What business can learn about leadership and collaboration from Little League Baseball

Although you wouldn’t know it from the 50 degree weather we have had the last three days, it is spring in Boston, which means my 9 year old son is playing baseball again.  Helping coach his little league team reminded me of the leadership model we developed at the Loyalty Group that others have found helpful and I thought I would share it with you.

During the time I was CEO of The Loyalty Group, we grew from three entrepreneurs in a Toronto hotel room to over 600 employees when we sold the business to Alliance Data System (NYSE: ADS).  Throughout this period, I thought a lot about both leadership and how to help executives develop the requisite skills to advance as far as they wanted to in their careers, as this was one of my most important roles. Few things give me greater satisfaction than seeing several of the people I hired continue to grow and be successful in their careers. Indeed, many of those I hired and mentored have taken Loyalty to levels of success we didn’t even dream of during my tenure, and we were pretty big dreamers back then.

One of the things I came to understand about leadership and developing executive talent became what we called the “Three I’s of Leadership.”  I realized to build a successful high growth company while delivering on our cultural goal of “creating business success that others consider impossible, while treating people with respect and having fun along the way” we needed leaders with the following skills:

  • Intellectual Leadership – Leaders who had both the raw brain power to identify opportunities and solve challenges and very deep skills in their specific areas of expertise.
  • Implementational Leadership – Leaders who were not just “consulting smart” but who could get things done to move the business forward.  Executives who could actually stop thinking, developing models and drawing matrices and “land the helicopter, get the troops in the field and make things happen.”
  • Inspirational Leadership – Leaders who could get things done through others without making everyone quit.

Over time, I found out two things about this model:

Three I Leadership can be, and usually is, a shared set of skills.

Although no senior executive can have below threshold skills in any of the three areas, many highly successful companies are led by “Three I Leadership Teams.”  I first realized this through being involved in YPO (the Young Presidents Organization) where I spent a lot of time with other Presidents of successful companies. My original belief was that successful CEO’s had to be “A” players in all three leadership skill sets, but I realized that this often wasn’t the case.  I observed several very successful CEO’s who clearly were not what anyone would consider “motivate the troops inspirational” and others who although incredibly smart “idea machines,” needed someone to figure out what ideas should actually be implemented and then take the idea from the white board (or the back of the napkin) to the business and the bottom line.  All I observed were very smart, but not all would qualify for Mensa.

I soon realized that almost everyone had built a “Three I Team” around themselves by hiring direct reports that balanced and complimented their skill sets. There was the collaboration principle at work again.  Once I realized the importance of Three I Teams – and the stupidity of expecting every senior executive to be naturally gifted at all three – I started using the model to help my direct reports work on their weakest areas and made sure we had Three I Teams leading all of our major groups and strategic initiatives.

I later began using the Three I model in recruiting and would ask candidates to distribute 100 points across the Three I’s to indicate their leadership strengths and weaknesses. One of the funniest reactions I received to this question came from an executive who had worked at American Express during the 90’s when Harvey Golub was CEO.  He responded something like: “That’s a great model.  Harvey is 60 intellectual, 40 implementational and 0 inspirational.” Then he became even more excited and said, “No, that’s not correct, he is 60 intellectual, 60 implementational and negative 20 inspirational.”  Although the candidate was clearly exaggerating in jest, he was making my point exactly as Ken Chenault was Gulob’s number two at the time. Then and now, there may not be a better example of a “High I Inspirational” leader than Ken.

The model can apply to the leadership teams of organizations large and small.

Back to my baseball analogy.  Last year, I thought about this regarding little league baseball coaches.  A coach needs to know the game of baseball, the complex rules, how to catch, hit, run and steal bases, etc.  But knowing how to play baseball is necessary, but insufficient. Someone on the coaching staff needs to know how to teach young kids how to play baseball – how to learn the game and improve their skills. What drills are most effective in practice; how to spot a batting stance off balance or a throwing motion without follow-through and how to make the subtle changes to correct these errors.  Finally, as all sports are partly mind games, and baseball can be incredibly stressful for young athletes, at least one of the coaches has to be able to keep the kids fired up and have a vast vocabulary of positive things to say no matter what happens at on the field – a swinging strike becomes a “good cut, “bases loaded means “we now have an easy out at every base,” etc.

If this model makes sense to you, try it inside your own organization.  If it applies, consider building it into your professional development systems and recruiting strategies.  If you use it, collaborate with us by letting me know how it worked and what you have done to improve the model.