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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Strong culture could help progressives win big




Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

 

Last week, we talked about how conflict avoidance within an organization causes many problems, especially with strategy.  To create and maintain a successful strategy, an organization must be able to have an open conversation with various stakeholders about Point A (the present state of affairs), Point B (the vision of what you want to achieve, what ultimate success looks like), and your values and mission (what role your organization plays in achieving the vision). 

 

Only when you have worked through conflicts and disagreements, and found a workable level of clarity and unity, can you go about developing a real and effective roadmap between A and B: in other words, your strategy.  Which will always be evolving.

 

All this can be a time-consuming, difficult and exhausting – also exhilarating – process.  As I said last week, going through it is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a high-functioning and successful organization.  Today I’ll talk about another aspect of successful organizations – strong culture.  I’ll look at a good source from the business world for inspiration.

 

Feel free to share other resources you like from the political or nonprofit world. I would like to know more about what’s out there.  Two books I do know that speak well to these issues on the nonprofit side are Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership (1995), and Creative Community Organizing by Si Kahn, who is, among many things, “a committed organizer and institution builder” (per Miles Rapoport) (2010).

 

Strong Culture Breeds Pride, Strong People, Measurable Success

 

Strong culture creates pride and unity around the mission, and commitment to doing the work to achieve it. A place with a strong culture is a place where people can do their best work, trust others to do the same, and make their own decisions to get the job done. Places with strong culture attract and keep good people and deliver better results.

 

Thinking about the organizational problems of progressives reminded me of an article I read back in the 90’s in Fast Company magazine.  It’s called “He Breeds Dodger Blue,” and it’s about Charlie Blaney, then-VP of minor league operations for the LA Dodgers baseball team.  They were known for having the best farm team in the business.  A ridiculously high percentage of Dodger rookies became Rookies of the Year.  The team won many division titles, league titles,  and World Series too.

 

In Blaney’s role, he scouted promising talent in the minor leagues and brought them to the majors, developing them and training them in the Dodger way of winning.

 

Political organizations may have fewer resources and more complex goals than the Dodgers did.  But they can learn important lessons from how the Dodgers operated.*

 

The Role Of Talent In Winning

 

Blaney says: “Our goal is to win the league championship, and then to win the World Series. It takes quality players to do that. So our goal is to find every quality player we can.”  Whether your goal is to win the World Series, the Senate, or get police reform through the State Legislature, it takes quality people to do that. 

 

Growing Your Own Talent

 

The best way to get these quality people is to grow your own.  Get them young, and teach them how to win – how YOUR ORGANIZATION wins. You pay less than you would to hire an established talent (good news for tight budgets).  As Blaney says, “You can’t impart that pride and tradition when you just go sign a free agent. They don’t really understand the Dodger Way until they’ve been here awhile.” 

 

You can’t do this with every position.  But the more you do it, the better off you’ll be.

 

The Dodgers had many scouts out looking for talent around the world.  They kept detailed records on every player of interest, so they’d have a big pool to draw from.

 

Blaney says, “Part of our development in the minor leagues is to teach the player, ‘You’re here to win.’ We want them to beat the other teams in rookie ball and Class A and Class AA and Class AAA, so when they get to Los Angeles, they’ve been beating the other teams for years. It’s nothing new.”  In a political organization, an analogue might be to start them on a small campaign, or a small part of a big campaign, or in a smaller town before tackling the big city. Perhaps get them a buddy who is really good at what they’re being trained to do.

 

Teaching People About The Culture

 

As soon someone joined the Dodgers, they would watch a movie.  This movie covered “the history of the organization, and goes through all of the players who’ve been part of the Dodgers.” The team also had meetings for the new players three nights a week, where they would “bring in guest speakers to talk about how to plan for life after baseball, how to handle your money, what it is to have pride in the Dodgers’ tradition.”  They showed that they were a caring organization, and people felt that.  Low turnover was one result.

 

A political organization should be able to make a good video about themselves, their supporters, etc.  You could also show movies or bring in speakers from other organizations in your space or other movements to give a bigger picture of your political place in the world.  There are no doubt other “life support” types of information and resources you could offer that would help people get a picture of your organization as caring.  Something as simple as making sure a new hire gets a tee shirt or jacket right away – which not everyone does – can help new hires feel at home.

 

 Assessing Talent

 

Blaney says that in baseball, there are five basic skills that players are judged on, and they’re easily measurable (a key attribute): hitting, hitting with power, fielding, running, and throwing. Scouts have stopwatches to see how fast a player can run, and they know what major league standards are in each category.

 

But there’s also a sixth attribute, one that Blaney says is actually the most important.  He calls it “makeup” – basically who the player is as a person, work habits, desire, drive, attitude, discipline.  As you know if you’ve been on earth any length of time, some people have great skills but not the “makeup,” and they don’t make it.  Others have only medium skills but great makeup – they love the game – and they can make it.

 

If you’re a manager, it’s your job to define what skills matter for your staff, and be able to assess them.  There are different things that matter for organizers, researchers, policy experts, communications people, fundraisers, etc.  It is also your job to assess that less-measurable “makeup.”   Someone may come to you about one job, or already have a job with you, but they would really be better and happier doing something else.  Getting a person in the right role is really important for success.

 

The Dodgers had the resources to devote 3-5 years to bringing talent up through the minors, even though only 10% or less would ever make it to the majors.  You probably don’t.  But here’s a reason to make it your business to observe people out in your world, to be visible and open for people to contact you, and get to know promising potential recruits even if you don’t have a job opening at the moment.  If you do that, you’re more likely to see that diamond in the rough with the right attitude, and snap them up when the time is right. I have nothing against recruiters, but hey, you could save money on recruitment fees if you spent time on these things on a regular basis.

 

Conclusion

 

Culture matters.  Strong culture helps you get and keep good people, and you need good people to win. Like conflict literacy, strong culture won’t necessarily be easy or quick to build.  But it would be more fun! 

 

 

*Sadly, in the new millennium, the Dodgers were sold several times. As often happens after a sale, existing leaders and their culture were jettisoned – it had been a family business - and the Dodgers have been far less successful since.  But their system delivered phenomenal results for decades before the crash. And they did win the Series in 2020, for the first time since 1988.

 

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