A winning solution

Supersession: Defying the Curse explores how to foster success from the ground up

Mike Greenberg, host of Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio and ESPN2, talked with Tom Ricketts, Chicago Cubs Executive Chairman, about leadership and how the Chicago Cubs overcame obstacles to win baseball’s biggest prize, the 2016 World Series, during Supersession: Defying the Curse at NRA Show 2017, presented by Sysco.

Greenberg opened by saying that the one thing he’s learned in 30 years of covering sports is that the piece of lasting success that fans recognize the least is that success starts at the very top and with culture. “You can catch lighting in a bottle and have some sort of short-lived success, but if you don’t have rock solid leadership and you don’t have a culture that works, you can’t build anything that lasts,” he said.

Changing a mindset

Ricketts and Greenberg started their one-on-one talk walking down memory lane and talked about the start of the Cubs 2010 season. The franchise missed the playoffs the year before, it had the oldest lineup in baseball with the highest team salary, and it was regarded as having the worst farm system in the game. “Emotionally, we were excited and went into the season with optimism, but intellectually, we realized we wouldn’t capture the magic of a few years earlier,” Ricketts said.

By that August, the Cubs had the third-worst record in baseball. “On top of all the oldest lineup, highest payrolls and a poor farm system, we were now one of the worst teams,” he said. “Then, Lou Piniella decideed to retire. This was pretty much the low point of the entire experience, but this drove home that we needed a complete shift, a change in strategy and a whole new model if we were ever going to get to the kind of success we wanted.”

Ricketts knew he had to make long-term decisions rather than short-term ones and be transparent about management solutions with staff and with fans. “During the lean years, fans continued to let me know that they had my back and they would remain loyal to the team,” he said.

One big change happened in July 2011 when Ricketts let Vice President and General Manager Jim Hendry go, who continued to work with Cubs on trades for the remainder of the year. “Typically, you don’t let your general manager go in July, but we needed to make a change and go in a new direction,” Ricketts said.

In October 2011, Ricketts hired Theo Epstein as the team’s President of Baseball Operations. “He told me that his hiring wasn’t about him but more about building a team where everyone works together to make accurate and good decisions, to get the right guys on the field and have a winning season,” Ricketts said. “He’s very people driven, very humble and honest.”

Rebuilding from the ground up

Typically, professional sports teams will try quick fixes to solve problems by spending lots of money on hiring free agents, but not the Cubs. “You tore the team down to its foundation. You went 180 degrees the other way. Where did that idea come from?” Greenberg asked.

“In baseball, if you want to get to the World series, you want to make the playoffs as often as possible,” Ricketts said. “So, the only way you’re going to do that is building a core team of players that are consistent and healthy. There was no other choice on why we did what we did.”

Greenberg asked if “tearing it down to the studs” is the new way to win in baseball and a championship. “Every team and general manager is different,” Ricketts replied. “You need to think each year of how you’re going to win. Fans can the handle truth and they understand when a team gets broken up.”

In winning the World Series last November, Ricketts said, “It was a moment of redemption.”

Green closed by asking, “Climbing the mountain is one thing, but staying on top of the mountain is another—some say it’s even harder. How hard is it to stay on top?”

“Statistically in baseball it’s the hardest thing to stay on top and to repeat,” Ricketts said, “but we should be in the mix this year and have a good shot at winning the division.”

Greenberg seemed to reassure Ricketts by saying, “There’s no team currently in the four major North American sports better set up for lasting success than the Chicago Cubs. That’s a fact. The foundation is in place, sticking with it and seeing it through.” 

Twitter questions

At the end of the presentation, Ricketts answered questions submitted through Twitter.

  • Q: What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
    A: Convincing my family buying the Chicago Cubs was a good idea.
  • Q: How do you motivate your team and get them to follow the leadership transition?
    A: You need to delegate and give people authority to deliver a result. You will demoralize your staff if you jump in and tell them how to do their job.
  • Q: How do you instill a culture of personal accountability in a large operation?
    A: You have to put in place a set of standards. If you say something on which you need to follow up, follow through and enforce the standards.
  • Q: What qualities do you look for in hiring team members for leadership roles?
    A: People who have a different perspective on how things were done, and, simply, people who can accomplish the job.

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