Inc.'s editor-in-chief reflects on lessons his childhood baseball coach taught him about life and business.
"HAVANA, May 12 -- In an effort to make Cuba's sagging economy more efficient, the Government is abandoning one of the most cherished concepts of the Communist state, the guarantee of full lifetime employment, and has begun layoffs that are expected to eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs. . . . The new policy is so controversial that the Communist Party is still struggling to find the proper terminology to describe what is taking place. . . . 'There are no dismissals and there are no layoffs,' said Pedro Ross Leal, secretary general of the Cuban Workers' Central, the official labor union confederation. . . .
"Instead, Mr. Ross said, Cuba is undergoing 'a process of rationalization of employment' that is producing a corps of 'available workers' who have agreed to 'voluntary relocation.' In recent declarations in the official Cuban news media, and again . . . in his office this week, he estimated that 500,000 to 800,000 workers could eventually be 'rationalized."
-- From the May 13, 1995, edition of the New York Times
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While settling into a seat on the Delta shuttle recently, I glanced at the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was taken aback by the story in the far-right-hand column. The article announced that U.S. companies had eliminated another 516,069 jobs in 1994 -- at the same time that earnings were reaching record levels. Corporate profits, the Journal reported, had increased 11% in 1994, after a 13% increase the year before, and shareholders were reaping the benefits. So, for that matter, were chief executives and other top managers. But the message to some half million employees was, to quote the headline, "Thanks, Goodbye."
By now, we are all hopelessly inured to news of layoffs and downsizing, and yet I still found the article disturbing. It is one thing to lay people off because a company is performing badly, and quite another to eliminate jobs as an ongoing business practice. So I was surprised that the news elicited almost no public reaction. I saw only one commentary on the subject, a column by Bob Herbert on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Herbert was outraged by the pressure to eliminate jobs in both the private and the public sectors. He considered it a form of class warfare. I understand his outrage, but I have a somewhat different response to what's going on here, one I can best explain by telling a story.
It's about a baseball coach I had as a kid. His name was Bob Johnson, and he had played semipro ball before hanging up his spikes and joining the FBI. His approach to coaching was, well, unorthodox. For example, he liked to put us through elaborate drills in which we played baseball without a ball. We'd all take our positions -- mine was third base, in on the grass, just like my hero Clete Boyer -- and Coach Johnson, standing at the plate, would call out a situation, pause for a moment, and then swing the bat, hitting an imaginary ball and shouting, say, "Slow grounder down the line at third." Soon enough he had us charging invisible bunts, scrambling into the hole at short to rob make-believe batters of make-believe singles, and gunning down phantom base runners attempting to steal. Afterward, the coach would explain to each of us how we should have been positioned at the start of the play and how we should have reacted, and he would review every player's role, no matter how insignificant it might seem.
In the following years, I played many games for Coach Johnson. We won a lot and lost a few. But the record wasn't what mattered -- not then, not now. What mattered was that he taught us the real meaning of baseball. He made us understand that each of us -- every player on the field -- had a job to do on every pitch of every game. That lesson had a profound effect on me. For the first time, I came to appreciate the pleasure of doing something well for its own sake, not for an outcome. And that, in turn, evoked in me an intense feeling I can still vividly recall -- the feeling that, on any given day, there was no place on earth I'd rather be than in on the grass at third base, playing for this coach, with this team.
I'm not a kid anymore, and business isn't baseball. But my experience with Coach Johnson shaped my attitudes about many things, including work. For what I saw and felt three decades ago was the pride, the sense of belonging, that comes from being a part, however small, of a group of people totally committed to a common goal -- something as attainable in business as on any baseball diamond. And so I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to work for a company that routinely sacrifices people even when they achieve the company's goals.
I suspect such feelings play a part in the current explosion of home-based businesses, many of them started by refugees from large corporations. That is one trend that continued downsizing is sure to accelerate. Indeed, we may well look back someday and see a different message in this latest round of layoffs. The real lesson here may not be that people are expendable to large corporations, but that the large corporation itself is becoming irrelevant to people who want more from their work than a paycheck.