Remembering an Anniversary

A year ago I forgot to commemorate the 20th anniversary of my retirement on this date in 1997. I will compensate for my lapse by commenting at length this year.

Today is the 21st anniversary of my retirement from full-time employment at a defense think-tank. (I later, and briefly, ventured into part-time employment for the intellectual fulfillment it offered. But it became too much like work, and so I retired in earnest.) If your idea of a think-tank is an outfit filled with hacks who spew glib, politically motivated “policy analysis“, you have the wrong idea about the think-tank where I worked. For most of its history, it was devoted to rigorous, quantitative analysis of military tactics, operations, and systems. Most of its analysts held advanced degrees in STEM fields and economics — about two-thirds of them held Ph.D.s.

I had accumulated 30 years of employment at the think-tank when I retired. (That was in addition to four years as a Pentagon “whiz kid” and owner-operator of a small business.) I spent my first 17 years at the think-tank in analytical pursuits, which included managing other analysts and reviewing their work. I spent the final 13 years on the think-tank’s business side, and served for 11 of those 13 years as chief financial and administrative officer.

I take special delight in observing the anniversary of my retirement because it capped a subtle campaign to arrange the end of my employment on favorable financial terms. The success of the campaign brought a profitable end to a bad relationship with a bad boss.

I liken the campaign to fly-fishing: I reeled in a big fish by accurately casting an irresistible lure then playing the fish into my net. I have long wondered whether my boss ever grasped what I had done and how I had done it. The key was patience; more than a year passed between my casting of the lure and the netting of the fish (early retirement with a financial sweetener). Without going into the details of my “fishing expedition,” I can translate them into the elements of success in any major undertaking:

  • strategy — a broad and feasible outline of a campaign to attain a major objective
  • intelligence — knowledge of the opposition’s objectives, resources, and tactical repertoire, supplemented by timely reporting of his actual moves (especially unanticipated ones)
  • resources — the physical and intellectual wherewithal to accomplish the strategic objective while coping with unforeseen moves by the opposition and strokes of bad luck
  • tactical flexibility — a willingness and ability to adjust the outline of the campaign, to fill in the outline with maneuvers that take advantage of the opposition’s errors, and to compensate for one’s own mistakes and bad luck
  • and — as mentioned — a large measure of patience, especially when one is tempted either to quit or escalate blindly.

My patience was in the service of my felt need to quit the think-tank as it had become under the direction of my boss, the CEO. He had politicized an organization whose effectiveness depended upon its long-standing (and mostly deserved) reputation for independence and objectivity. That reputation rested largely on the organization’s emphasis on empirical research, as opposed to the speculative “policy analysis” that he favored. Further, he — as an avowed Democrat — was also in thrall to political correctness (e.g., a foolish and futile insistence on trying to give blacks a “fair share” of representation on the research staff, despite the paucity of qualified blacks with requisite qualifications). There are other matters that are best left unmentioned, despite the lapse of 21 years.

Because of a special project that I was leading, I could have stayed at the think-tank for at least another three years, had I the stomach for it. And in those three years my retirement fund and savings would have grown to make my retirement more comfortable. But the stress of working for a boss whom I disrespected was too great, so I took the money and ran. And despite occasional regrets, which are now well in the past, I am glad of it.

All of this is by way of prelude to some lessons that I gleaned from my years of work — lessons that may be of interest and value to readers.

If you are highly conscientious (as I am), your superiors will hold a higher opinion of your work than you do. You must constantly remind yourself that you are probably doing better than you think you are. In other words, you should be confident of your ability, because if you feel confident (not self-deluded or big-headed, just confident), you will be less fearful of making mistakes and more willing to venture into new territory. Your value to the company will be enhanced by your self-confidence and by your (justified) willingness to take on new challenges.

When you have established yourself as a valued contributor, you will be better able to stand up to a boss who is foolish, overbearing, incompetent (either singly or in combination). Rehearse your grievances carefully, confront the boss, and then go over his head if he shrugs off your complaints or retaliates against you. But go over his head only if you are confident of (a) your value to the company, (b) the validity of your complaints, and (c) the fair-mindedness of your boss’s boss. (I did this three times in my career. I succeeded in getting rid of a boss the first two times. I didn’t expect to succeed the third time, but it was worth a try because it positioned me for my cushioned exit.)

Patience, which I discussed earlier, is a key to successfully ridding yourself of a bad boss. Don’t push the boss’s boss. He has to admit (to himself) the mistake that he made in appointing your boss. And he has to find a graceful way to retract the mistake.

Patience is also a key to advancement. Never openly campaign for someone else’s job. I got my highest-ranking job simply by positioning myself for it. The big bosses took it from there and promoted me.

On the other hand, if you can invent a job at which you know you’ll succeed — and if that job is clearly of value to the company — go for it. I did it once, and my performance in the job that I invented led to my highest-ranking position.

Through all of that, be prepared to go it alone. Work “friendships” are usually transitory. Your colleagues are (rightly) concerned with their own preservation and advancement. Do not count on them when it comes to fighting battles — like getting rid of a bad boss. More generally, do not count on them. (See the first post listed below.)

Finally, having been a manager for more than half of my 30 years at the think-tank, I learned some things that are spelled out in the third post listed below. Read it if you are a manager, aspiring to be a manager, or simply intrigued by the “mystique” of management.


Related posts:

The Best Revenge
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
How to Manage
Not-So-Random Thoughts (V) (first entry)

More Lessons from Baseball

Regular readers of this blog will know that I sometimes draw on the game of baseball and its statistics to make points about various subjects — longevity, probability, politics, management, and cosmology, for example. (See the links at the bottom of this post.)

Today’s sermon is about the proper relationship between owners and management. I will address two sets of graphs giving the won-lost (W-L) records of the “old 16” major-league franchises. The “old 16” refers to the 8 franchises in the National League (NL) and the 8 franchises in American League (AL) in 1901, the first year of the AL’s existence as a major league. Focusing on the “old 16” affords the long view that’s essential in thinking about success in an endeavor, whether it is baseball, business, or empire-building.

The first graph in each set gives the centered 11-year average W-L record for each of the old teams in each league, and for the league’s expansion teams taken as a group. The 11-year averages are based on annual W-L records for 1901-2013. The subsequent graphs in each set give, for each team and group of expansion teams, 11-year averages and annual W-L records. Franchise moves from one city to another are indicated by vertical black lines. The titles of each graph indicates the city or cities in which the team has been located and the team’s nickname or nicknames.

Here are the two sets of graphs:

W-L records of old-8 NL franchises

W-L records of old-8 AL franchises

What strikes me about the first graph in each set is the convergence of W-L records around 1990. My conjecture: The advent of free agency in the 1970s must have enabled convergence. Stability probably helped, too. The AL had been stable since 1977, when it expanded to 14 teams; the NL had been stable since 1969, when it expanded to 12 teams. As the expansion teams matured, some of them became more successful, at the expense of the older teams. This explanation is consistent with the divergence after 1993, with the next round of expansion (there was another in 1998). To be sure, all of this conjecture warrants further analysis. (Here’s an analysis from several years ago that I still like.)

Let’s now dispose of franchise shifts as an explanation for a better record. I observe the following:

The Braves were probably on the upswing when they moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953. They were on the downswing at the time of their second move, from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. It took many years and the acquisition of astute front office and a good farm system to turn the Braves around.

The Dodgers’ move to LA in 1958 didn’t help the team, just the owners’ bank accounts. Ditto the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958.

Turning to the AL, the St. Louis Browns became the latter-day Baltimore Orioles in 1954. That move was accompanied by a change in ownership. The team’s later successes seem to have been triggered by the hiring of Paul Richards and Lee McPhail to guide the team and build its farm system. The Orioles thence became a good-to-great from the mid-1960 to early 1980s, with a resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The team’s subsequent decline seems due to the meddlesome Peter Angelos, who became CEO in 1993.

The Athletics, like the Braves, moved twice. First, in 1955 from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and again in 1968 from Kansas City to Oakland. The first move had no effect until Charles O. Finley took over the team. His ownership carried over to Oakland. Finley may have been the exceptional owner whose personal involvement in the team’s operations helped to make it successful. But the team’s post-Finely record (1981-present) under less-involved owners suggests otherwise. The team’s pre-Kansas City record reflects Connie Mack’s tight-fisted ways. Mack — owner-manager of the A’s from 1901 until 1950 — was evidently a good judge of talent and a skilled field manager, but as an owner he had a penchant for breaking up great teams to rid himself of high-priced talent — with disastrous consequences for the A’s W-L record from the latter 1910s to late 1920s, and from the early 1930s to the end of Mack’s reign.

The Washington Senators were already resurgent under owner Calvin Griffith when the franchise was moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season. The Twins simply won more consistently than they had under the tight-fisted ownership of Clark Griffith, Calvin’s father.

Bottom line: There’s no magic in a move. A team’s success depends on the willingness of owners to spend bucks and to hire good management — and then to get out of the way. (Yes, George Steinbrenner bankrolled a lot of pennant-winning teams during his ownership years, from 1973 to 2010, but the Yankees’ record improved as “The Boss” became a less-intrusive owner from the mid-1990s until his death.)

There are many other stories behind the graphs — just begging to be told, but I’ll leave it at that.

Except to say this: The “owners” of America aren’t “the people,” romantic political pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding. As government has become more deeply entrenched in the personal and business affairs of Americans, there has emerged a ruling class which effectively “owns” America. It is composed of professional politicians and bureaucrats, who find ample aid and comfort in the arms of left-wing academicians and the media. The “owners’ grip on power is sustained by the votes of the constituencies to which they pander.

Yes, the constituencies include “crony capitalists,” who benefit from regulatory barriers to competition and tax breaks. Though it must be said that they produce things, and would probably do well without the benefits they reap from professional politicians and bureaucrats. Far more powerful are the non-producers, who are granted favors based on their color, gender, age, etc., in return for the tens of millions of votes that they cast to keep the “owners” in power.

Far too many Americans are whiners who grovel at the feet of their “owners,” begging for handouts. Far too few Americans are self-managed winners.

*     *     *

Related posts:

Do Managers Make a Difference?

INTRODUCTION

The activity of managing ranges from the supervision of one other person in the performance of a menial task to the supervision of the executive branch of the government of the United States. (The latter is a fair description of a president’s constitutional responsibility.) And there are many criteria for judging managers, not all of which are unambiguous or conducive to precise quantification. It may be easy, for example, to determine whether a ditch was dug on time and within budget. But what if the manager’s methods alienated workers, causing some of them to quit when the job was done and requiring the company to recruit and train new workers at some expense?

Or consider the presidency. What determines whether an incumbent is doing a good job? Polls? They are mere opinions, mostly based on impressions and political preferences, not hard facts. The passage by Congress of legislation proposed by the president? By that measure, Obama earns points for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which if not repealed will make health care less affordable and less available.

Given the impossibility of arriving at a general answer to the tittle question, I will turn — as is my wont — to the game of baseball. You might think that the plethora of baseball statistics would yield an unambiguous answer with respect to major-league managers. As you’ll see, that’s not so.

WHAT BASEBALL STATISTICS REVEAL (OR DON’T)

Data Source

According to this page at Baseball-Reference.com, 680 different men have managed teams in the history of major-league baseball, which is considered to have begun in 1871 with the founding of the National Association. Instead of reaching that far back into the past, when the game was primitive by comparison with today’s game, I focus on men whose managing careers began in 1920 or later. It was 1920 that marked the beginning of the truly modern era of baseball, with its emphasis on power hitting. (This modern era actually consists of six sub-eras. See this and this.) In this modern era, which now spans 1920 through 2013, 399 different men have managed major-league teams. That is a sizable sample from which I had hoped to draw firm judgments about whether baseball managers, or some of them, make a difference.

Won-Lost Record

The “difference” in question is a manager’s effect — or lack thereof — on the success of his team, as measured by its won-lost (W-L) record. For the benefit of non-fans, W-L record, usually denoted W-L%, is determined by the following simple equation: W/(W + L), that is, games won divided by games won plus games lost. (The divisor isn’t number of games played because sometimes, though rarely, a baseball game is played to a tie.) Thus a team that wins 81 of its 162 games in a season has a W-L record of .500 for that season. (In baseball statistics, it is customary to omit the “0” before the decimal point, contrary to mathematical convention.)

Quantifying Effectiveness

I’m about to throw some numbers at you. But I must say more about the samples that I used in my analysis. The aggregate-level analysis described in the next section draws on the records of a subset of the 399 men whose managerial careers are encompassed in the 1920-2013 period. The subset consists of the 281 men who managed at least 162 games, which (perhaps not coincidentally) has been the number of games in a regulation season since the early 1960s. I truncated the sample where I did because the W-L records of mangers with 162 or more games are statistically better (significance level of 0.05) than the W-L records of managers with fewer than 162 games. In other words, a manager who makes it through a full season is likely to have passed a basic test of management ability: not losing “too many” games. (I address this subjective assessment later in the post.)

Following the aggregate-level analysis, I turn to an individual-level analysis of the records of those managers who led a team for at least five consecutive seasons. (I allowed into the sample some managers whose fifth full season consisted of a partial season in year 1 and a partial season in year 6, as long as the number of games in the two partial seasons added to the number of games in a full season, or nearly so. I also included a few managers whose service with a particular team was broken by three years or less.) Some managers led more than one team for at least five consecutive seasons, and each such occurrence is counted separately. For reasons that will become evident, the five seasons had to begin no earlier than 1923 and end no later than 2010.  The sample size for this analysis is 63 management tours accomplished by 47 different managers.

Results and Inferences: Aggregate Level

“Just the facts” about the sub-sample of 281 managers:

Number of games managed vs W-L record

The exponential equation, though statistically significant, tells us that W-L record explains only about 21 percent of the variation in number of games managed, which spans 162 to 5,097.

Looking closer, I found that the 28 managers in the top decile of games managed (2,368 to 5,097) have a combined W-L record of .526. But their individual W-L records range from .477 to .615, and eight of the managers compiled a career W-L record below .500. Perhaps the losers did the best they could with the teams they had. Perhaps, but it’s also quite possible that the winners were blessed with teams that made them look good. In any event, the length of a manager’s career may have little to do with his effectiveness as a manager.

Which brings me to the next topic.

Results and Inferences: Individual Level

This view is more complicated.  As mentioned above, I focused on those 47 managers who on 63 separate occasions led their respective teams for at least five consecutive seasons (with minor variations). To get at each manager’s success (or failure) during each management tour, I compared his W-L record during a tour with the W-L record of the same team in the preceding and following three seasons.

My aim in choosing five years for the minimum span of a manager’s tenure with a team was to avoid judging a manager’s performance on the basis of an atypical year or two. My aim in looking three years back and three years ahead was to establish a baseline against which to compare the manager’s performance. I could have chosen on time spans, of course, but a plausible story ensues from the choices that I made.

First, here is a graphical view of the relationship between each of the 63 managerial stints and the respective before-and-after records of the teams involved:

Manager's W-L record vs. baseline

A clue to deciphering the graph: Look at the data point toward the upper-left corner labeled “Sewell SLB 41-46.” The label gives the manager’s last name (Sewell for Luke Sewell, in this case), the team he managed (SLB = St. Louis Browns), and the years of his tenure (1941-46). (In the table below, all names, teams, and dates are spelled out, for all 63 observations.) During Sewell’s tenure, the Browns’ W-L record was .134 points above the average of .378 attained by the Browns in 1938-40 and 1947-49. That’s an impressive performance, and it stands well above the 68-percent confidence interval. (Confidence intervals represent the range within which certain percentages of observations are expected to fall.)

The linear fit (equation in lower-left corner) indicates a statistically significant negative relationship between the change in a team’s fortunes during a manager’s tenure and the team’s baseline performance. The negative relationship means that there is a strong tendency to “regress toward the mean,” that is toward a record that is consistent with the quality of a team’s players. In other words, the negative relationship indicates that a team’s outstanding or abysmal record my owe nothing (or very little) to a manager’s efforts.

In fact, relatively few managers succeeded in leading their teams significantly far (up or down) from baseline performance. Those managers are indicated by green (good) and red (bad) in the preceding graph.

The following table gives a rank-ordering of all 47 managers in their 63 management stints. The color-coding indicates the standing of a particular performance with respect to the trend (green = above trend, red = below trend). The shading indicates the standing of a particular performance with respect to the confidence intervals: darkest shading = above and below the 95-percent confidence interval; medium shading = between the 68-percent and 95-percent confidence intervals; lightest shading = between the 68-percent confidence intervals.

Ranking of manager's performances

Of the 63 performances, 4 of them (6.3 percent) lie outside the 95-percent confidence interval; 13 of them (20.6 percent) are between the 68-percent and 95-percent confidence intervals; the other 46 (73.0) percent are in the middle, and statistically indistinguishable.

Billy Southworth’s tour as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1940-45 (#1) stands alone above the 95-percent confidence interval. Two of Bucky Harris’s four stints rank near the bottom (#61 and #62) just above Ralph Houk’s truly abysmal performance as manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1974-78 (#63).

Southworth’s tenure with the Cardinals is of a piece with his career W-L record (.597), and with his above-average performance as manager of the Boston Braves in 1946-51 (# 18). Harris had a mixed career, as indicated by his overall W-L record of .493 and two above-average tours as manager (#22 and #26). Houk’s abysmal record with the Tigers was foretold by his below-average tour as manager of the Yankees, a broken tenure that spanned 1961-73 (#47).

Speaking of the Yankees, will the real Casey Stengel please stand up? Is he the “genius” with an above-average record as Yankees manager in 1949-60, (#13) or the “bum” with a dismal record as skipper of the Boston Bees/Braves in 1938-42 (#56)? (Stengel’s ludicrous three-and-a-half-year tour as manager of the hapless New York Mets of 1962-65 isn’t on the list because of its brevity. It should be noted, however, that the Mets improved gradually after Stengel’s departure, and won the World Series in 1969.)

Stengel is one of seven managers with a single-season performance below the 68-percent confidence level. Four of the seven — Harris, Houk, Stengel, and Tom Kelly (late of the Minnesota Twins) — are among the top decile on the games-managed list. The top decile also includes seven managers who turned in performances that rank above the 68-percent confidence interval: Earl Weaver, Bobby Cox, Al Lopez, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Joe McCarthy, and Charlie Grimm (#s 2-4 and 6-9).

I could go on and on about games managed vs. performance, but it boils down to this: If there were a strong correlation between the rank-order of managers’ performances in the preceding table and the number of games they managed in their careers, it would approach -1.00. (Minus because the the best performance is ranked #1 and the worst is ranked #68.) But the correlation between between rank and number of games managed in a career is only -0.196, a “very weak” correlation in the parlance of statistics.

In summary, when it comes to specific management stints, Southworth’s performance in 1940-45 was clearly superlative; the performances of Harris (1929-33, 1935-42) and Houk (1974-78) were clearly awful. In between those great and ghastly performance lie a baker’s dozen that probably merit cheers or Bronx cheers. A super-majority of the performances (the 73 percent in the middle) probably have little to do with management skills and a lot to do with other factors, to which I will come.

The Bottom Line

It’s safe to say that the number of games managed is, at best, a poor reflection of managerial ability. What this means is that (a) few managers exert a marked influence on the performance of their teams and (b) managers, for the most part, are dismissed or kept around for reasons other than their actual influence on performance. Both points are supported by the two preceding sections.

More tellingly, both points are consistent with the time-tested observation that “they” couldn’t fire the team, so “they” fired the manager.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The numbers confirm what I saw in 30 years of being managed and 22 (overlapping) years of managing: The selection of managers is at least as random as their influence on what they manage. This is true not only in baseball but wherever there are managers, that is, throughout the world of commerce (including its entertainment sectors), the academy, and government.

The is randomness for several reasons. First, there is the difficulty of specifying managerial objectives that are measurable and consistent. A manager’s basic task might be to attain a specific result (e.g., winning more games than the previous manager, winning at least a certain number of games, turning a loss into a profit). But a manager might also be expected to bring peace and harmony to a fractious workplace. And the manager might also be charged with maintainng a”diverse” workplace and avoiding charges of discrimination? Whatever the tasks, their specification is often arbitrary and, in large organizations, impossible to relate the objective to an overarching organization goal (e.g., attaining a profit target).

Who knows if it’s possible to win more games or turn a loss into a profit, given the competition, the quality of the workforce, etc.? Is a harmonious workplace more productive than a fractious one if a fractious one is a sign of productive competitiveness?  How does one square “diversity” and forbearance toward the failings of the “diverse” (to avoid discrimination charges), while also turning a profit?

Given the complexity of management, at which I’ve only hinted, and the difficulty of judging managers, even when their “output” is well-defined (e.g., W-L record), it’s unsurprising that the ranks of managers are riddled with the ineffective and the incompetent. And such traits are often tolerated and even rewarded (e.g., raise, promotion, contract extension). Why? Here are some of the reasons:

  • Unwillingness to admit that it was a mistake to hire or promote a manager
  • A manager’s likeability or popularity
  • A manager’s connections to higher-ups
  • The cost and difficulty of firing a manager (e.g., severance pay, contract termination clauses, possibility of discrimination charges)
  • Inertia — Things seem to be going well enough, and no one has an idea of how well they should be going).

The good news is that relatively few managers make a big difference. The bad news is that the big difference is just as likely to be negative as it is to be positive. And for the reasons listed above, abysmal managers will not be rooted out until they have done a lot of damage.

So, yes, some managers — though relatively few — make a difference. But that difference is likely to prove disastrous. Just look at the course of the United States over the past 80 years.

The Candle Problem: Balderdash Masquerading as Science

For a complete treatment of the Candle Problem and several other cases of balderdash masquerading as science, go here.

In summary:

The Candle Problem is an interesting experiment, and probably valid with respect to the performance of specific tasks against tight deadlines. I think the results apply whether the stakes are money or any other kind of prize. The experiment illustrates the “choke” factor, and nothing more profound than that.

I question whether the experiment applies to the usual kind of incentive (e.g., a commissions or bonus), where the “incentee” has ample time (months, years) for reflection and research that will enable him to improve his performance and attain a bigger commission or bonus (which usually isn’t an all-or-nothing arrangement).

There’s also the dissimilarity of the Candle Problem — which involves more-or-less randomly chosen subjects, working against an artificial deadline — and actual creative thinking — usually involving persons who are experts (even if the expertise is as mundane as ditch-digging), working against looser deadlines or none at all.