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How William DeWitt III helps the St. Louis Cardinals work as a team Featured

8:01pm EDT August 31, 2011
How William DeWitt III helps the St. Louis Cardinals work as a team

Albert Pujols is one of 1,600 employees who work for St. Louis Cardinals LLC, but it’s safe to say he’s quite a bit more famous than just about any of the others. And while his colleagues with the ballclub understand that professional baseball players, like other pro athletes, make a lot more money than the average American worker, it can still lead to occasional feelings of envy.

“Most people in the front office are aware that it’s two different economies under the same roof,” says William O. DeWitt III, president of the Cardinals. “But some people have a hard time with that. Some employees have a hard time with that. They see millions going to players, but then in the front office, it’s the real world as to how people are incentivized and compensated and things of that nature. I would say that would be one of the key leadership challenges of my job.”

And before you turn the page because you think this story does not apply to you, you should realize it’s an issue that can crop up in pretty much any kind of business.

“You see it particularly flare up as it pertains to sales folks versus nonsales folks,” DeWitt says. “Typically, in most businesses, the sales function has a different set of incentives and compensation features than non-salespeople. We call them revenue generators versus non-revenue generators in our business. I mentioned the difference [between] front office and players. Probably the more appropriate distinction is between sales and nonsales.”

You don’t have to be an expert in human relations or business culture to recognize that when you have a divide between groups of employees, it’s not healthy for your company. Here are a few things DeWitt does to bridge these gaps and keep everyone working toward the same goal of providing winning baseball on the field and exemplary customer service off of it.

Gather data

Even the novice baseball fan understands that if it’s a tie game and there is a runner on third in the bottom of the ninth inning, it’s the batter’s job to get that runner home and end the game. Unfortunately, it’s not always as easy to identify job descriptions in other lines of work.

This includes the business side of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“We brought in a consultant to help us really understand our salary structure and our benefit structure and really just benchmark where we were with our front office,” DeWitt says. “It’s been a nice tool to be able to more clearly articulate what our structure is, why it is that way and what sort of changes we may need to make in that structure to give people confidence that there is rhyme and reason to the approach.”

The problem for DeWitt was the team couldn’t always give good reasons for making one compensation decision or another because no one had really spent a lot of time studying what the Cardinals’ peers were doing.

“We were having a hard time explaining our structure to people, because we weren’t 100 percent sure what the true marketplace was,” DeWitt says. “So that was something that bubbled up through the HR department.”

DeWitt wanted to know that the way the Cardinals were compensating people was consistent with his peers in terms of what employees were doing and what they were receiving for that work.

In addition to gathering data through a series of surveys and benchmarking studies done by Major League Baseball and other firms in St. Louis and across the country, DeWitt launched an effort to get everyone to compose a personal job description.

“We had everybody think about that and had their managers approve their job description,” DeWitt says. “So it gave everybody in the organization a chance to write down what they were doing and what their functions are in the company and the managers signed off on it. That provided the foundation for this benchmarking.”

DeWitt’s goal was to take an honest look at where the Cardinals ranked in terms of salary and benefit structures with its peers. So that’s exactly what he told employees when introducing this idea of composing job descriptions.

“We were just honest about it,” DeWitt says. “We said we want to understand the salary structure and where we fit in. There’s a level of trust between employee and management that goes back a number of years in that we’ve had some success on the field as well as off the field in growing the brand and growing the business.

“I could see where in a struggling business, employees might be skeptical of that figuring there is a right-sizing type of exercise going on. We were clear that that was not what this exercise was all about. We were just honest and upfront and that worked out well.”

DeWitt and his team took the job descriptions that had been composed and the data gathered about other organizations in terms of salaries, benefits and bonus compensation plans and began to get a better sense of where the Cardinals fit in when compared with its peers.

The project is ongoing, but DeWitt says he likes the direction it is heading.

“Between salary, bonus and benefits, you’ve got a full picture of how front office people are compensated,” DeWitt says. “It’s a much better way of having that conversation with employees than just having to be defensive about what Albert Pujols makes.”

When he does face more questions about perceived compensation inequities, DeWitt says he will often give people the option to try something new.

“Let’s say they are not in sales and they are probing about what is different about the compensation structure,” DeWitt says. “You just say, ‘If you want to be in sales, you’re welcome to try it.’ I think that’s one of the things we’ve tried on a few occasions. Some people have said, ‘Maybe I will give it a shot,’ or, ‘No, that’s not for me.’ They understand that there is no prejudicial approach, it’s just form following function in the way we set up compensation structures.”

Recognize all the parts

You could have the greatest starting pitcher in all of baseball on your staff, but if the rest of the rotation is terrible, you’re not going too far with your team. It’s the same way in business when it comes to completing projects.

“We have a number of people that are on the sales side, for example in corporate sales, that try to land a deal,” DeWitt says. “But there is also a servicing aspect. Once you’ve done a deal, that’s great. But we need to deliver all these assets to people as part of these agreements.”

So before you offer up a gold watch or use of the company jet to your top salesman who sold a major deal with a client, take a moment to look at the work others do to give that client the most bang for their buck.

“A company might have a sponsoring package with us, a day at the ballpark where all their employees come and get a breakout session where they might have a batting practice on the field,” DeWitt says. “That requires execution from our staff. You have operations people that work with the facility vice president and they need to help with prepping the field and bringing out the equipment and doing all that. The servicing people on the corporate sales side have to be there and walk the customer through the event. Obviously, the salesperson is going to be part of that. But it’s a team effort, not so much in closing a deal but in delivering the assets. A lot of things require a lot of teamwork around here. That helps foster that and breaks down some of those walls that would otherwise exist.”

The answer is pretty simple: Show appreciation to those unsung people who aren’t on the front lines of closing the deal but still play an integral part in getting the client what they paid for.

“Just acknowledging it is a big step in the right direction for that issue,” DeWitt says. “Telling an employee that they are giving the extra effort and it’s appreciated. That’s half the battle in terms of employee relations. … We try to give everybody in the organization a sense they are part of the overall goal of servicing the customers and getting more fans to the ballpark.”

Know your role

DeWitt does not turn away employees who have concerns, even if those concerns seem pretty minor at first glance. At the same time, he doesn’t always launch an immediate investigation into every problem that gets brought to his door.

“Generally speaking, you want employees to solve their problems themselves,” DeWitt says. “If they are running into a problem getting that done, even if it’s somewhat trivial, I’m not going to just send them back out to solve it. I’ll work with them. But you want that bar to be reasonably high for them to come in to see you. Otherwise, you get a lot of little issues that might otherwise have been dealt with at a lower level.”

DeWitt makes it known that he is available to anyone in the Cardinals organization at any level.

“Make sure the people who report directly to you understand that you’re always going to take a phone call from someone within the organization at any level,” DeWitt says. “Then you’re not undercutting them, because it’s always been your policy. That’s important.”

One technique you can use to make that kind of undercutting less likely to occur is to put the person who is complaining in your shoes.

“You say to them, ‘If you were me, what would you do with this problem?’” DeWitt says. “That gets people to think in a different way about the problem they are part of. ‘Do you want me to address this with your supervisor or do you want to see if it gets better before I get involved? Do you want to try a different approach before I get involved first?’

“Those are the kinds of things that when employees have raised problems with me, hopefully that’s a fresh way to think about it. Sometimes it leads to resolution; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a good start in terms of looking at it and maybe getting it solved before you have to address things head on.”

Posing questions is also a good way to make sure that you’re not missing problems that may be festering in your company without your knowledge. Instead of asking these questions to people who are bringing you a complaint, sit down with someone who you trust to give you good feedback and honest answers.

“Particularly your most trusted employees that you don’t have performance issues with at all,” DeWitt says. “Getting advice from those employees about how you could communicate better or get better feedback from others, that’s an important thing to do. Sometimes you need to put your ego aside in that instance. If you’re the president of the club, people aren’t just going to serve up advice. But if you’re open to pulling it out of people a bit, you can learn a lot about how effective you’re being.”

How to reach: St. Louis Cardinals LLC, (314) 345-9600 or stlouis.cardinals.mlb.com

The DeWitt File

Born: Cincinnati

Education: History of art, Yale University; Harvard Business School

Talk about the connection between your family, baseball and the cities of St. Louis and Cincinnati: My grandfather was in baseball here in St. Louis his whole life. He grew up as a treasurer for the Cardinals and worked for the Browns and moved on to a bunch of different things in baseball. One of which was he got involved with the Reds as a general manager and owner in the early 1960s. So my family moved to Cincinnati from St. Louis. Then when my father got involved as chairman and led the ownership group in 1996 in St. Louis — it was sort of a homecoming.

What is your best memory with the Cardinals?

It would have to be the World Series victory in 2006. That was just a great moment for us.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

I would say definitely my father in terms of that direct relationship and the fact that he has a certain personality and style that I’ve emulated to some extent. He’s very much a leader by example, sort of quiet, but prepared and very passionate. Those are the qualities I try to emulate with a slightly different style.

Whom would you like to meet?

It would probably be Branch Rickey, who gave my grandfather his first job. He was a legendary figure in the Cardinals organization and the times were so different back then in terms of what baseball was all about. And yet he was trying to win the same game. To compare and contrast what we deal with versus what he was dealing with that many years ago would have been a neat thing to probe.