The Kansas City Royals Show What Accountable Leadership Looks Like

One of the critical commitments that accountable leaders take on is called IT’S ALL OF US. When you make this commitment, you accept that you do not succeed unless the other person succeeds — and you accept that if the other person fails, you fail. An organization built on this value treats its employees like family, and it doesn’t walk away from them in tough times. This connects to a related commitment, to STAND WITH YOU WHEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE. Recently, the Kansas City Royals showed how embracing these powerful commitments enables an organization to attract, and retain, the very best talent…even when there is not a big budget to work with.

You probably do not need me to remind you that this major-league baseball season has been turned upside-down by the global pandemic. Most of the focus has been on whether and when the major-league season will begin, and that’s understandable: fans want to know when they can start watching games and following pennant races again. But one of the big changes this year has been easy to overlook in all the coverage of the negotiations between players and owners: the radical redesign of the annual talent draft. 

The 2020 draft was the shortest in the history of major-league baseball. As the result of an agreement negotiated with the players’ union, the draft this year lasted just five rounds. (In a normal year, the draft would go for eight times that long.) The abbreviated schedule left a massive number of extremely talented players excluded from the formal draft. To address this, owners set up a system under which teams could extend as many offers as they wished to players who were not snapped up in the formal draft — but they could only offer a maximum signing bonus of $20,000, far lower than most of these players could have expected to pull down in a normal year.

Translation: Money no longer made a difference. Highly talented players choosing what organization to sign with after the main draft concluded had to make their selection based on something other than which team could sign the biggest check…because all the teams were offering checks of roughly the same size.

Some people expected that players faced with this kind of choice would naturally gravitate toward the big-market teams with the strongest win-loss records and the greatest statistical chance of making a big contract offer somewhere down the line — teams like the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees, and Dodgers. But that was not what happened. The team that signed the most top-tier free agents after the abbreviated draft concluded was a small-market team: the Kansas City Royals.

How did they do it? Why did so many highly-ranked prospects opt to enter the Royals’ farm system, as opposed to a brand-name farm system run by a club with a far larger marketing and branding presence? According to Sports Illustrated, the main reason was personal:  “The players wanted a club where they felt like they’d be supported.” 

Kansas City’s decision to keep paying furloughed minor league players during the pandemic, and cut none of them, certainly played a role here. Also important, and noted widely in the positive media coverage the club received in the wake of its signings, was the team’s commitment to creating meaningful relationships with players and their families. Kale Emshoff, one of the young players the Royals signed, put it this way. “You want to go to a club that’s going to take care of not only their very top valued players, but also their lower ones. You want to know that when you’re in the organization you’re going to be taken care of… That plays a huge role in the decision-making process.”

What motivated Emshoff is what attracts any talented person in any industry. 

This story is not about who finishes where in the 2020 season standings. Most of these players will not have an impact at the major league level for at least a year.  This story is about how the Kansas City front office has decided to treat people, and how their decision to honor the commitments I call IT’S ALL OF US and I STAND WITH YOU WHEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE drove so many free agents to want to be a part of their organization, even though there was no immediate monetary advantage for doing so.

Here is the moral of the story. The companies that attract and retain the best people are the ones that outperform their competitors over the long haul. If your organization is not attracting the best people, or if your company is a turnstile, and you are not retaining the best people, there is a reason for that. And the reason, more times than not, is not attached to money, it is how people are treated, how people are thought of, how people are valued, and how people are heard.

The senior leadership at the Kansas City Royals organization are thinking for the long term by embracing the commitments of IT’S ALL OF US and I STAND WITH YOU WHEN ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE. Your organization should be doing the same. 

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October 2020
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