On October 31, 2011, baseball legend Tony La Russa announced his retirement as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Announced just three days after the Cardinals won the World Series, La Russa’s retirement follows an impressive, 16-year career with the Cardinals and 33-season career in Major League Baseball (MLB). He was also the third winningest manager in MLB history—behind only Connie Mack and John McGraw.
You don’t have to be a Cardinals fan (or even a baseball fan) to appreciate the success and longevity of La Russa’s career. He had what all leaders strive to and rarely attain—the perfect balance of “hard” and “soft” skills. Amid today’s fast-paced nature of business, it’s more common for leaders to focus on their “hard” skills—the level of education they’ve earned, the number of sales they’ve secured and the overall financial impact they’ve made on their company—than their “soft” skills, or people skills. It’s a trend that’s been emphasized repeatedly in media headlines: as businesses continue to do “more with less,” employees are experiencing less job satisfaction and engagement as their employers focus solely on company analytics instead of developing their people.
However the “soft” skills—relationship building, empathy and the ability to influence and inspire—are vital to building a highly engaged and successful environment, whether on a team or within the workplace. Although La Russa mastered the “hard” skills (he earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Florida State University College of Law, studied extensively in preparation for games and executed intricate game plans), what made him truly successful were his “soft” skills. One renowned player, Albert Pujols, said La Russa “is not only my manager; he’s like a daddy to me.” Never lacking respect amongst his players, La Russa inspired his players to do what they didn’t think they were capable of, often transforming discouraged players into local heroes. In addition, he was constantly protective of his team and would not back down from the competition or detractors in the press, telling one reporter “I’m not saying I’m smarter than you, but I know our club a lot better than you do.”
How many of today’s bosses have their employees’ backs the way La Russa did? How many leaders inspire those around them to do what they didn’t think was possible? According to a recent Corporate Executive Board (CEB) study featured in the Wall Street Journal that aggregated data of more than 4,300 exit interviews, three-quarters of departing employees would not recommend their previous employer to others.
Amid today’s uncertain economic times, it’s important to have advanced degrees, certifications and technical skills to perform well on the job. However, leaders can make themselves and their companies stand apart by mastering the “soft” skills—the skills necessary to connect with people on a deeper level to relate, inspire and create a positive work environment that fosters employee enjoyment, growth and productivity.
That is how La Russa commanded the respect of his players and left his mark as the third winningest coach in professional baseball. No matter what the profession, having the ability to continually plan and prepare while motivating and inspiring those around you, as La Russa did, adds up to a winning formula—both inside and outside of the ballpark.
Dr. Paul H. Eccher is the co-founder and principal of The Vaya Group , a Talent Management consultancy that applies science and precision to the art of talent assessment and development. He is also the co-author of Optimizing Talent: What Every Leader and Manager Needs to Know to Sustain the Ultimate Workforce.
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