A-Rod is a Flashlight

February 08, 2009

I was speaking recently with a CEO who’s not too happy with his board of directors — he wanted advice on finding replacements. We talked a lot about what makes a valuable board member and threw around some names. I nixed a number of candidates because they are flashlights. This is a term I learned from a banker I worked for 20 years ago, people who shine brightly in one direction, but don’t let off too much light otherwise.

Flashlights are kind of useless as board members, despite big reputations and good resumes — they’re just not lateral thinkers and don’t really want to dig in. Every company is allowed one flashlight, but it better be the CEO. It’s hard to know where to go when the light is shining in two (or more) different directions.

Alex Rodriguez

What does this have to do with baseball? Alex Rodriguez (“A-Rod”) of the New York Yankees is arguably the best player in baseball right now, certainly the highest paid. But as discussed in a recent book by Joe Torre, former manager (i.e., designated flashlight) of the Yankees, Rodriguez was an unhelpful second light (from the NY Times book review):

“Whether hitting 450-foot home runs or sunbathing shirtless in Central Park or squiring strippers, Rodriguez was like nothing ever seen before on the championship teams of the Torre Era: an ambitious superstar impressed and motivated by stature and status, particularly when those qualities pertained to himself.”

The Yankees dominated baseball for almost a decade until Rodriguez joined the team in 2004, but haven’t been to a World Series since. Last year, the team didn’t even make the playoffs despite by far the highest payroll in the Major Leagues. As was covered in Moneyball, baseball is often not about who’s got the highest paid team, it’s about which team pulls together the right combination of skills, teamwork and emotion to win games. Too many strong personalities and there’s a lot of wasted light shining in the wrong direction.

Recently, David Jacobs (who’s an even bigger baseball fan than me) and I have been talking a lot about the new season and David made the connection from Alex Rodriguez to Tim Cook, Apple’s interim chief while Steve Jobs is on leave. It’s a very interesting contrast: in his first quarterly analyst call after taking over the reins, Cook quite deftly responded to questions about vision and purpose at Apple in the post-Jobs world:

“There is an extraordinary breadth and depth and tenor among the Apple executive team. They lead over 35,000 ‘wicked smart’ employees from engineering to marketing. Values of company extremely well entrenched. We believe in the simple and not the complex. Deep collaboration and cross pollination among our groups. Frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in any group in the company. Regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well. I strongly believe that Apple is doing the best work in its history.”

Only time will tell how deep Apple’s bench is and how ingrained the culture of excellence has become. It’s a refreshing start for Cook to be talking about the value of collaboration in a company that is known more than almost any other for the strength of its own flashlight. As both a Giants fan and a Mac user, I’m hoping Apple’s going to do a better job of it than the A-Rod Yankees ever managed.

flag briefcase

Older Posts
The Negotiating Strategies ... (December 2008)
VCs and Golf (July 2003)
Moneyball (May 2003)
Newer Posts
Happy Birthday, HotWired! (October 2009)
Fat vs. Skinny (March 2010)
Musings of an Old Man (April 2010)