As last season progressed and the Cleveland Indians kept winning, the crowds at Progressive Field began to grow, especially on the weekends. By the time October hit, Indians fans were ready to #RallyTogether and help the team keep the dream season going.
The employees who work at the ballpark in a number of different roles felt the energy too. But it takes more than just being a fan to become an integral part of the team of 1,200 seasonal employees, along with 225 full- and part-time employees who work throughout the year.
“A lot of people apply for a job here because it’s the Cleveland Indians and it sounds cool to work at Progressive Field,” says Jennifer Gibson, assistant director of talent development and engagement for the Indians. “You get to watch baseball. But we aren’t just looking for people who are Indians fans or baseball fans. We want someone who is well-rounded and can contribute to our culture and our community.”
Find the right fit
The Indians’ interview process is not easy, Gibson says. Job candidates meet with people in multiple departments, including their hiring manager, recruiting manager and typically four other people to determine if their competencies and/or skills match what is needed in order to perform the work.
“It can be a little overwhelming,” Gibson says. “We really want to get an idea of who the person is to make sure he or she will be a good fit. That’s the first step in building our culture.”
Once a fit is identified, the individual growth process can begin.
“Within the first six to 12 months, we coach them through a professional development plan,” Gibson says. “If they are looking to get into other areas, we help them through that process.”
Conversation and collaboration are key elements of the Indians’ culture. Gibson says organizational leaders at every level want to hear from employees about what’s working, what’s not working and what could be done better.
“We’ve really tried, over the last five years, to create an environment where innovation can thrive,” she says. “We want people to bring ideas. It’s OK to have an idea that doesn’t go anywhere. It’s OK to fail. We want people to feel comfortable talking to whoever. You can call up any executive and have a conversation.”
The transparency and expectation of cultural participation is made clear right from the start, says Nate Daymut, Indians talent development coordinator. It gets people excited about coming to work each day.
“Every employee I talk to, the No. 1 thing they bring up about why they love working here outside of being fun and being close to baseball is the relationships they have with the people they work with,” Daymut says. “All that points back to making sure we hire the right people. Once they are here and know what our culture is, they have the ability to build long-term relationships and make it even stronger.”
Employee surveys are another part of the dialogue between the organization and team members. They can and do provide valuable feedback, but there has to be a willingness to accept criticism once in a while when people are asked to share their opinions.
“Don’t ask for an opinion if you’re not going to do something with it,” Gibson says. “You shouldn’t ask people questions if you’re not willing to share the results and do something about it. We’re still working toward making it work for us. But having the information is a huge step forward.”
Among the challenges of maintaining a culture within a professional baseball team like the Indians is dealing with employees who have vastly different job responsibilities.
“If you have gameday responsibilities and it’s a long homestand or an event like the World Series, you’re working a ton of hours,” Gibson says. “Someone like myself in HR, I don’t have gameday responsibilities and I’m not working those hours. So it’s hard for people to empathize with each other in that respect. But we pay attention to that.”
An effort is made to work closely with each department and identify concerns that might crop up that can be addressed to reduce the stress.
“The people who work with our scoreboard in creative production, they work long hours during events and homestands,” she says. “So you put together an event where they can relax and talk to each other on a personal level instead of at work. If there are departments that are having communication challenges, we’ll offer team-building exercises so they can get to know each other personally.”
The position of development coach was created two years ago to further help maintain a healthy, positive culture.
“We wanted someone in employee relations, someone who was not the employees’ supervisor or another person in their department,” Gibson says. “This person could be a sounding board and offer opinions or listen to someone complain if that’s what they need to do for that one moment in order to move past something. Often, we’ll offer opportunities or advice or something to help them move past whatever it is that is bothering them. It’s given people a safe place to vent concerns and talk through solutions without just complaining to another co-worker where it then becomes gossip. People get an opportunity to look for solutions instead of just letting something sit and fester.”
Employee morale is critical in any business, but it is especially important for an organization that is in the public eye as much as the Indians. If an employee has a problem and that negatively affects his or her ability to service fans, it can quickly become a big problem in this social media age.
“We’ve created what’s called the Indians Way to Service Excellence,” Gibson says. “We have a new service department that oversees this initiative. It looks at how we manage customer service on an individual level, both with co-workers and with fans. One of the parts of that is identifying when it is hard to provide good customer service. You don’t have a lot of time, you’re stressed out, things are going wrong and this is your third day in a row working a lot of hours. Those things, we don’t ignore them. We acknowledge them. We sit down and not only talk to people, but offer solutions to implement in their day-to-day.”
It comes down to understanding the effect that a simple gesture — like an employee not greeting others when he or she arrives at work — can have on others.
“If I’m not having a good day and I decide I’m not going to greet the person in the elevator when I come in in the morning, that person thinks, ‘Wow, she didn’t say hello to me,’” Gibson says. “They carry that with them out into the ballpark when they are talking to fans. It’s drawing that connection between not just how we relate to each other, but how we relate to fans.”
Drive the process
The leaders at the top of the Indians organization do manage the broader goals for the ball club. But even those discussions incorporate feedback from every level.
“There is a leadership group of about eight people — vice presidents, executive VPs — that drive the process. But it’s very collaborative,” she says. “Each department is asked to look at our business goals, comment on them, talk about progress from the years before, and what should be changed, added or deleted. Every single employee, one way or another, is asked for his or her opinion. It’s making people feel that they have the ability to make an impact on the overall goal.”
When pitchers and catchers reported to Goodyear, Arizona, last February for spring training, loyal fans of the Indians were cautiously optimistic that 2016 could be a good year for their beloved Tribe. If the pitchers could stay healthy and Michael Brantley could make a quick recovery from his shoulder injury, perhaps the team could even make a run at the playoffs.
As it turned out, the pitchers did not stay healthy and Brantley only played in 11 games. But Mike Napoli became a cult hero, Andrew Miller redefined the role of a bullpen closer and the Indians came within one game of winning the franchise’s first World Series since 1948. With the offseason addition of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion and fingers crossed for a Brantley comeback, optimism is high heading into the 2017 season — for both fans and employees of the Indians.
“As long as you have something you can be passionate about and you really believe in, even if it’s not always going well,” Gibson says, “you never doubt for a second that you’re going to be successful in the end.”