The WOW Factor: Increasing Employee Engagement

If you read my blogs you know that I have been spending too much time watching baseball lately. However, while watching the Blue Jays and Royals play yesterday I observed a leadership lesson which easily justified my sports-infused afternoon. Perhaps the most amazing part of the lesson was its simplicity and the ease by which it can be duplicated. Allow me to set the stage of what occurred.

The Toronto Blue Jays were down three games to one in a best of seven series. They must win or their playoff run would be over. The Jays pitcher for game 5, Marco Estrada, has pitched very well in the playoffs. However, as a young and inexperienced pitcher, you are never sure what will occur in a high pressure situation. So what happened?

In short, Estrada pitched brilliantly for seven innings before he was replaced with relievers. When the somber faced  Blue Jays Manager, John Gibbons, walked to the pitcher mound to tell him his work was done, the camera zoomed in on Gibbons face. While you could not hear what was said, the picture was so clear that you could easily read his lips as he greeted Estrada. So what did he say?

He uttered one simple three-letter expression: “Wow!“. ‘Wow’ was an incredibly smart thing to say! ‘Wow’ was an incredibly powerful thing to say. ‘Wow’ was also an incredibly easy thing to say!

I can think of few things I would rather hear from my boss (and I suspect I am not alone).

  • I just read your report – Wow!
  • I saw how you just handled that difficult customer – Wow!
  • I know that you put in long hours for our company – Wow!
  • I never have to be concerned about your ethics at work – Wow!

We spend a lot of time looking for ways to increase the engagement level of our employees. This week Gibbons taught us that engagement can be facilitated with only one word. Who are the people in your life that need to hear you say Wow!?

Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is a professor, consultant and pracademic who serves in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman



Thinking Outside the Bullpen: Strategic Innovation

This week my baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, secured a playoff berth and home field advantage for the American league playoffs. Their meteoric rise to success in the second half of the 2015 season has been a popular subject for many baseball analysts. While their playoff run is a great success story, I believe that the teams Sr. VP has also taught us a valuable strategy about thinking outside-the-box. Or to use baseball language, thinking outside-the-bullpen.

The pitching bullpen is where the Jays have struggled this year. At the All-Star break, they were an average team and had won 50% of their games. They were not out of the playoff picture but they weren’t a contender. They were an excellent batting team – the best in the league! However, their pitching was average and their opponents typically scored a lot of runs. In fact, their pitching rated 23 out of the 30 teams in the league.

Baseball statisticians teach us that successful teams score more runs than their opponents (big surprise!). More specifically, exceptional teams have a healthy gap between the amount of runs they earn versus the runs given to up to their opponent. It’s called the ‘run differential’. At the half-way point of the year the Blue Jays’ stats showed that their differential was not big enough.

As baseball pundits reviewed this data they suggested that the Jays needed to make some trades which would strengthen their pitching. This made sense!  It seemed like a reasonable strategy to increase their run differential by addressing their pitching problem.

However, the Blue Jays’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos did something else.  Instead of trading for pitchers, he traded for even more great batters (with one exception named David Price)! Instead of striving to be strong in both pitching and hitting, he chose to make their strength an even better  strength. After all, there are two factors which can change the run differential – pitching and hitting. Improving either will increase the run differential!

To this point we do not know whether this strategy was due to a lack of viable pitching trades or if Anthopoulos simply thought outside-the-bullpen. We do know that it has worked. Since the All-Star break, the Blue Jays have won 72% of their games and are marching into the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

So what does Anthopolous teach us about strategic innovation?

  1. There is more than one path to excellence. The obvious path, in this case pitching, wasn’t the only way to improve. We need to look beyond obvious strategies, not matter how much they make sense.
  2. You don’t need to be excellent at everything to succeed. While it would be wonderful to be ranked #1 in both pitching and batting, it has seldom been achieved. However, excellence in their strength of batting was sufficient to achieve their playoff goal. This “strengths-based” model of performance is an important lesson about embracing what you have and not getting hung up on what you don’t.
  3. You can be better than #1. Based on batting averages, the post-All-Star break Blue Jays can beat the pre-All-Star break Blue Jays. Being number one did not mean the Jays had reached their ceiling. We often have room to increase our capacity in things we already excel at!

We all want to win and succeed. But the example of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 helps us rethink exactly how we do this. What assumptions are keeping you from seeing new strategic options? What areas can you be ‘just’ average in order to pursue your greatest strength?  Can you be better than #1?


Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is an armchair athlete, professor, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

When 60.2% Means Success: Coaching Excellence

Our business lives are full of rhetoric like ‘give 110%’, ‘be the best’ or ‘leave it all on the table’. However, often our best falls well short of perfection.

This truth struck me this week while enjoying my favorite season of the year – hockey playoffs! They announcers were analyzing centers and the average amount of face-offs that they won over the full season. The 2014-15 face-off leader was Patrice Bergeron who won 60.2% of the time. Since only two people take a face-off, the base odds are 50/50. Therefore, I was surprised that the league’s best was only 10.2% ahead of the median players in the league! He is highly coveted because of this difference, something that seems insignificant at first glance.

If you are more of a baseball fan, a look at 2014’s final statistics reveals a similar pattern. Last year’s hitting leader, Jose Altuve, batted an average of .341 over the season (that means he hit 341 out of 1000 times at bat). The league average was .250. Therefore, by being .091 better than the rest of the league, less than a 10% lead, Altuve won the batting championship!

Organizations also win or lose by narrow margins. So what can athletes teach us about our goal of excellence?

Perfection is unattainable (see Pobody’s Nerfect). The best does not mean 100%. While every job and occupation has different ways to measure excellence, we need to set a realistic bar. Some of you who read this are bosses who set an unrealistic bar. If this is the case, you need to evaluate this carefully. If your coach required you to make 100% of face-offs or bat .500 you would look to play elsewhere. What motivates you to create goals which will eventually demotivate your employees?

Success requires failure. The examples above embrace failure. It is said that the most successful companies have cultures which endorse failure. This is because if you are not failing, you are not trying anything new. How do you encourage your staff to fail well?

Narrow victories require exceptional effort. For the Bergeron’s and Altuva’s to win by gaps of less than 10%, they have put in exceptional amounts of work. While the victories are narrow, the amount of work to rise above average is not. Abolishing perfectionism and embracing failure does not give us permission to accept mediocrity.

Excellence is attainable but it has a demanding recipe:

It embraces imperfection.

It requires failure.

It always demands exceptional effort.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman