With John Brubaker, Author of Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time
Baseball And Business: Games Of Opportunity
John Brubaker, an acclaimed author, motivational speaker, business and sports consultant, and coach of many stripes joins Steve to talk about his new book Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time and the lessons that business leaders can take from sports champions and star performers and entertainers. Steve begins their conversation by asking what it is that sets the best baseball teams apart from their peers, what challenges they overcome—outside of the competitors they face on the field—and how these qualities and challenges might relate to business teams. Brubaker believes that “winningness” starts off the field. He sees parallels between the long baseball season and the timeframes that businesses must work within, as well as with the many ups and downs and adversities that both deal with. While some would argue that baseball is a game of failure imparting stoic lessons about endurance and acceptance, Brubaker sees it more as a game of opportunity, which he feels also describes business and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Winning With Team Chemistry Instead Of Star Power
Steve asks what can we learn from successful baseball teams, like the 2013 Boston Red Sox? First off, Brubaker suggests, winning is never accidental. He explains that as a lacrosse coach for 12 years, he came to realize that there were many years where his team had the most talent on the field, but that didn’t necessarily translate into winning games. Some teams had less talent but great chemistry, and these teams had the most successful seasons. He concludes that chemistry is more important than talent, whether in sports or business. In light of this, stockpiling talent at the expense of fostering chemistry, a common strategy in both worlds, can be a trap. Leading up to their World Series win in 2013, the Red Sox cut their payroll by $25 million and fired several star players and their manager. Within a few months, they catapulted from worst to first in their division. Brubaker calls this “addition by subtraction,” arguing that often you get better results by way of a deep recalculation of strategy than by piling on more talent.
Steve expands on this by noting that if you have malcontents among your ranks, even among star players or management, sometimes employee turnover can be a good thing. John concurs, stating that negativity can be a cancer which is all the more dangerous because it spreads faster than positivity. Whether it’s the locker room or the business workplace, it’s imperative to be mindful of the group chemistry, to get in front of any negativity, and to get the messaging which shapes team chemistry back on track.
Steve brings up another high-profile example of this from the baseball world: the case of Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols was a big star and widely considered the best hitter of his generation. Something wasn’t right with Pujols’ attitude and his relationships with his teammates, however, and management decided they had to let him go. Two seasons later, they made it to the World Series without him. Steve wonders how the Cardinals management was able to optimize the team’s chemistry so effectively. From the outside, it seems to Steve like a somewhat random process of mixing different personalities in beakers with unpredictable results. How do you control it?
Fostering Chemistry Through Building Team Of Role-Players
Brubaker replies that chemistry experiments of this sort are controlled through careful team-building. He believes that team success works more like chemistry than math. Basic arithmetic fails (two plus two doesn’t add up to four) when cultivating team chemistry, and the whole is either greater or less than the sum of its parts, not the same. Team-building chemistry depends on understanding individual skill sets and fitting them to roles that complement one another. In business as in sports, it makes more sense for most organizations to forget about recruiting the “finished product” of a champion team and to focus instead on developing their employees and skill sets in a way that plays to their strengths in specific roles.
“Role-player” should not be seen as a negative thing, Brubaker asserts, because at the end of the day everyone is a role-player. Steve observes that this sounds like the “Moneyball” concept in baseball, where each player is recruited and groomed for the specific attributes they bring to the team, and the art is how you put them together to form a cohesive unit. Brubaker talks about his recent work with the Pittsburgh Pirates during their spring training, and how, as a small-market team without the resources to pick up the best free-agent players, they’ve embraced the “Moneyball” concept on both offense and defense. He’s convinced that the way they’re capitalizing on individual players’ strengths, especially in terms of defensive roles and shifts, is going to catch a lot of their competitors flat-footed this year. The more important point, Brubaker adds, is that this approach can be a difference maker to business as well and that instead of chasing the frontrunners in a given field, we should dare to do things differently and blaze new trails.
Garth Brooks And Engaging With All Of Your Customers
Shifting gears, Steve asks Brubaker to talk about the goal of making customers for life, and how country music singer Garth Brooks epitomizes this idea in his concerts. Brooks is a major star at the top of the live music game, playing huge stadiums and the occasional massive outdoor concert. According to Brubaker, businesses can learn a lot about audience engagement and connection at a Garth Brooks show. One thing that sets him apart from his peers is the unusual way he scouts out the worst seats in the venue in which he’s performing to get an idea of what his unluckiest ticket holders will see during the show. He takes pains to get a concrete idea of the worst vantage points in the house so that he can make an extra effort to address those concertgoers in the most direct way possible during the show as if he were singing specifically to the people in those seats. In fact, he goes further, buying a block of front row seats and then inviting a select group of fans from the nosebleed sections to move to his first-row seats. Needless to say, this makes for a very special show for the lucky ones picked to move up front.
What lessons can business people extrapolate from Brooks’ approach to including all of his fans, especially the ones who can’t afford good seats? It’s not a far-fetched analogy to compare this with the challenge businesses face in reaching out to make their “smaller” customers feel important, to engender that “customer for life” loyalty within this group of small accounts. Brubaker has a nifty phrase that sums up the philosophy: “Little becomes big when little is treated right.” Instead of giving the lion’s share of your time and outreach efforts to key accounts (the highest revenue clients) it’s good business to also dedicate resources to creating a unique and outstanding experience for your smaller accounts, one that they won’t find among your competitors. In doing so, you nourish the relationship as well as the client’s business itself, putting yourself in position to enjoy their loyalty, growth, and word-of-mouth marketing over the years.
John Brubaker’s book is called Stadium Status: Taking Your Business to the Big Time, and it contains a wealth of insight and practical advice for performers and business owners across the spectrum.
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Steve Pomeranz: Now that the baseball season has officially started, it’s a good time to ponder some lessons to be learned from the teams that rise to the top. Performance consultant John Brubaker’s latest book, Stadium Status, peers into the world of the big time and what it takes for any of us in business or otherwise to fill a stadium like a country star. Welcome, John.
John Brubaker: Hey, Steve. Thanks for having me today.
Steve Pomeranz: You use baseball as a good metaphor for business because both are team sports. Is it what goes on before these teams hit the field that makes the big difference?
John Brubaker: It’s a lot of what goes on before the teams hit the field that makes all the difference, and it’s also … I think it parallels business in that it’s a really long season, and there’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of adversity. Some people might say baseball’s a game of failure, and that’s the parallel to business. I would say, really, it’s a game of opportunity, and that’s the parallel to business or entrepreneurship. So much of it is winning off the field before you ever win on the field, and it’s the same with organizational culture.
Steve Pomeranz: If I’m leading an organization or I’m leading a team, what can we learn from some of the more successful teams? You mention the Red Sox back in 2013 winning the World Series. What can we learn from something like that?
John Brubaker: Sure. I don’t think winning happens by accident ever, at any level, whether it’s the Red Sox World Series run compared to, say, the St. Louis Cardinals and their results on the field. I look back at a 12-year coaching career. I was a college lacrosse coach for 12 years, Steve, and there were many years when I had an awful lot of talent, more so than other teams on our schedule, but that didn’t always equate into wins in the record books. I look back at some of my teams where we had inferior talent but we had great chemistry, and those were our more successful seasons. I think chemistry counts for a lot more, whether it’s on the field or in the sport of business than talent. So often, we get caught in the trap of simply trying to stockpile talent.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.
John Brubaker: You look at what Boston did a couple of years ago before the start of the season. They cut their payroll by $25 million, and they got rid of a handful of star players and their manager, and a couple of months later, they’ve gone from worst to first. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction when it comes to your roster, so to speak.
Steve Pomeranz: If you’re working with a team and you’ve got some malcontents even among the star players and maybe a manager that’s got some issues as well, sometimes a turnover can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be disruptive, but a lot of times it can actually be quite beneficial.
John Brubaker: Absolutely. You talk about cancer in the human body. There’s also cancer in locker rooms in the form of malcontents, negative players. That spreads, and the negative tends to spread twice as fast as the positive in terms of messaging in the locker room. We have to be very mindful in our workplace. The locker room for a professional team is their workplace. We have to be just as mindful about the chemistry on our teams and making sure that the positive outweighs the negative, which is-
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah. I’m trying to get some kind of specific ideas for our listeners. You tell the story about the St. Louis Cardinals, that they let their free agent superstar Albert Pujols, who was, you say, arguably the greatest hitter of his generation, they let him go because he had a surly attitude. Shortly after the trade, it came out that he wasn’t a great teammate and so on. Two seasons later, they made it to the World Series without him. Where’s this chemistry? That’s what it all sounds like. You’re combining personalities in a beaker like a chemistry class, and what comes out can be quite variable. How do you control that?
John Brubaker: I think the way you control it, and you’re right, is team-building. Team success, if it were a course in school, it’s absolutely more like a chemistry class than a math class. Two plus two isn’t four on the field or in our businesses. Sometimes it’s three, and sometimes two plus two is five because the sum of the parts … The whole is never equal to the sum of the parts. It’s either greater or lesser. Where we get that chemistry is by looking at skill sets and people’s roles that can complement one another.
Yeah, it’s very rare, unless you’re the top brand in your industry, that you’re going to be able to “recruit” the finished product, kind of like a professional team. You’re going to have to develop people and their skill set but play to their strengths in a specific role. In teams, I always like to say everyone’s a role-player. It’s often looked at as a negative connotation, “Oh, so-and-so, well, he’s just a role-player.” Actually, everyone’s a role-player. Our roles are different and ought to be geared towards our strengths, and that’s where you get that two plus two is five.
Steve Pomeranz: It sounds a little bit like the Moneyball idea where you’ve got these different attributes, and I guess it’s really how you put them together to form some kind of a cohesive unit. More importantly, we just started with the baseball season. Which teams are you betting on this year?
John Brubaker: Speaking of Moneyball, I’m betting on my Pittsburgh Pirates. This is my second year working with the team. I just got back from spring training in Bradenton. I spent a couple of days down there speaking to their coaches. They’re a small-market team, and I think if you’re an entrepreneur or a business leader, you’re in this story, too. Most of us are small-market teams, so to speak, Steve, and we’ve got to find a way to do it differently.
They’ve really embraced not just the Moneyball concept in terms of offense, but defensive shifts and changing the way they play defensively to capitalize on their individual strengths to make the team stronger, but they’re doing things in such a unique, unorthodox way that they’re catching a lot of people by surprise. I think that’s going to be a difference-maker in everyone’s profession. We all tend to try and keep up with the frontrunner as opposed to blazing our own trail and doing it differently.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, what are you doing differently.
John Brubaker: Yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is John Brubaker. His book is Stadium Status, and one of the things he talks about that I want to get to next is creating customers for life, how Garth Brooks uses the worst seats in the house. Tell us about that.
John Brubaker: Sure. First of all, if you haven’t seen Garth Brooks in concert, you owe it to yourself just to get to a show. Whether you’re a country music fan or not, success leaves clues, and you’re going to learn a lot about audience engagement and connection with your customers from watching Garth in his office, so to speak. It all starts before he ever sets foot onstage, Steve. I’m a huge country music fan. I’ve had the opportunity to see him live a number of times, once in a very small venue, Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, and another time with a couple of other million maniacs in Central Park when he performed that live show a number of years ago. It was 1997.
You got the sense that no matter where you are—you could be in the worst seat in the house, the back of Central Park—that at some point during a song, a set, the show, he’s looking at you and he is singing directly to you. Anyone who’s seen Garth has experienced this, I would venture to say. What it stems from is the morning of his show, what he does while the crew is setting up the stage and the lighting and doing their sound checks and things, he goes up and he sits in the nosebleeds, in that obstructed-view seat in the arena or the stadium, and he just sits up there in his sweats and his ball cap, sipping a cup of coffee, looking at the stage.
What he’s doing is he’s getting his worst customers’ vantage point, how they’re going to see him that night onstage. He knows where they’re looking, what they’re looking at, how far away they are, and he makes a very deliberate attempt to connect with them. He took a little bit of criticism, more than a little bit of criticism earlier in his career when he would fly out on wires off of the stage, out into the crowd, and people thought he was an egomaniac and he was doing that for show, like he thought he was a rock star like Kiss or Van Halen. It wasn’t for show. It was for his fans because you might not be able to afford front-row seats, but for that song, that moment when he flies out there, he is singing to you and you have a front-row experience right there. It takes-
Steve Pomeranz: I think there’s a strong lesson for any business, small business, large business, how does the small business get to their customer that is maybe not the most … Maybe they’re all important, but you can’t get out to them. You don’t have the manpower and so on. What do you do to service them, to keep customers for life? What do you think?
John Brubaker: Yeah, I think little becomes big when you treat little right. What I mean by that is in each of his shows … He has since made his comeback to where he’s … I’m happy to see he’s doing the same thing now that he did when he was originally out touring. He has it written into each of his contracts that he gets … He pays out of pocket for this, it’s my understanding. He gets a set of front-row seats that he pays for and he sends an usher up to the back row, into the obstructed-view seats, and gets that family of four and says, “Hey, I think you’re in the wrong seat.” If you’re sitting back there, you turn around and you’re looking at a cinderblock wall. Does it get worse than this?
Steve Pomeranz: Ah, that’s great.
John Brubaker: Steve, it’s almost theater because he then has the usher say, “Mr. Brooks sent me up here. You’re in the front row with him tonight.” Imagine if we all took that approach, instead of focusing just on our “key accounts,” our biggest accounts, we developed and cemented that same kind of loyalty from our smallest customers who, over time … Then that small customer grows and you give them an experience like no one else could possibly or would possibly give them.
Steve Pomeranz: There’s a lot there. There’s a lot in this book. If you’re a small business owner or a medium or a large business owner, it’s worth it to take a look at this book. I think you’ll gain a lot from it. The book’s name is Stadium Status. The author, with me today, is John Brubaker.
John, thank you so much for joining me today.
John Brubaker: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Steve.