The Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year drought by winning the World Series earlier this month, at the same time giving a little boost to the idea that soft skills really matter when putting together winning teams.
It turned out that Cubs’ baseball boss Theo Epstein, before choosing players, has his staff closely evaluate qualities like resiliency or the ability to speak clearly and respectfully.
Business managers might find this less than groundbreaking, as looking out for these skills has long been part of most companies’ hiring process. Yet at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, the staff jumped at the chance to talk about the Cubs because this baseball story nicely reinforces what they’ve been hoping to teach their MBA students.
MBA students need to realize that plenty of pitchers can throw a baseball 92 miles per hour yet still never become a winner in the big leagues.
Given the history of futility in Chicago, the Cubs’ championship was going to be a great story this year no matter how the team was built. The reason a handful of sportswriters picked up on the soft-skills approach of Epstein in Chicago is not just that the team finally won, but because soft-skills thinking is about the last thing Epstein was known for. He was routinely described, earlier in his career, as a prodigy in the field of using statistical analysis to gain an edge in judging talent.
That numbers-driven approach became known as “Moneyball,” named for a 2003 book by Michael Lewis that explained how the approach brought success to the low-budget Oakland A’s. Lewis gleefully described how the A’s, like nearly everyone else in baseball, had previously been using intuition and subjective judgments to make magnificently wrongheaded choices on players.
In one scene from the movie version of “Moneyball,” an argument among old hands in the A’s front office touches on a prospect who reportedly has “an ugly girlfriend.” Why is that telling? It’s a sign of “no confidence,” of course.
Digging into a player’s statistical record so obviously beats that kind of medieval thinking that it was surprising so few teams were doing it, and Epstein was aggravated that the A’s had shared the secrets of data analysis with a writer. That might be one reason Epstein’s own thinking evolved to include soft skills, too.
His balanced approach to selecting and developing players makes perfect sense to Theresa Glomb, a professor of human resources at the Carlson School of Management. She did add, though, “I don’t love the term soft skills, because it makes this sound fluffy and unimportant.”
She prefers simply “leadership” to describe soft skills, calling it “small L” leadership. Being good at small L leadership may actually lead to a corner office job someday, and it certainly can mean success right away on even a simple project.
Carlson made leadership training part of the core requirements for MBA students. One of the ideas now being tried is stretching the work over the two-year program, rather than packing the material in a single class.
One of the challenges Glomb describes is making sure the faculty gets the full attention of the MBA students. They likely came to a competitive program like Carlson to learn marketing or strategy, along with maybe grabbing a credential.
She explains to students that almost no one gets fired for not having marketing skills quite up to par. People do get fired for alienating colleagues with arrogance or undermining a boss by pursuing their own agenda.
In the Carlson leadership model, the MBA students start out with a personal review drawn from the feedback of other students and colleagues from their past, leading to a plan of what to work on. They also plug into an executive coach. The program’s goals include helping students become “bold,” “self-aware,” “connected” and “socially aware.” These sure don’t sound like the traditional goals of going to business school.
“As I think back to the Cubs, one of things that’s present in both of the models is this idea to get people to think about a personal growth mind-set,” Glomb said. “That’s about being curious, being adaptable, being resilient and being self-aware.”
Self-awareness sounds great, yet it also sounds awfully close to the concept of “mindfulness,” a term that by now seems guaranteed to cause at least some eye-rolling among business managers sick of hearing of it. Maybe the term has been overused, but mindfulness as a concept is easily defended. Ever tried explaining a problem to a boss whose eyes seem to be on an iPhone screen? That’s a boss who could’ve used mindfulness training.
Epstein told a Chicago columnist he was still “awful” at mindfulness, now part of the Cubs’ approach to baseball, and resilience came up in coverage of the Cubs, too.
In trying to teach resilience to MBA students, Glomb said, “so much of it is a personal practice. It’s ‘How do I make sense of things, how do I learn from what’s happened?’ If you are just constantly onto the next thing, you are never learning. Then you are not building that core of resilience where you can say ‘yep, that was really bad but I learned from it.’”
Carlson’s leadership program has the benefit of insights from the corporate community, too, from people like Carlson fellow Kevin Wilde, formerly of General Mills. One of his observations this week is that maybe its takes some hard-earned work experience to fully appreciate soft skills. He’s found that out when teaching in Carlson’s executive MBA program, where the students seem to be about 10 years older than the full-time MBA students.
“The difference in humility is dramatic,” Wilde said. The older students “get it. They get the soft skills, the leadership stuff. They’re very hungry for the tools and resources to make it work.”