Category Archives: Baseball

In praise of the ebullient worker

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Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day. Continue reading

Too much managing, just enough leadership

As you might’ve heard, they played a baseball game Wednesday night. The Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, to win their first World Series championship in over 100 years.

The game reminded us that leading is different from managing.

Business consultant Liane Davey says that when times are good and managing is easy (like when your team is ahead 8-0), leading — imparting a shared vision and guiding the team toward it — is still vital.

Then, when times are tough, when it’s the last game of the World Series and the score is tied in the ninth inning, it’s leading, not managing, that comes to the fore.

Managing and then some

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A manager (Joe Maddon)

Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, the Cubs’ and Indians’ managers, are good leaders. Their players say so. Their success — they’ve both been to the World Series more than once — says so.

Both men are also known for their unorthodox managing styles. The tactical decisions they make during games can be bewildering. Sometimes they get carried away.

During the World Series Maddon and Francona seemed to be competing to see who could be the most hands-on manager. It was especially evident in the way they handled their pitchers.

On Wednesday night, the gamesmanship caught up with them: both teams reached the ninth inning with the score tied and their best relief pitchers either unavailable (because they’d pitched earlier in the game) or ineffective (because of overwork).

It was a classic case of overmanaging. Had Maddon and Francona stuck to more traditional methods, each one would’ve had a better hand to play in the late stages of the game.

Then, nature decided to play its hand. With the score still tied and the game about to enter extra innings, a brief but intense rain shower forced an interruption in play.

Leading at just the right moment

For most of the Cubs, emotionally down after blowing a 4-run lead, the rain delay probably compounded their gloom. They didn’t know it would turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.

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A leader (Jason Heyward)

As his Cubs teammates trudged into the locker room, outfielder Jason Heyward called to them. They knew Heyward, a 7-year major-league veteran, as someone who was quiet but grounded, a steadying influence in the clubhouse.

Now Heyward called the tired, discouraged players together for an impromptu meeting. We’re the best team in baseball, he told them. Let’s relax, play hard, and win this game. Then some of the others spoke up: We’re brothers. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re not going to give up.

A half-hour later, the game was over and the Cubs were champions. Several of Heyward’s teammates credited the ten-minute meeting with settling their nerves, turning around the game, and saving the team’s season.

It was a little bit of leadership, delivered at just the right moment by someone with no formal job title — no “coach” or “manager” next to his name. Heyward had something better than a job title: he had the respect of his co-workers, his teammates. He also had the instinct and the courage to lead when it mattered most.

It’s not my intention to disparage either of the managers in that game. Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, especially deserves credit for creating a culture where his team is united, where they’ve got each other’s backs, and where a player feels empowered to speak up.

Where, when the guy with “manager” next to his name gets carried away managing, a leader can step forward and buoy the team.

Image sources: Associated Press (Maddon), Chicago Cubs (Heyward)

Your opportunity at last

Imagine this:

After years of toiling in obscurity you find yourself in a position of power and influence. After years of never being heard you’re now being sought out.

You waited a long time for your day in the sun. Now that it’s arrived, how do you handle your change in fortune?

Practice humility

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When the limelight shines on you, don’t let it blind you.

Even though the limelight is now shining on you, remember that only recently you were in darkness. When you were struggling, you probably worked hard to keep things in perspective and to maintain healthy self-respect. Lacking power and authority didn’t mean you were less valuable than other people.

Now you need to work just as hard to hold onto that sense of perspective. You’re still the same person. Having power and authority doesn’t make you better than everyone else. If you try to act like you are better, you’ll likely lose people’s respect — and with it, you’ll lose your power and authority.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that there are so many quotations and proverbs about the need for humility: For pryde goeth before and shame commeth after (John Heywood). Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).

Be a servant leader

Having been down in the trenches for so long, you have a unique perspective. What did you wish your managers had done for you? What did you wish they knew about you?

Now you can put into practice the things you wanted from your old managers. Now is your chance to become, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader: a servant first, a leader second.

Say things that are worth hearing

At long last, people are listening to you. It wasn’t easy to get their attention; it’s even harder to hold onto it. Don’t waste your opportunity by saying things that are self-serving, manipulative, or deceptive.


These thoughts were prompted by two baseball teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — who’ve just qualified for the World Series and who’ve gone a very long time since winning their last championships (1908 and 1948, respectively).

Over the next few days the Cubs and the Indians will try to make the most of the opportunity they have. After decades in the darkness, they’re in the limelight. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself in the limelight after years in darkness? What did you do with your opportunity?

I love the challenge of describing things

I enjoy turning the spotlight on people who are great communicators. One of the best is about to retire.

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Vin Scully at work. Man, I wish my office had a view like this. (Image source: ESPN)

This weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully will call his last game. Since 1950 (that’s not a typo) baseball fans — not just Dodger fans, but all of us — have fallen under the spell of Scully’s warm baritone voice.

During a celebration in his honor, Scully said, “I really love baseball. The guys and the game, and I love the challenge of describing things.”

Describing things. Isn’t that what all of us — anyone who has written a user guide or tutorial, anyone who has created technical art or instructional videos — try to do? No one does it better than Vin Scully.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s a model for technical communicators.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean. Continue reading

Operation Copycon (A New Year’s Eve tale)

Late in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1969, a few dozen young men gathered at a nondescript brick building in the swamps of northern New Jersey. They all wore crew cuts, short-sleeve white shirts, and skinny ties.

screenshotThey’d come to the U.S. Government’s secret supercomputer lab to collaborate on a project that would change computing history. For it was here that they created those mysterious files — the ones time-stamped 12/31/69, the ones that have annoyed and frustrated computer users ever since.

Arnie Ferret, now retired from government work and living in a small walk-up in Hoboken, tells the story.

“The big brass were coming to visit right after New Year’s. Our bosses were afraid they’d ask to see what we’d stored on our computers.

“You see, the NASA guys down at Cape Canaveral, they had all the files and data that had gotten Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Damned impressive. Compared to them, well….”

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Yes, kids. That’s an IBM keypunch machine. Image credit: Creative Commons (waelder)

His voice tailed off. In fact, according to recently declassified records, the New Jersey computer contained exactly 13 mix-tape song lists, a “Hello World” routine, and an early version of Pong.

So the word came down: create a bunch of files. Fast. Continue reading

Making mistakes and learning from them

The recently concluded World Series will be remembered for lots of things, including a surprising number of mistakes by the participants. We can learn from the mistakes we saw during those games — and we can take heart from them too.

In the eighth inning of Game 1, with the score tied 3-3, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer mishandled a ground ball and allowed the Mets to take the lead. Much later, in the 14th inning, Hosmer drove in the winning run.

Eric Hosmer misplaying a ground ball

Eric Hosmer boots a ground ball…. {Source: thebiglead.com)

Lesson 1: Your mistake probably isn’t the end of the world. Hosmer didn’t brood over his mistake. He kept his head up and seized an opportunity to make amends. (He seized another opportunity in Game 5 when, in perhaps the most memorable play of the Series, he scored a crucial run with his daring baserunning.)

In Game 3, with two men on base, Royals pitcher Franklin Morales fielded a ground ball and thought about throwing it home. Then he thought about throwing it to first base. By the time he finally threw the ball — to second base — it was too late. The batter and both runners were safe.

Lesson 2: Plan ahead. Good baseball players know what they’ll do before the ball comes to them. We, too, shouldn’t wait until a situation arises before we know what we’ll do.

Eric Hosmer at bat

….and then drives in the winning run (Source: New York Times)

In Game 5 Mets manager Terry Collins decided to replace his tiring pitcher, Matt Harvey, after eight innings. TV viewers watched Harvey in the dugout, imploring Collins to change his mind. Collins relented. Harvey stayed in the game, gave up a walk and a double, and the Mets went on to lose.

Collins made a mistake by trusting his heart over his better judgment. He took full blame, saying “you gotta support your players once in a while” and “we’ll get better because of it.” Collins might very well be right. the Mets lost this game (and the Series). But perhaps their players gained a greater respect for their manager, which will pay off in the long run.

Lessons 3 and 4: When you make a mistake, own it. And don’t be afraid to trust your heart: the long-term intangible benefits might outweigh the short-term costs. While these lessons are true for everyone, they go double for leaders.

You and I try not to make mistakes. But they happen anyway. Why not resolve that next time you make a mistake, you’ll learn something from it.

What have you learned from the mistakes you’ve made?

This kid’s good: spotting and nurturing talent

In August 2009, on a visit to my native New Jersey Shore, I watched the Lakewood Blue Claws win a minor-league baseball game. The Blue Claws play in Class A, which is three levels below the major leagues. The vast majority of players at that level will never make it to the majors.

But one player, the Blue Claws’ catcher, caught my eye. In the top of the sixth inning he positioned himself perfectly, received a throw, and tagged out a runner who slid directly into him. It was a smart play, and the catcher showed quick thinking and grit.

A few minutes later, in the bottom of the sixth, he lined a two-base hit and scored what turned out to be the winning run.

This kid’s good, I thought to myself. Continue reading

Who do you pick for the project?

You joined the team a few months ago as its manager. Now a challenging new project is on the horizon, and you have to decide which team member gets the assignment. Who do you pick?

People in an officeRoy has been part of the team for years. The previous manager told you that he struggled in the past. But since you’ve been here, it’s as if a light went on: Roy’s work has been top-notch. Is Roy past his struggles and up to a challenging new assignment?

Bill goes through his workday with a swagger. He’ll tell you that he can handle anything you throw at him. And so far he has, although you haven’t asked him to do anything that was particularly hard. Is Bill just a braggart, or do you trust him to walk the talk?

Melanie’s work has always been good but not outstanding. A few months ago, when Melanie’s project encountered some unexpected bumps — not of her making — she surmounted the problems and delivered a great outcome. Was it a fluke, or is Melanie ready to rise to the occasion again?

Connie is the youngest member of the team, eager to learn and willing to do things in new ways. She’s already suggested some innovations that have paid off. Can Connie’s energy and new ideas overcome her lack of experience?

My take: don’t rely too much on the past, especially on things you’ve heard but haven’t observed firsthand. Instead, align your people’s current abilities with current and future needs.

Logo for Major League Baseball postseasonThe people in this story are fictitious, but I didn’t just make them up. They represent the personalities of the four teams that remain in this year’s major-league baseball playoffs: the Royals, Blue Jays, Mets, and Cubs, respectively.

When you watch baseball, or any sport, you learn that players and teams change and grow. As a manager you should acknowledge that growth: judge your people on who they are today rather than basing your expectations on who they used to be.

So….Who gets assigned to the new project? Why would you pick that person?

Who would I assign to the project? Ask me after the World Series.

With context, I can see a lot

I’m passing time in Terminal C at Newark Airport, and way across the concourse a baseball game is on TV. From this distance the screen is tiny — in fact I can see only about two-thirds of it — and I can’t hear anything.

Distant TV screen at the airport

There, in the middle arch, is my baseball game.

Yet I can enjoy the game, simply because it’s baseball — a game I’ve watched since I was a kid. Even though I don’t know the players or the score, I have plenty of context for this game I’m eavesdropping on.

Similarly, one of the best things we can do as technical writers is to supply our readers with information that fits the context in which they’re reading.

Peering at the tiny TV screen, I recognize the words on a player’s uniform: East Carolina. I heard on last night’s local news that East Carolina would play Houston today for the championship of a conference whose name I don’t remember. Sure enough, the other team’s uniforms are red. Must be Houston.

I don’t know any of the players on ECU or Houston. From my vantage point I can’t tell the inning or the score. I don’t even remember the name of their conference. Still, I can see a lot:

East Carolina’s pitcher is a lanky lefthander with a nice, smooth motion. I watch him freeze a batter with a good breaking pitch — not because I can see the ball, but because I see the batter’s reaction. Now the batter is headed back to the dugout walking the same dejected walk of every batter who strikes out, from Little League to the World Series.

Years of watching baseball have supplied me with context. It’s the same with the people who read our technical content. When the content fits their context, they can make sense even out of information that’s new and unfamiliar. But information that doesn’t fit their context isn’t even information. It’s just data, with no meaning at all.

How can we help our readers fit information into context?

Use familiar terms. If the reader knows something by a certain name, use that name. This is no time to break out your thesaurus. If the reader is accustomed to the metric system, for heaven’s sake use metric measurements.

Use diagrams and illustrations that are consistent with each other in appearance and content. If possible, use diagrams and illustrations that look like ones the reader is already familiar with.

Compare new concepts to things the reader knows. John McPhee, about whom I wrote recently, is a master of this.

As I finish writing this article, dear reader, I realize that it needs to fit into your context. You might not care about baseball, or about my ruminations on the game. So I go back and rewrite the introduction, so that right away you’ll see what the article is really about. How’d I do?

What else can we do to fit content to the context in which our readers consume it?

I could’ve observed a lot by watching him

He’s smart and gifted. Yet he’s best known for his oddball aphorisms.

He was one of the best baseball players in history. Yet people who know nothing about baseball, think they know all about him.

His is one of the most remarkable personal brands I know of.

Photo of Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra from a 1956 Baseball Digest cover

Today is Yogi Berra’s 90th birthday. I’m using a photo of him from about age 30 because, as he once said: “I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.”

I like Yogi for a lot of reasons.

First, we share a given name. Lawrence Berra got the “Yogi” nickname early in life when a baseball teammate, watching him sit cross-legged waiting for his turn to play, thought he resembled a Hindu yogi. I bet you thought he was named after the Yogi Bear cartoon character. It’s actually the other way around — a testament to how popular Yogi was during his playing career.

Second, I see something of myself in him. In school I was known as a brainy kid. To fit in with the more popular kids I “dumbed it down,” intentionally using poor diction or choosing the wrong word. After awhile I discovered that not only wasn’t I popular, I was proving myself untrustworthy by trying to be something I wasn’t.

To quote one of his aphorisms, I could’ve observed a lot by watching Yogi Berra. Continue reading