Style with Substance

Watched a great interview with writer Michael Lewis about the recent “Moneyball” film adaptation – from his book about the Oakland A’s turn-around under (now) famed general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt). I’d heard the main story before but I tend to enjoy interviews with this author because he offers some unexpected observations.  I also wonder if it relates to another very real tendency of some companies to shy away from innovation; which I think often has a lot to do with not wanting to make a mistake in a highly risk-averse business climate.  Anyway, here’s what he had to say.

As it is now widely known, the central idea to the Oakland A’s story was that Billy Beane decided to buck the trend of traditional scouting for new players – by relying more on statistics to make the final determinations – claiming that it is a faulty art due to inaccurate human assumptions. The central idea was that people were being mislead by image; that the scouts often rated players higher if they “looked good”, and which would then skew the results and lose teams money in the long run.  Quite often, there were less “good looking” players that simply got the job done better (and cheaper). In Oakland’s case, Beane and others bet on another human factor; that those who did not depend as much on looks had earned a place n the big leagues due to more dependable factors, like hidden talent, grit, perseverance, whatever.  Interestingly, the organization also apparently decided to view their other business activities in the same way.

According to Lewis they recognized that just like ball players, some businesses had leadership figures that simply looked the part. He mentioned a statistic, fitting enough, that showed that the majority of companies gaining the most investment had leaders who (if I recall correctly) were white and over 6 ft tall. Applying the same principle from baseball scouting (based on stats vs image), they determined to find investment opportunities with company’s that specifically were not headed up by such types.  It would stand to follow,  that the companies which had done well with leaders who did not look the part, must have other more reliable qualities that got them there, like savvy thinking, creativity, determination, experience, strong character etc.   Apparently it proved itself out and their portfolios prospered.  Its an interesting reality if its true, and I think could challenge the entertainment and digital consumer product realm where image is often touted as the priority.

You would think things would be different in an industry where the more important advances that affect our lives where produced by people who were not exactly poster material. I in fact just heard a reporter at the Consumer Electronics Expo (dressed appropriately in geek chic attire) describe the show as “the Superbowl for Nerds”.  Yet the tendency to rely on image is still there.

A lot of companies these days are trying hard to look good, wanting leadership and workplaces that look young, cool, and vibrant – and who could blame them?  Like any form of branding, it appeals to customers and investors on an emotional level. It’s not a bad default position – like using sexy ads selling more products.

But the big successes…? The real ground-breakers…?  They came from more than that.  Like true inspiration, innovation, creativity, motivating style, experience, determination, and most of all a great team.  At first glance you may think Apple did well due to a great cool image for their products, but anyone who uses them or knows more about their history will credit them with matching image with quality and innovation. These are companies that invested in a backbone built from true talent with visionary leaders who gave them a shot.

This all brings to mind a rare comment I heard from an accomplished senior production exec that stuck with me.  He had said he’d be crazy not to take a look at an idea or concept regardless where it came from – be it a top developer or guy off the street – because you just don’t know where genius is going to come from.  If he only talked to people that looked good, he may just miss out on the next best thing.  On the flip side it also brings to mind a comment from another leader I know who proclaimed (when asked about the need for marketing) that “if the technology is good the product will sell”.   Didn’t work.  His company didn’t make it.

In the end, as it usually comes down to, it’s all about finding a balance. Go too far one way, you don’t look the part enough to get you through the right doors or make the bottom line.  Go the other way, you may rely too much on looks that just might leave you short one day on performance or vision, or allow you to overlook a good opportunity.  Its not that hard I guess to get a good mix of youth vs experience, or of innovation vs sound best practices.  And certainly it should not be that hard to try to be more open to a good thing, regardless of where it comes from.