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On baseball & building a team

main.jpgI don’t really follow sports, so the bulk of my athletic knowledge comes from movies. (I watched my mom’s beloved Cubs win the World Series this fall with at least part of my brain thinking, “Oh, they’re playing baseball, like in A League of Their Own.”) When I caught up recently with the 2011 film Moneyball, based on the book about the use of sabermetrics in baseball, I wasn’t expecting to care much about its stats-heavy story -- much less find an analogy that I’ve returned to frequently in my life. But the movie’s central concepts have continued to come up in my work when I think about team-building and what I and my colleagues bring to our jobs.

Moneyball’s story focuses on Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), general manager of the struggling Oakland A’s and a former MLB player himself. As a high school student, we see in flashbacks, he was singled out by major-league scouts impressed by his well-roundedness: He was equally good at hitting, running, and fielding. That promise led him to give up a scholarship to Stanford… but then his big-league career fizzled.

moneyball.gifThe insight that eventually leads to the Oakland team’s success under Billy Beane is this: Players who are good at everything don’t necessarily help a team win. Scoring the most runs is what really matters, and players getting on base is what helps teams score runs. The most important stat in this view is “on-base percentage” -- so a player who draws a lot of walks could be more valuable than a power hitter who’s inconsistent.

This understanding allows Oakland to recognize the talent that’s getting overlooked. One of the players they draft is relief pitcher Chad Bradford, whom Jonah Hill’s character describes as “one of the most undervalued players in baseball.” He’s got a weird, arm-twisting pitching style, so, “Nobody in the big leagues cares about him, because he looks funny.” Being able to spot these unlikely prospects (players whose talent is overshadowed by their unconventionality) allows Oakland to assemble a team of oddballs that can actually win.

I’ve been thinking about this at work because I’m on a small team at Connect the Grey whose members have a variety of skills and communication styles. Sometimes our strengths overlap; sometimes they’re complementary. Over the past few months, I’ve been able to watch my boss (a former softball pitcher who has also used the scouting metaphor) work to recognize those strengths, setting us all up to succeed as individuals and as a whole.

This concept isn’t new: Tools like Strengthsfinder and the Myers-Briggs personality test have become ubiquitous, helping job seekers identify how they work best and helping employers pinpoint the right person for each role. But in organizations with scarce resources -- which is usually true of nonprofits -- it’s easier said than done to tailor a role to the abilities of the person in it. More often, every employee is expected to take on and shift quickly among a variety of responsibilities.

This need for utility players is somewhat inevitable -- the work does have to get done -- and some variety at work is healthy and enjoyable, of course. But I think we do ourselves and our organizations a disservice when we focus on the role instead of the individual -- when we make job postings too specific, discount applicants because they don’t have certain types of education or experience, or thrust someone into a role without considering the personal talents and limitations they’ll be bringing to the position.

For my part, it’s been fulfilling to be on a team that recognizes what I bring and allows me to volunteer for certain responsibilities based on what I’m good at. I’ve shifted from obsessing anxiously over mistakes to gaining new confidence and ambition. I’m still aware of my weaknesses, but having my strengths directly acknowledged by the people around me has made learning and improving less of a chore and more of something I’m happy to work on. And a team of people who own the ways they excel is more equipped to tackle the work; we’ll often say things like, “I think you’d be really good at this,” or “Oooh, I love stuff like that; I’ll work on that.”

Connect the Grey is small and young, so we do have the luxury of flexibility. But I hope that more organizations are learning to focus on employees’ assets and allowing them to be their best selves. This is especially important when it comes to tapping into pools of talent that are particularly overlooked -- as Commarrah Bashar illustrated in her recent post about recognizing the resilience that comes with living with mental illness and how that can be translated into resume-building skills.

Working within people’s supposed limitations and viewing them as opportunities allows for a fuller, more empowered workforce. For me, the validation of what I offer, not what I lack, has helped me become a better, healthier team player.

Colleen Powers is a writer and editor who serves as storytelling lead for Connect the Grey and social media specialist for Springboard for the Arts. You can follow her on Twitter at @colleen_powers.

If you want more tips for opportunities to binge-watch-with-purpose, read Jarell Skinner-Roy's blog on tv characters that taught him lessons about leadership.

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