “why am I only a “meets expectations” on my review or even “what do I have to do to get promoted?” Sound familiar?

Back to Keith, he was a muscle-bound second-string player; and one powerful human being. Before his tough question, he waited for me as the team cleared out of the dugout. He was fuming. He was staring me down, ready to confront me on playing time. Keith wasn’t prepared for what I was about to say, but I was.

“I need you to hit fastballs down the middle like you hit fastballs ankle high, then I’ll keep you in the lineup,” I answered. Keith said nothing more, still fumed but in reticent agreement. Keith had a big hole in his swing, given his muscle-bound nature; he couldn’t seem to hit pitches in the upper part of the strike zone, which is a big problem. And he knew it, but it kept him out of the lineup. It just so happened that the pitcher he faced in this situation notoriously threw low pitches; Keith’s sweet spot.  Keith couldn’t connect the dots.

If You Wait, You Lose

It’s been years since the college coaching days, but direct feedback was and is the only kind of feedback in that environment. There’s no time for passive aggressiveness, conflict avoidance, or waiting for a six-month review. If you wait, you lose, period.  However, I still made a mistake with Keith because it should have never come to a post-game question. But sometimes it does, and as leaders, you better be ready, or you’ll lose any credibility you once had.

I’ve heard some lame responses from executives to professionals when asking why they didn’t get promoted. Responses like “it’s all about timing,” “you need more time in the chair,” and “we’re short-handed on people in your role and need you at that level.” These are passive-aggressive and give the individuals zero guidance on what steps they need to take to get promoted. You are passing the buck because you either don’t want to have the hard conversation, don’t have a good answer, or sometimes don’t prioritize the conversation properly. None of which are great reasons.

Kim Scott, in Radical Candor, explains it perfectly when she says we must “care personally and challenge directly.” The top C-Suites I’ve worked with will make you uncomfortable with the challenging questions and coaching because they, too, have been given direct feedback, which benefited them in their careers. If you are not giving your people direct and challenging feedback, they can’t do the work to be the best version of themselves. You may not lose a baseball game that day, but your team will struggle to perform at high levels, and the C-Suites you work for now will see it.

Metrics Won’t Lie

When I first wrote this, one of my distinguished reviewers and an author asked me, “why should it have never come to a post-game question? What piece of the story or advice am I missing?” (So glad she asked; this is where we can learn to be even better leaders).

It should have never come to that because we had the data. We didn’t communicate it as effectively as we could have. After this experience, I began proactively keeping better performance metrics, even in practice. Then we immediately updated the metrics and communicated them and their importance to each player. Some corporate leaders call this “scorecarding” or “KPIs.” In baseball, we call them “stats.” All players began to be told regularly which stats aided or impeded their playing chances. And we kept stats few people have heard of – we researched leading indicators of successful performance and kept those metrics.

We also posted them for the whole team to see. We found the players were much more willing to buy into instruction if they knew our intention was for them to improve the statistics we held in high regard.  So in later years, the “Keiths” of the program would get a conversation like this long before the season, “Keith, you have some remarkable power and can be a great threat and asset for the team. However, you are striking out in 30% of your practice at bats. Our starting players typically need to be around 10-15%. We need to get your strikeout frequency down. We see two ways for you to cut down on strikeouts quickly. We noticed you are very successful on the low pitches but struggling with pitches higher in the zone. Until we can make a few minor swing adjustments to get those high fastballs in play with greater frequency, we need to focus on targeting and being aggressive on low pitches, your strength, and not swinging at pitches higher in the zone unless you have two strikes.”

In this example, we are not saying, “You’ll never start if you keep striking out.” He knows what it takes to start (or get promoted); it’s his choice to work on improving his metrics; the metrics won’t lie.

Then, as one of my reviewers, a successful CEO, mentioned, Keith could have better understood the “right person, right time, right position” decision we made when he hit the big home run on a low fastball. I know some of you are saying, “Baseball is different. I don’t have KPIs or statistics like that I can use to measure my team’s performance.” Trust me; they are there.  I can only say part of the journey to the executive level is “figuring it out.”

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