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What the Toronto Blue Jays can teach us about long-term thinking

The baseball team may be in 4th place in its division, but its CEO is playing the long game.

What the Toronto Blue Jays can teach us about long-term thinking
Bo Bichette #11 of the Toronto Blue Jays runs on the field prior to the playing against the New York Yankees during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on August 9, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. [Photo: Mark Blinch/Getty Images]

After a 24-year run with the Cleveland Indians, where he helped to turn a smaller market team into a perennial contender, two-time Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year Mark Shapiro left to take on a daunting new challenge: transforming the Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s only remaining professional baseball team, into a durable champion. Though the Blue Jays were in the middle of a two-year hot streak when he took over after the 2015 season, Shapiro wasn’t driven to be temporarily competitive. Rather than making short-term expenditures on high-priced talent alone, he began making deeper investments in infrastructure: identifying hungry talent and motivated leaders and creating a strong culture.

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Today, the team is in fourth place in its division, and Shapiro has traded several of its stars (including pitcher Marcus Stroman) for future assets, drawing groans from some media and fans. But Shapiro remains resolute in his vision and approach. He says success doesn’t mean buying wins at any cost; it is about creating a culture of sustained winning that transcends today’s stars. Recently, Shapiro spoke with Mark Miller, Team One LA strategy chief, about his ambitions and why—despite short-term public pressure—he believes he can transform the Blue Jays organization for the long term.

Working for an underdog team like the Cleveland Indians, how were you able to build something so remarkable from such humble beginnings, and what lessons did you learn then that you are applying to the Toronto Blue Jays today?

One thing that continues to resonate with me is that it’s not going to be one leader, one decision, or one effort that’s going to get you to success. I don’t believe one person can make a better decision than a group of people.

In order for this to work, however, you [do] need the right leaders. That means obsessing about hiring, empowering good people who align with the values of the organization, and creating a culture where people feel like they can make a difference. To distill leadership down to its simplest level, it’s about ensuring that every single person understands their importance.

This is just as true in Toronto as it was back in Cleveland. Everyone in the Blue Jays organization has an important role to play, and our success in the challenging American League East is dependent on everyone working relentlessly and collaboratively toward the same goal.

Success requires exceptional work: up, down, and across the organization. It’s a thousand efforts, a thousand incremental efficiencies.

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You talk about the importance of “team.” When you reflect upon your experience with Cleveland, is there a moment that stands out, where you were challenged then, like you are now, to put the team first?

In 2004, we traded a guy named Milton Bradley. Milton was our most talented player, but he had multiple challenges with our manager and staff, as well as off the field. Finally, down in spring training, he gave a noticeably poor effort running out a pop-up. Our manager talked to him, but Milton just picked up his equipment bag, walked out of the dugout, and took a cab back to town. At that point, we were faced with the difficult decision of how to handle him. We arrived at a decision to trade him.

I remember our owner telling me, “I know you’re a character guy, but this is our best player. We still have to win! Do you really want to do this? We still have to win for our business.” But here’s the thing: The way a team plays is indicative of the values of the entire organization. That’s not something that is necessarily recognized by all fans, but it was integral to every person who had bought into our vision. The way we played the game was essential to our culture and what we felt could be our competitive advantage.

With the Blue Jays, that’s the type of resolve we have sought to apply from day one. We don’t just want to win; we want to win in the right way—with the right people and the right values.

Can you walk through how you go about building—not buying—a winning culture in Toronto?

Ultimately, in midsize or smaller markets, we have to outperform objective expectations. We have to beat the Red Sox and the Yankees, even though we’re never going to have the resources they have—and their resources are among the top few teams in the game.

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To outperform objective expectations, you need extraordinary people committed to doing extraordinary work. You need a well-run organization, top to bottom: a performance department that keeps players on the field better than other teams; an analytics department that helps develop competitive advantages across a broad spectrum of decision-making and deployment. Moreover, everyone has to understand how important everyone else’s work is. We have to ensure that efforts and decisions aren’t being made in an isolated way but instead that they’re connected to something bigger. That requires being obsessively focused on making the best decisions possible at every level, with no energy spent on credit, blame, or hierarchy.

When you simply buy or collect talent, you have a limited window of opportunity. But when you build a true team through developing a winning culture, you create the conditions for sustained success.

What kind of advice would you give to others trying to lead a resilient organization like the Blue Jays, whether it’s a baseball team, a corporation, or something else?

I’d emphasize developing and maintaining a learning culture as the foundation. If I stay humble and if I stay committed to waking up every day and getting better than I was the day before, then I’m thriving. Better yet, if I can inspire people around me to maintain humility and to focus on getting better every single day, not only will we accomplish great things but we will have an organization full of people who are fulfilled and appreciate their work environment. That is a scalable competitive advantage—the true benefit of a learning culture. People will be happier working here, do great work, and winning will follow that.

Also, you can’t get distracted by the world around you, which will set material, superficial, and short-term measurements of success. You need to internally frame your values and expectations and hold yourself to them. Use them as a compass. When you start to struggle, it’s usually because you get distracted by other people’s projections of what success should look like. Anytime you catch yourself doing that, go back and internally audit yourself.

When you’re consistent in your actions and when those actions are tied to your values, you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding. You may even exceed your own expectations. We saw this happen again and again in Cleveland, and we’re navigating our way there now with the Blue Jays.

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Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, a fully integrated media, digital, and communications agency for premium brands, and the coauthor of Legacy in the Making (McGraw-Hill Education). He is a regular contributor to Fast Company.

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