What We Can Learn about Succession Planning from the Toronto Blue Jays

How Organizations Can Turn to the Sports for Examples of Succession Planning

As we explored in our Toronto Maple Leafs’ Succession Planning post, the NHL has several tools in its pocket to facilitate the future development of its teams. However, the sports world is also home to a unique phenomenon that runs counter to the goals of succession planning: the rebuild.

As any sports fan can attest, hearing the phrase rebuilding brings expectations of disappointing seasons ahead as the team restructures. A team rebuild is often a franchise’s response to previous years of chronic underperformance, as is the case with Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Toronto Blue Jays.

In 2015 the team earned a 93-69 record, and managed to end their 22 year post-season drought[i]. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays were devastatingly eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Kansas City Royals. Disappointment continued with another post-season elimination in 2016 at the hands of the Cleveland Indians. The two years that followed were a struggle, with the Blue Jays earning a 76-86 and 73-89 record in 2017 and 2018, respectively. This downturn prompted the team’s management to enter a rebuild phase.  

Experts have debated the merits of the rebuild approach for decades, with some seeing it as an inevitable reality while others argue that the rebuild can excuse improper team management and reflects an inability to sustain a culture of success. As the 2019 MLB season kicks off, the Toronto Blue Jays are facing several challenges as they work through this uncertain time.

Instability in Leadership

A common hallmark of the MLB rebuild is a change in the team’s management, with the hope that a “fresh face” will “shake up” the team. While new leadership in any industry can certainly bring about positive change, when there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding that change, performance can suffer.

In the past few years, the Blue Jays franchise has undergone substantial leadership changes both in upper management and on the field. After the 2015 season, longtime President and CEO of the team Paul Beeston was replaced by Mark Shapiro, who then made the decision to replace fan favorite General Manager Alex Anthopolous with Ross Atkins. Ultimately it was Shapiro and Anthopolous who decided to make further changes to the organization. For the 2019 season, not only have the Blue Jays replaced longtime team manager John Gibbons with first-time major league manager Charlie Montoyo,  but veteran first base coach Tim Leiper and hitting coach Brook Jacoby have been replaced as well. Such a dramatic change in the team’s leadership is likely to bring many questions, and the new management team will need to work diligently to develop relationships and settle concerns among players.

Reliance on Inexperienced High Potentials 

In our Toronto Maple Leafs’ Succession Planning post we discussed the merits of the minor league system and the opportunities it offers to develop young players. This is certainly an important step in the creation of major league players – however, the system is not without its limitations. That is to say, player development doesn’t stop once they leave the farm system, and there is something to be said for the experience that comes with playing in the majors.

As outlined in Succession Planning: Building Your Succession Bench, a strong bench is reflected in both the breadth and depth of your talent pool. Best practices in succession planning suggest that you should work to develop candidates at all levels of your bench. Unfortunately, a rebuild often coincides with a purging of the team roster. The loss of tenured players and their corresponding experience means that teams are forced to rely heavily on inexperienced high-potentials – a situation which can lead to increased errors, particularly in high-pressure situations.

Limited Mentorship Opportunities

It is important that teams are able to offer continued development opportunities to their young players. One useful tool to facilitate this can be mentorship from senior players on the team. Unfortunately, as veteran players get traded for high-end prospects, there is often limited mentorship opportunities available. The Blue Jays have recently made trades that have meant saying goodbye to long-term, big-name players such as Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Kevin Pillar. This leaves Marcus Stroman as the most veteran player on the team. While Stroman has indicated an interest in embracing a leadership role on the team, this is a new experience for him as well[ii]. The lack of substantial overlap between veteran players and young prospects can make it difficult for teams to offer strong leadership on the field.

As the Blue Jays start the 2019 season, there is much speculation about how the team will perform in light of the challenges they face. Some are hopeful for a “short” rebuild and think the team will be competitive again in 2 to 3 years[iii]. If this timeframe is considered a short rebuild, it’s hard not to wonder if the rebuild is a necessary pain of the industry, or if teams could better leverage succession planning to facilitate more sustainable performance.   

How SIGMA Can Help

At SIGMA, we want to help your company be more effective and proactive with a good succession plan. For more information on our Succession Process, Launch Series, or Succession Planning solutions,  contact us and learn more about how we can help your organization develop your next generation of talent.

[i] Toronto Blue Jays Statistics. Retrieved from www.baseball-reference.com/teams/TOR/2015.shtml [Accessed April 1, 2019].

[ii] Couto, M. (2019, Feb 17). Marcus Stroman laments Blue Jays’ lack of veteran presence. Retrieved from www.cbc.ca/sports/baseball/mlb/mlb-toronto-blue-jays-spring-training-marcus-stroman-1.5023125 [Accessed April 1, 2019].

[iii] Griffin, R. (2019, Jan 6). Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes for a quick rebuild supported by recent history. Retrieved from www.thespec.com/sports-story/9112075-toronto-blue-jays-hopes-for-a-quick-rebuild-supported-by-recent-history/ [Accessed April 1, 2019].

[iv] Davidi, S. (2019, March 28). Blue Jays need to avoid past missteps for new rebuild to succeed. Retrieved from www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/blue-jays-need-avoid-past-missteps-new-rebuild-succeed/ [Accessed April 1, 2019].

About the Author

Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant & Executive Coach

Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.