CategoryLeading/Managing

Learning to Compete, Lead, and Give Back with Coach Fran O’Brien

Recently, I attended the visitation in Reading, Massachusetts for Francis O’Brien, my college baseball coach at MIT.[1]In his eulogy, Kevin, the oldest of Coach O’Brien’s five children, said, “As Jackie Robinson said, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on others.’ My father took this message to heart.”

When Coach O’Brien arrived at MIT in 1969, he inherited a no scholarship team expecting to lose. During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired stories and a book, Beaverball. In honor of Coach O’Brien, this post includes excerpts and examples of his leadership, humor, toughness, and how he and his family impacted me and many others.

Meeting Coach

I first met Coach O’Brien during a trip to visit colleges in Massachusetts after my junior year in high school. When I entered his office, Coach O’Brien sprang up from behind his desk and greeted me with an energetic two-handed handshake. Coach looked the part of the long-time baseball coach with silvery hair and tan skin. However, his most distinctive features were his smiling green-grey eyes and sharp nose. His face beamed charisma and you could just as easily picture him managing a Major League Baseball team as you could coaching college players.

Communicate Expectations and Listen

Coach established his expectations with the team from the start. “Go take care of your school commitments first. And if you need to talk about school, or anything else, my door is always open.” 

One time, in the spring of my sophomore year, I visited Coach to talk about school. Coach listened and his eyes smiled, and then he said, “Remember, Brooks, this is one of the toughest schools in the country. You worked hard to get here. Now keep doing what you’re doing, guy, and go get that degree!”

During my years on the team, there had always been a steady stream of players strolling down the second floor hall of the MIT Athletic Department in Rockwell Gym headed for Coach’s office. Often Coach would be listening to a player frustrated by school or trying to work through a decision associated with a job, grad school, or a relationship. Players cycled in and out, and Coach always put down his pencil and held his calls. In the end, his most valuable gift to us may have been his sympathetic ear.

Toughen Up and Expect to Win

Coach told me once that the biggest adjustment for him at MIT was the attitudes of the players. When he arrived in 1969, he inherited a baseball team that batted .196 in 1968. He would get angry and yell, and players would say, “Relax Coach, we’re supposed to lose.” Coach did not like that one bit, so he focused on clearly communicating his expectations and creating a winning attitude. You arrived at practice and games ready to play and expecting to win.  

For years, Coach cultivated competitiveness in MIT baseball players. In 2000, he shared a story with me about how he knew his teams were getting tougher. One weekday afternoon in the 1970s, the baseball team was practicing while a bunch of local guys were playing an informal soccer game in deep left field. Coach approached the group and asked, “Hey, could you guys clear the field and come back after our practice?” 

One of the soccer players looked directly at Coach and pulled a knife out. While startled, Coach, held his ground. Suddenly, the guy turned and started running away. Coach, impressed with himself, thought, “Hey, I’ve still got it!”

Then Coach turned around and saw the entire baseball team sprinting toward him, bats in hand, ready to back him up. He didn’t realize they were there, but he was proud of the way they had responded. 

Stay Positive and Optimistic

Coach O’Brien founded The Friends of MIT Baseball to help finance team travel and field maintenance. He organized alumni baseball games and kept former players updated with annual newsletters. Like Coach, the newsletters were enthusiastic and optimistic, regardless the level of talent in the program.

For example, the 1984 newsletter opened with “We are so close to having an outstanding opportunity for raising a little hell with New England college baseball…If enthusiasm and dedication are necessary ingredients, then this team should fly early.” That team ended up winning seven games and losing 11.

In 1990, following a 1989 team that had gone 17-12 and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament, the newsletter said, “As we all know, getting to the top is a difficult process for any team…but staying on top in 1990 is the real challenge for this year’s team.” That year, my freshman season, saw nine wins and 16 losses. When former players get together, we relive our struggles to remain competitive and, through the fog of memory, call them “good times.”

Learning to Hit with Kevin O’Brien

Our team loved it when Kevin O’Brien, Coach’s son, came to our practices. He was a taller, leaner version of Coach, with the same smiling eyes and a sharper version of the O’Brien nose. And Kevin knew hitting. He had a detailed understanding of the batting stroke and worked with what we had to help us get better. He didn’t say, “Too bad you have a crappy swing.” Rather, he’d say, “Okay, you’ve got good balance there. Now let’s focus on those hands.”  

Kevin always left us mentally ready to step into the box to take good hacks. He boosted your confidence at the plate. And for hitters, belief in yourself was everything.

Like Coach, Kevin had played college ball at Tufts where he was a two-time team captain. In 1978, Kevin led the nation in hitting, batting .484. After Tufts, Kevin played minor league ball with the New York Yankees. Later, he worked as a scout and instructor with the Toronto Blue Jays. To this day, he runs hitting camps around Massachusetts, and the name says it all: The Sweet Swing Hitting Academy.

Together

At the end of each practice, Coach gathered the players around him. He looked around the circle and often shared a message like, “What night is tonight? Friday night. Go out, relax, have a good time. But be focused. We start tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Not 9:35. Not 9:45. 9:30.” He had a captive audience and got his point across. Then, we would put our hands in the middle of the circle and say in unison, “Together!” 

Legacy

This idea of expecting to win and pushing a team past where it might be comfortable was powerful. It changed the conversation from drowning in an opponent’s supposed superiority to focusing on our strengths relative to their weaknesses. Coach taught us to think, “What could we do to put ourselves in a position to be successful?” With strong pitching and error-free defense, games remained close. And when games remained close, anything was possible, no matter how good the opponent or how big the challenge. I believe that to this day.

I remembered this lesson after starting Forisk Consulting, my forestry research business. At first, my team often asked, “How can we bid on projects against larger, more established firms?” But for me the question was, and is, different. I constantly ask, “How do we demonstrate to potential clients our ability to add value?” To do this, we write articles, publish research, and teach courses. Each of these activities builds credibility, strengthens skills, and, ultimately, grows the business. Gradually, after two years of struggling to meet payroll, the phone started ringing.  

Through practices and games at MIT, Coach emphasized key lessons: work hard on the things we can control, be mentally ready to perform every day, expect to succeed, and have fun. Coach always told us, “You have to give something back to the game.” Many of us went on to coach little league teams and volunteer in our communities and support the MIT baseball program as alumni. Coach not only graduated improved baseball players, but he also graduated player-coaches who valued integrity, professionalism, and fair play. Coach O’Brien developed leaders.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/bostonglobe/name/francis-o-brien-obituary?id=36769001

Shooting Diameters with Danny Hamsley

When I missed the mark in my role as a log buyer and harvest manager in northeast Georgia in the 1990s, Danny Hamsley had a way of setting me straight. It would start with a phone call. 

“Brooks, I’m riding with you in the woods tomorrow.” 

Early the next morning, I would pick Danny up in the parking lot of a restaurant, or wherever he parked his red Jeep Cherokee, for a day of visiting logging jobs, wood suppliers, and customers at mills. When riding down county roads, Danny could look out the window and identify any tree, calling out its Latin and common names in quick succession. Then he’d test me. To that point, I had not taken a formal dendrology class or spent hours studying tree species. My knowledge was limited. Sure, I could name a magnolia or Japanese maple, but hornbeam? Could I pick a scarlet oak from a Shumard? No, I could not.  

At some point, standing near a logging job or reviewing a thinning operation, Danny would directly and succinctly reinforce expectations and help me better understand what really mattered in my work on behalf of the company. For example, in my first year, I was slow to finish paperwork and contracts. This delayed payments to our wood suppliers. While we received regular paychecks, my suppliers depended on this paperwork to get the monies owed them.

In this instance, Danny told me about a call with a supplier. “Look, this guy likes you well enough, but he doesn’t like you enough to not get paid.” Message delivered and understood. He emphasized the business implications to our operations, to my supplier, and to me. To this day at Forisk, I try to pay our vendors and contractors quickly. I want them to view us as reliable, responsive, and appreciative of the value and services they provide to us.

When walking the woods, Danny and I had little competitions like throwing rocks at trees to test our arms, or “shooting DBHs”, a game foresters play to see who could better estimate the diameter at breast height (DBH), to the tenth of an inch, of trees. From 20 feet away, we’d say, “That one is 10.2” or “that’s 9.6 inches.”  Then we’d tape it to see who was right and the loser bought lunch.

Danny’s knowledge ran deep. One time, I travelled with him to Bruce, Mississippi to visit a sawmill that had installed the latest “curve saw” technology, which could cut straight boards out of banana shaped logs. After the tour, we ate lunch with one of the machine operators, who had spent his career in the mill. He asked Danny, “how do trees grow? Why are they crooked?” Danny pulled out a napkin and diagramed the twisting nature of tree growth and how it reaches for the sun and leans away from shade to maximize available resources. The tree corkscrews itself up and away from any hinderance and goes to the light.

Fifteen minutes later, Danny got up to get more sweet tea, and the guy said, “well, that was more than I wanted to know!” and we laughed. Danny, who passed away unexpectedly three weeks ago[1], was a scholar of many things, and his tendency to offer exhaustive explanations to basic forestry questions earned him the nickname “Mr. Big Words” on The Forestry Forum, where he served as a moderator since retiring from a thirty-year career in the forest industry.

Danny and I often discussed the challenge of being human and raising children, long before I ever married or had children of my own.[2] Danny called this the “curse of the big brain.” Kids don’t fall out of the womb ready to program iPhone apps. Human development from babe to self-sufficiency includes a long apprenticeship supervised by parents, and along the way we communicate and reinforce dozens of expectations. Our job includes loosening the reigns as they grow and mature and, ultimately, letting go.

When you do something long enough, like shooting diameters or working with teams or reading widely, you develop a sense for what matters and what does not. William Danny Hamsley, a man who thought deeply about how we live on this planet, taught me many things about forestry and people, and I will miss him.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.watsonhunt.com/obituaries/William-Hamsley/#!/Obituary

[2] The relationship Danny and I built extended to his oldest daughter, Amanda, who became my business partner a decade ago.

One Rule for Performance Reviews: No Surprises

Regular performance reviews, while often criticized, offer a repeatable and transparent process for building more effective organizations. Systems and teams, big and small, require feedback to adjust and improve. Sports have scores, cars have speedometers and engine lights, and businesses have financials. Issues arise when appraisals or feedback occur inconsistently or without clear expectations. Regular reviews, when done well, support and serve the needs of both employees and managers.

No Surprises

No surprises! This is the fundamental tenant for ongoing manager/employee relations. You don’t fire people at performance reviews. You highlight, reinforce, appreciate, and coach. You agree on priorities. You listen. We owe it to our teams to avoid surprises. This starts on Day One for a new employee.

When you hire someone, you get their standard of performance, so it’s the role of the manager to clarify expectations.[1] How do we to this? First, define success. Second, agree on what success looks like when it is delivered. Third, confirm how it will be measured and when. Weekly meetings help support this.

Weekly Meetings

Brief, weekly meetings are a fundamental building block for two-way communication. They keep the line open and the temperature down. If your direct reports are not important enough to meet with regularly, then who is? Weekly check-ins establish a pattern and provide milestones. They show you care about the individual and their results. This process also provides structure for the manager, who should be tracking successes and things to review with each direct report on an ongoing basis. 

One of my direct reports role-modeled for me how to manage our check-ins based on how she manages her team. Now, my weekly process with each person includes the following three questions:

  • Personal: How are you doing?
  • Current projects: What are you working on? (And what’s on the horizon?)
  • Support and resources: What do you need? How can I support you?

If I have specific items to cover, they typically line up with something the person wants to discuss anyway. If not, I will raise the issue when we discuss current activities.

The impact of feedback is greatest when received close to the behavior in question. While better late than never, delayed feedback withholds from the person an opportunity to improve. And if you don’t communicate feedback at all, the issue remains yours, not theirs. Regular meetings help mitigate this.

Conclusion

Successful managers provide timely and constructive feedback to their employees and colleagues. They deal with tough issues quickly. Employees in these businesses know that performance is valued, and underperformance will be dealt with. Don’t let things fester; handle issues as they arise, acknowledge effort and performance, and focus on actions not people. As a manager, you get the performance you deserve. Regular check-ins keep the stakes low, minimize surprises, and strengthen the team.


[1] My essay “Notes on Managing a Business” includes this and other lessons related to communicating effectively at work and leading a team.

Make a Decision and Act: An Ode to Star Trek and Stoicism

Growing up, I enjoyed the science fiction movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, and television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The stories combined space travel, advanced technologies and humor with themes that demonstrated a sanctity for life.  However, my favorite was the original Star Trek tv series.

While the futuristic and scientific aspects of Star Trek attracted me, I returned to watch and learn from Spock, Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk.

Spock, Doc and Kirk

Spock, whose Vulcan surname is unpronounceable (literally), was the First Officer and Science Officer aboard the Starship Enterprise. In his role, he applied rationality and logic to each situation. His insistent, Stoic method of understanding how things worked and controlling what you can attracted me. As a father, employer, and leader during recessions and COVID and other tempests, I revisit the calm and clarity offered by focusing on what you can control to stack the issues and prioritize.

Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, emotional and cantankerous, wielded an awesome diagnostic tricorder and quiver of sharp retorts (mostly at the expense of Spock). Dr. McCoy always put humanity and people (and other species) before the protection of equipment or reliance on cold probabilities. McCoy reminds us that the tools and numbers serve our efforts to do what is right. His social conscious and character attracted me to science and research (though, I’m a Doctor of Forestry, not of medicine. 🙂 Thanks, DeForest!)

Finally, the crew followed Captain James T. Kirk[1], the embodied action bias and unquestioned leader on the ship. While Spock always did the math, any potential “paralysis by analysis” or harmful delay in a crisis would lead to a pointy earful from Dr. McCoy. Captain Kirk listened to his trusted team, one leveraging the best available information and the other voicing a social conscious, before choosing a course and acting decisively.

Decide and Act

Uncertainty and disruption inform our general state of mind when making decisions. Like Spock, disregard needless enthusiasms and anxieties. Beside the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen, we humans handle uncertainty poorly. So, skip it. A Stoic believes they control their responses to the world, not the world itself.

As a species, when disconnected from social media and cable news, we are incredibly resilient. The great Stoic Epictetus said, “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” 

When a Stoic walks into a bar, he chooses from what’s available and enjoys the drink. If the bar catches on fire, the Stoic leaves the drink to help as many people as possible get out safely. We do what we can in the moment.

Conclusion

Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us.  Some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable, and some things are beyond our control. In my field in forestry, we rely on the physical facts associated with demographics and forest supplies and mill capacities to leverage data and logic to develop projections. In this way, we avoid lofty assumptions and ground analysis in physical attributes to help interpret the world as it lays. 

We all strive to do the best we can with the information we have, without polluting that information with bias or irrational assertions. Make logical decisions, do what’s right, and move forward.

Live long and prosper! 🖖


[1] T for “Tiberius” for those headed to Trivia Night.

Train or Hire? Both.

During my career in forestry, I learned that managing trees is about managing people. Forest resource managers and timberland investors are also human resource professionals. The work gets done through building productive relationships and teams.

As with a baseball coach, a manager “off the field” continually seeks opportunities to upgrade the skills of the team and develop younger talent for future roles within the organization. This requires a clear understanding of your objectives (“begin the end in mind”) and an assessment of whether or not the needed skills and abilities already exist on your team. Once we identify the gaps, then we can decide how to fill them.

To Train or Not to Train

Robert Mager, in What Every Manager Should Know About Training, specifies training for situations where, one, we identify things that people cannot do and, two, they need to be able to do these things to perform in their role. This framework, while obvious, acknowledges the existence of other ways to improve performance. Examples include coaching and feedback, and performance aids.

Coaching and feedback help us reinforce and enable wanted behaviors. If a member of your team does something well or poorly, tell them. They want, and deserve, to know, and it tells them that you’re paying attention. Sometimes they simply need a little guidance, a sympathetic ear or a resource.

Performance aids, to quote Dr. Mager, “cue people to do their jobs right.” Like a vetted checklist, a good aid reminds people to do the things they already know how to do. As a benefit, simple tools or aids can also reduce the need for excess training.

Train or Hire?

At Forisk, our forest industry research firm, we hire AND train OR outsource once confirming the need for additional capacity. When hiring, the person must, first and foremost, share the values of our team and then have the aptitude and interest to build skills that align with the needs of the business. In our experience with human beings, it simply does not work the other way around. 

When you hire a good person that fits the values of your team, it becomes a worthwhile no-brainer to invest in training. Internal training has, at times, important advantages. When people on the team develop and deliver the training to colleagues for firm-specific skills, it grows them as managers and leaders. In those situations, the entire team gets better.

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Note: in addition to the cited and linked sources, this post includes ideas from the article “Here’s How to Assess an Organization’s Education and Training Needs” by Brooks Mendell and Amanda Hamsley Lang.