Meet Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s and subject of the Oscar-nominated biopic Moneyball (2011) and learn how the use of analytics revolutionized how baseball evaluated player talent.
Learn how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane found a path to success by employing a form of sports analysis called sabermetrics, which reduced uncertainty in baseball recruiting when most of the industry was relying on the gut reaction of talent scouts. The impact it had on the sport was the subject of the 2011 film Moneyball featuring Brad Pitt as Billy. Learn how strategic, data-driven hiring helped weed out bias, assess value, and impact the success of an organization.
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David Mead: Welcome to Behind The Talent, a podcast from Indeed where we sit down with the people who find the people that drive industries, entertainment and culture. We’ll hear how they do it and expand our understanding of what it means to be a recruiter in today's world of work.
I'm David Mead. On today's show, the story of baseball player and executive Billy Beane. Major League Baseball had been around for over a century when he revolutionized the game and turned the Oakland A's into a business model for strategic, calculated, data-driven hiring and decision making. In 2011, Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Beane in the film Moneyball based on Michael Lewis's bestselling book.
A movie about an analytical approach to hiring in baseball? Sounds like serious stuff, but at the time of its release, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers — who had expected, quote, "nothing duller" — described it as "one of the best and most viscerally exciting films of the year." Whether you've read the book or seen the movie, whether or not you even follow baseball, I know you'll enjoy getting to know Billy Beane. Baseball is his life, but Billy Beane's strategies applied to many recruiters and managers in many professions. It was a beautiful morning in San Francisco. Billy had crossed the bridge from Oakland to talk with us about baseball, business and the business of baseball.
David Mead: Billy, I did the math. You've been in baseball — first as a player, and then as an executive — for 40 years, and that's just the professional part.
Billy Beane: You know what I love about baseball? I love how it started for me. It started with me and my dad playing catch in the yard.
David Mead: And did he teach you anything about life through baseball?
Billy Beane: My dad was … and he would admit he played all four sports … track, football, baseball, basketball. But as he said, he wasn't particularly good at them. It was my mother who was actually a really good athlete. But I think it's also my father who … sort of the diligence and the discipline, you know, sort of instilling that competitiveness in me ... it came from him.
David Mead (Narration): Billy Beane’s dad was a career U.S. Naval Officer, and Billy grew up in a military town — San Diego, California. He was a fan and student of sports from an early age.
Billy Beane: The Padres came to town as an expansion team when I was seven. And you hear this all the time, but it's absolutely true. I would lay with the radio under my pillow at night. Listening to the Padre games, and then if the Padres were off or weren't playing that night, I would try and tune into the Dodgers who I hated. [LAUGHS] I just wanted to hear 'em lose.
David Mead (Narration): Later, at Mount Carmel High School, Billy was a standout in three sports…baseball, football and basketball. He had a .501 batting average in his sophomore and junior years. During his senior year, his average dropped to just .300. In fact, Billy was such a great all-around athlete, Stanford University offered him a full scholarship in both football and baseball. Their plan was to groom him to be the eventual replacement quarterback when John Elway graduated.
Billy Beane: Professional baseball was not part of the plan at 18. It was potentially part of the plan after college.
David Mead (Narration): But then the baseball draft happened. The New York Mets chose Darryl Strawberry with their initial first round draft pick. Then with a second first round pick, they wanted Billy Beane. And first round draft picks get offered good money. But there was another factor that sold him on joining the Mets.
Billy Beane: The scout who was part of the selection process when I was drafted by the Mets — a gentleman named Roger Youngward. We became very close. My family really liked and trusted him. That relationship that I had with him became very important when I made the decision because in some sense he was my first representation to pro ball, and he was a great representation.
David Mead (Narration): So a scout — baseball's version of a recruiter — played a major role in the direction of Billy Beane's life. That Mets scout showed Billy and his family that he understood their goals and values. Good recruiters who are the first to see the potential in candidates can then nurture lasting relationships.
Billy Beane: And they said, 'We want to honor your choice to go to Stanford. So what we'd like to do is we'd like to compensate you. And we want to allow you to go to school.’ So at that point, I had the best of both worlds, and they were very smart. At that time, teams weren’t doing that. It wasn't so much that I was, had this desire to go play baseball, as I've mentioned earlier. It was that, ‘Listen, they’re going to pay me a lot of money and this is a heck of a lot of money to take to go to school.’
David Mead (Narration): So Billy signed, but he quickly learned that pro ball was extremely demanding, and Billy never took advantage of that scholarship. He's gone on to say that that was the last decision that he ever made for money. But it's one that a lot of people make.
Billy Beane: You know in fairness, it sounds really great when you say, you know, ‘I'm never going to make decisions based on money.’ But also understand when I was able to finally say that, I was in a good financial position. So we fast forward later in my life. When I was talking about going to accept a job with the Red Sox, you know, I was able to say that because I was still in a good financial position.
David Mead: Sure.
Billy Beane: I've had friends who've been in this business who every two years move to the next thing and it's part of their personality. They kind of regenerate with that new challenge. And then there's someone like myself and people I've worked with who've never left.
I love living in California. I love the Bay area. I love that I'm an hour flight from my mother and my father and my sister and my brother. My wife's family's all here. You know, even considering in Boston, my daughter was out here on the West coast. And the idea that I'd come home to California in 20 years and my daughter's 30. My parents go from 60 to 80. I didn't want to miss that part of their lives just because I was getting a lot of money.
David Mead: As you've seen, you know, players or people in the front office. What are they bringing that you feel makes them successful?
Billy Beane: First of all, it's very, very intelligent. It's very smart. It's also very young. You have a group of young executives, men and women. They’re renting. They don’t necessarily want to buy a home. They want to be flexible. But I think more than anything, the baseball industry is very much like the tech industry where we demand the same skill sets. And baseball is doing very, very well, from a financial standpoint, so it has the ability to compensate these young people who have the skill sets. You know, I think it's actually good for the game.
A data-driven approach…to baseball?
David Mead (Narration): The analytical science of baseball called sabermetrics had been around for years, but Billy Beane's Oakland A's was the first team to consistently put those statistics to use. Major League Baseball would never be the same.
Billy Beane: Certainly, my own experience as a player laid the seeds. The fact that I myself was somewhat probably a bit of an overrated, misvalued asset. But really what I think really accelerated was when I stopped playing and I was hired by Sandy Alderson, the general manager of the A's at the time. Sandy's background was very different. He was a lawyer here in San Francisco. And so he, he was able — because he had no experience bias — he was able to say, ‘Why are we doing things this way? It doesn’t make sense.’
He came into my office and threw a bunch of Bill James writings, right? And some of them were like, typed. And Bill James was, quite frankly, a baseball academic, and Sandy had given them to me and said, ‘Hey, listen, this makes sense to me. I want you to read them ‘cause I think this is really, you know, what we're going to have to ultimately do here to compete.’
It was a very rational way of looking at building a baseball team. It was essentially a mathematical formula, simply put, and it sorta created order in what before was really sort of a chaotic process and a very gut feel, intuitions. It, literally, my eyes just said, ‘Oh my gosh, this makes absolute sense to me.’ And I mean he'd been saying for years that on base percentage was, you know, a more important statistic than batting average that the on base percentage had the highest correlation that impacted a team’s winning percentage, that and pitcher’s ERA. It was not the highest paid skill, but yet it was the most important skill.
So it was a ‘Shazam’ moment. I mean, if I was going to run a club, I had a choice. I could either be objective, or I can be subjective. And it made no sense whatsoever, given the information, 160 years’ worth of data in the form of statistics was out there that you could utilize, and you could do it for free to put together a baseball team. And you didn't have to feel like you were guessing on what the outcome was going to be.
Our payroll was one of the lowest in the game, and we were a lot more ruthless with its implementation. We stopped making apologies, and we just said, ‘This is what we're going to do. And we’re not going to deviate from this.’
David Mead: So to you, is it very binary? Is it either, you do it all subjectively, or all objectively, or is there a healthy mix?
Billy Beane: I try not to have any hybrid if possible. Mainly because I want to have a consistent process. And if I'm, if we're wrong, we want to be able to evaluate that. I always sort of use the analogy of a card counter in Las Vegas. A card counter in Las Vegas is not gambling. He's going to win. Like, if you went to a card counter — and this is probably a simplistic explanation — and said, ‘You know, listen. Just count cards about every three or four hands.’ It's not going to work.
We sort of applied that, because we wanted to make sure that the small amount of capital we had, that we were making probabilistic decisions and we couldn't afford to make decisions based on our gut or a hunch. We thought an actuary could do a better job running our team than we could. Because they were disciplined. It was mathematical. It was based on information. It wasn't based on any emotion or our own personal experience bias.
David Mead: So when decisions are almost entirely based on information, why not just have a computer do your job?
Billy Beane: We all have great data and information now, and ultimately executing it is the rubicon, I think, and what separates a lot of baseball teams out there. And that takes a human being to do that. We were mispricing baseball players’ skills. Baseball academics had been saying for years, ‘You're paying for the wrong things.’
When people run a business, in many cases, the first thing they do is they look for inspiration from others who've run the business successfully. We did that a little bit, but we looked outside the game. We looked at Wall Street too. At the time in the late 80s and 90s, you know, the quantitative hedge funds were sort of starting to dominate and they were making decisions based on information based on mathematical models. And that's how, quite frankly, we needed to make decisions in Oakland. We had to make sure we got a return on our investment, and we couldn't afford to be romantic about decisions or intuitive. We just thought that that was, uh, too risky.
David Mead: I admire the idea of looking outside of the industry. When we are in a role or in an organization for so long, we obviously have a lot of times these unconscious biases that sort of drive our behavior and our thinking. And people who are either new to an industry or just getting their first job, for example, who come in; who have an ability to look at something and say, ‘That doesn't seem quite right…’ How can they share those ideas in a way that will be accepted by those who have been doing it forever and have all the experience?
Billy Beane: Well, certainly, there's a fear. A lot of it's the personality, too. I might take, a guy like Farhan … one of my own assistants here, Farhan Zaidi, who's running the San Francisco Giants now. First of all, he had this ability to connect with people. He’d challenge you intellectually without offending you or putting you on the defensive, which is a skill why he’s running the San Francisco Giants. You immediately leave the room liking him. So when you like somebody, it's much easier for that person to say something. And Sandy had that skill too.
David Mead: So with this data-driven approach that you've taken to recruiting, where does the human element come in?
Billy Beane: There was this concern or belief that we were gonna eliminate scouting departments which at that time the scouting department was basically the opinion department. They thought when we brought in a data driven approach that, ‘Oh, well you don't need us anymore because you're just going to make decisions from the computer.’ It was actually … couldn't have been further from the truth. What we were — we were data-driven, which means we're information driven.
There was information they could give us that we could never get from a computer, which is the human information you're talking about. What kind of kid is he? Tell me about his family. Tell me about his interests. Tell me about his habits. All things that would not show up on the field. We could also take that information and put that into our models, and actually puts that scout in a better position to succeed than the old way of doing it. Whereas it was like, go see a kid for an hour play a game and predict the rest of his life athletically … which we thought was a pretty tough job to do.
David Mead: Obviously, the success of the organization is important. The success of the team is important. How much focus was put on the success of each individual player?
Billy Beane: Well, listen. In some sense, if they don't, then the team's not going to be successful. We're not going to be successful. If we ran our team and chose players exactly the way, say the Yankees did, then payroll was going to determine where we finished. Many of the players were … were somewhat flawed in terms of their skills, but we had to identify a skill that we could utilize and maybe something that somebody wasn't recognizing.
A great example is Scott Hatteberg.
Managing a diversity of skills
David Mead (Narration): In fact, Scott Hatteberg is such a great example of Billy Beane’s talent acquisition strategy that his character was a central figure in Moneyball. When Billy declined to outbid the Yankees and consequently lost star first baseman Jason Giambi from the A’s roster, Beane and his analysts came up with an unlikely and more affordable solution in Hatteberg.
Billy Beane: He's a catcher who didn't throw particularly well, but the one thing he did...he hit the ball very hard consistently. Simply put, that's what he did. We wanted to take that one skill that he had, which was very good, and try and remove him from the skills that actually were harming him as a player which was being judged on which was being a catcher and being a catcher who couldn't throw. So we said, ‘All right, we want this bat and we're going to put you at 1st where your defense is less of an impact and maybe you have a chance of being a better defensive player. But more importantly, we get to take advantage of the one skill that is very, very, very good and not have the other skills that you don't have that could ultimately harm the team.’ Now the answer to your question is, we had a bunch of players who recognized that we saw something in them that other teams didn't. They, by nature, are self-confident people.
So when we select ‘em, they finally get to say, ‘Yeah, well, finally someone recognizes that... that I'm good.’ We were giving opportunities to people who weren't getting the opportunity somewhere else, and collectively sort of put together a team of 25 players with maybe one skill, and kind of mix and match ‘em — and have a successful team.
David Mead: What was the team dynamic around that? Because you know, you've obviously got a whole team who's, you know, concerned with winning and you know, they, to know that they're going to have a defensive first baseman that doesn't know what he's doing.
Billy Beane: ‘Hey, are you sure this is going to work?’ We certainly got that pushback. When you talk about convincing either players or employees as to what you're doing, one of the great things about objective decision making is you can show why you did something, instead of telling somebody, you know, ‘I just felt it in my gut.’ That's a hard thing to explain to people. If you're right, they go, ‘Wow, what a great gut you have.’ But when you have data, even if you're wrong, you say, ‘Well listen, this is why you know we did this because this equals this equals this.’
David Mead: So when you’re managing employees who have healthy egos, what’s the right balance between being encouraging, and letting them feel just a little too appreciated and valuable?
Billy Beane: When things are going really good, I'm actually a very, very difficult person to work for. And it's somewhat by design. It's almost … I expect to win every game. And when we make one mistake, I'm gonna make sure they hear about it. Now, one of the reasons you can do that is when a team is winning, they have a high self-esteem. They can handle criticism, and they can absorb it. They either take it positively or they completely ignore you because they feel so good about themselves.
And the reverse is true when you're losing games. Uh, your self-esteem is pretty low as a team. And you've gotta be careful when you're criticizing in that situation, because it can have a negative effect. My manager who's actually one of the best in the business at it, Bob Melvin — he sort of adapts his management style to 25 different individuals. There are certain things he can say to some, and there's certain things he can say to others.
Imagine the job of a major league manager. You got 25 millionaires in their twenties. And you have to deal with each one very differently and ultimately get them all pushing the same direction. He has to have respect, but in the same sense, he has to have empathy for them. It's like a three-sentence conversation. If it's four sentences, it's got on a little too long. If it's two sentences, it's a little too short. ‘How are you doing? How's your family? How are you feeling today?’ They have to know that he cares, but you can't be so close that you're an equal.
David Mead: When it comes to the front office, for example, where you don't have stats, right? An executive assistant doesn't come with a history of stats. How is hiring different for the front office positions? How have you approached that in a different way than maybe you've done for the players?
Billy Beane: It's a good question. I'll tell you a little story. So we had 1500 resumes. We had to whittle it down. And the final two were … that second one, we almost hired him. He was a young man from Yale, an applied math major, didn't play sports but read the book Moneyball and now realized he could work in baseball. The young man we did hire was Farhan Zaidi. But at the very bottom of Farhan's resume. Farhan writes, ‘I'm also a fan of Britpop and Oasis.’ Well, Oasis happens to be my favorite band. [LAUGHS] But when Farhan left the office, we went, ‘That's the guy.’ To be around somebody for 16 hours a day during the season, you have to truly like them. And we truly liked Farhan in the interview. There was that sort of human personal connection.
David Mead: So it sounds like, especially for off-the-field positions, there’s more to your hiring strategy than just stats.
Billy Beane: I know whenever in an interview process, you're going to make mistakes, and you're going to miss people who deserve the opportunity.
David Mead: When you recruit a player, they know that at any time they can be traded, any time, they can be sent down. They go into it knowing that, ‘I might not be here for very long.’ Whereas in another type of job, you're going to hopefully be there for the long haul. And you know, you want to build trust and relationship with the people that you work with. That culture is really important. How is that different?
Billy Beane: It's actually a really good question. Take a player for instance, and his family. One way of, sort of that connection, is sort of physically laying down roots in that community. You know, when you buy a house, your kids go to school there, you live there all year round. In some sense being an Oakland, there's this sort of, ‘us against the world’ mentality that players have. And it creates this unique bond internally with the players. Again, a lot of them are there because someone else didn't want them.
There's not a lot of rules. They sort of govern themselves. We don't micromanage how they live. As a result, there's a bonding that goes on, even if it's short-term. If we're winning, these guys know everything's gonna be fine. Wherever they are the next year they're probably going to get paid a lot of money when they leave. And if we put good players on the field and they win, they're going to like each other. They're going to enjoy themselves, even if they know maybe it's a one- or a two-year deal.
David Mead: What advice would you give a leader of a team with very different personalities to help people come together?
Billy Beane: When the team's having success, it means individuals collectively are having success, which means as individuals, they're probably doing well. And a baseball team is just like a business, except it's more intense. The difference is: In a business, you come to work every day. Baseball team, you come to work and you actually dress next to each other. You're there for, just like a business, eight, nine, ten hours a day. And when things are going good, they're all basically in a good mood, just like a business. And they usually get along.
When things aren't going good, just like a business, people are pointing fingers at somebody else, blaming somebody else. They're looking for an exit and they're usually probably bickering. A baseball team does that, just like a business does that. The best thing I can do is to make sure I put the best team on the field. And usually the teams that have won, has always had great culture and great chemistry, and the ones that have not won have usually blamed the culture and chemistry.
Usually at the end of the year when a team in any sport wins, they usually see him celebrating afterwards. And somebody will say, ‘We weren't the most talented team,’ which in many cases, is not necessarily the case. But they like to apply some sort of intangible to their success, something that can't be measured. And they'll say, ‘We loved each other. We had chemistry.’
If your baseball team is losing a hundred games, you rarely will see that general manager — even the player — come out at the end of the season and say, ‘You know, we really stunk this year, but we had a great clubhouse, a great culture, and we want to bring everybody back and do it again.’ [LAUGHS] It usually doesn't work.
So, a winning team that they will then apply the success to the culture, as opposed to the data that tells you why you succeeded. In fact, I think Tom Hanks is a huge A's fan. He was, I think he was a vendor here. You know, everyone loves Tom Hanks. Like who doesn't, right? One of the nicest people, period. If putting together a great baseball team was really just about finding really great guys, I said, ‘I'd go get Tom Hanks, and just put him on the field and everybody would love him, and everybody’s great … we’d win every game.’ It’s just, I don’t know if Tom could hit a curveball. He might be able to, but I’m not sure he could.
David Mead: I mean who knows? Maybe any one of us has the potential to hit a curve ball someday. When you hire based mostly on data that measures past performance, does future potential even matter?
Billy Beane: Certainly, yeah. You're trying to capture future performance, not past performance. You just use past performance as a guide to try and predict future performance. So, internally, I want to hire on potential. There isn't a statistic that would tell you, for a front office employee, why they might make a great general manager.
Whenever I hire somebody, I ultimately want their goal to be to have my job.
The art of talent attraction
David Mead: Imagine for a minute that you wake up tomorrow, baseball doesn't exist. You find yourself as a CEO of a public utility. How do you attract people and bring people into an industry that's maybe, not so sexy?
Billy Beane: HA! Now understand, baseball for a hundred and something years didn't take advantage of the fact that people wanted to work in it. That's not the case now. If the culture is poor, it doesn't matter what you're doing. I know businesses that everyone probably would have loved to have worked for at any point in their life, that I've known people who worked for ‘em who said it was not the experience that they had hoped for and then the reverse is true. Sports isn't nearly as fun if you're … the office that you're coming into every day is a nightmare to work around. So I don't think it's so much what your … the business you're in. I think it's the business — who you're in business with, and who are your peer group, and what kind of culture and what kind of an environment you're working around.
David Mead: As you're trying to, to recruit new talent for this organization, how are you selling it? ‘We're a bunch of great people?’ What's the message that you, that you send?
Billy Beane: Well, the great thing about sports is you don't have to sell it.
David Mead: But imagine you're not in sports.
Billy Beane: Exactly. [LAUGHS] Nobody says, you know, like, ‘Hey, listen. I heard it's really horrible to work for the A's.’ Externally, we certainly have an organizational structure. You know, I'm on top of the baseball operations and David Forst is right below me, and down and down. But, internally, we actually have a pretty flat structure in terms of the way we run the day to day. When we started hiring analysts, sort of the mathematicians, they had a seat at the same table as all the baseball operations. We didn't sort of, create a hierarchy right from the beginning. Again, it was flat.
I think the other thing, my own style, to be honest with you is that, I think to be a great leader, you have to have some humility. I know what I'm not good at. I tell people what I'm not good at. You know, as a result, my staff reflects sort of complementing, you know — I think myself and me, them with bringing in people who do things much better than I do. And there's an empathy that exists when you're, I think, humble at the top of the organizational chart.
David Mead: What have you found that helps you to keep that ego in check?
Billy Beane: Baseball is very humbling. If you're a great hitter, if you're a .300 hitter, you're unsuccessful 70% of the time. When you fail that many times, you realize that you are not an infallible person. When I was young, I remember driving to work on a daily basis, and we won 10 games in a row and I'm like, ‘Wow, I got this thing wired.’ Then the next thing you know, you find out a year later, you're going on your way to losing 90 games. I've got to figure out a way to get out of this. And I've gotten through enough cycles to where I realize when things are going really good, I'm actually preparing for when things are going to turn.
David Mead: And what does that preparation process look like?
Billy Beane: If I know we're not going to be good forever, how do I make sure that timeframe when we're poor is as short as possible? And how do I prepare? I'm already thinking about, ‘All right, this is going to be an issue in a year. This is going to be an issue in two years.’ Now the reverse is when things are going really bad, I'm driving to the office and I know this is not going to stay like this forever. It's going to change. I'm kind of a strange person to be around because when things are going good, I'm kind of a miserable person. [LAUGHS] And when things are going bad, I'm a little too optimistic.
In fact, Farhan made a funny. [LAUGHS]. I think it was ‘06. We started out really poorly. You know, I kept coming in and you know, giving him the old, ‘Rah, rah!’ You know, I'm sort of kind of in a good mood when things are going bad. And then we ultimately won the division. At the end of the year, he goes, ‘You know, I thought that was just some leadership garbage you read in some book about doing that.’ I know it's going to turn. We don't want to be afraid to make a decision.
David Mead: What's that balance? How do you manage that change? How have you found that that works well?
Billy Beane: Being prepared for change helps. Sometimes things happen that you didn't anticipate. I think the biggest fear for change in anything, whether you're running a business or even in your own life, is people fear discomfort. Being emotionally uncomfortable is making a decision that you know, the press is not going to like, okay. And then kicking that decision down the road so that you don't have to face that discomfort. I sorta ask everybody and I try and do this personally — embrace the discomfort. Look forward to it in a weird way. Let's embrace it. I mean, change is an opportunity. It's not an opportunity you always want to have to make. Listen, when I lose Jason Giambi, it's not like, ‘Hey, I'm looking forward to not having the best hitter in baseball on my team.’
And when you have change, you have a lot of opportunities to make decisions that might actually lead to greater progress or greater growth. We then go back to explain why we're doing this. And it's usually an objective process that we're utilizing. ‘This is why we think we have a chance of succeeding, and if we're not successful, this is what we're going to do.’ Explaining to people why they're doing something helps a lot instead of just saying like, ‘Just do it ‘cause I told you.’ You could say, ‘Guess what? You know what, we might not be right, but if we're not, this is what we're going to do.’
David Mead: If you have a bad year, I mean there's no such thing as going out of business. You just hit the reset button, you know, beginning of next season.
Billy Beane: I think in some sense that's what sort of perpetuated baseball teams being run the same way, because Chapter 11 has a way of changing the way you do business very quickly. A baseball team, you lose a hundred games and you just start over the next year. So you keep kind of doing the same things over and over again. Chapter 11, that hanging over your head should make you understand that every decision you have has a risk and reward, and what's the probability you're going to be, right?
Which goes back to data. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you guys were … you guys took such risks.’ You know, that's sort of what everyone says in business: ‘You gotta take risks.’ We actually did the exact opposite. We were not risky at all. In fact, everything we did was to minimize risk. So it was the opposite of what everyone actually thought. We couldn't afford to be wrong.
David Mead: In your mind, is it okay to temporarily sacrifice, you know, whether it be productivity or performance or whatever, knowing that it's gonna to have some good in the long term?
Billy Beane: Yeah. Ultimately, listen: you always want to play the long term. The long game is ultimately what we're all trying to do. That's why I don't like to watch the games. I doubt seriously that Warren Buffett stares at the market all day. You know, he doesn't tell you what the market's gonna do tomorrow or in three days. He just says, ‘I think in five years it's going to be higher than it is now. And I'm willing to bet on the long term.’
David Mead: With all the changes being reported in the media, I mean every time we pick up our phone, there's some new thing going on, there's some new trend, there's some change happening. How do you differentiate between what's actually important to pay attention to, and what's just noise?
Billy Beane: It's a good question. When do you adopt something? I mean, I think ultimately when you feel like you've got proof that it's successful, and it's going to continue to be successful.
David Mead: You've talked so much about the objectivity and the, you know, data-driven analysis and all this stuff. How do you protect yourself from your own biases that come up?
Billy Beane: Listen, as soon as you're doing the new new thing, as soon as you’re doing it, you start to create habits and biases whether you want to believe it or not. As soon as a business starts, the clock is ticking and a culture starts to embed itself. And it can do it in a very short time. And sometimes the worst thing is when you have success, because when you're, when you're having success, you don't feel like there's any need to change.
Return(s) on investment
David Mead: What about when fans really love a player and then buy tickets? Does that affect his value?
Billy Beane: The challenge in baseball is that you have 81 baseball games, and a lot of those games are on Monday nights, on Tuesday nights, on Wednesday nights. So the burden on us is to create an entertaining and a successful product on the field so that people don't just come out on Friday and Saturday when they have time off, but they come out on a Wednesday when they're done with work. They won't come out 81 times to see their favorite player, if that favorite player is not part of a winning baseball team.
David Mead: So in other businesses and industries, customers have favorite employees too, I'm especially thinking of, for example, salespeople that clients might really enjoy working with, but the product they're selling still has to be great.
Billy Beane: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
David Mead: I've heard you say that you, you don't want to invest in what you can't measure. You're so proud of your mentor tree and what you're able to do to help those that you mentor go on to do something great. But how do you justify making that investment in mentoring when you can't necessarily measure the results?
Billy Beane: I really truly want to make myself the dumbest guy in the room, because ultimately I'm going to benefit the most, if that makes sense, in a selfish … way. I'm at the top of the business organization. If I've got 12 people who are all smarter than me underneath, the business is going to benefit. Now, the downside to that is that I'm ultimately going to lose those people when they go on to run their own club. It has been uncomfortable for me, because I've gotten very comfortable having these people helping me make decisions — brilliant people — and it’s forced me to evolve and change by virtue of their exit, which ultimately is a good thing.
David Mead: How do you get the courage to make those decisions as a leader?
Billy Beane: Knowing that, that it's an opportunity to grow. If I resist making those and I resist those changes, then ultimately, I'm guilty of creating an old-school culture that you're doing the same thing over and over again without change, and you then become stagnant. So I don't fear change, and I don't fear exits.
David Mead: I mean, as somebody who has made such a mark in the recruiting world, what do you want to be remembered for in that, in that sense as a, as a great recruiter — what do you want people to remember about you?
Billy Beane: I think what I'm most proud of, and I say I, we — ‘cause it wasn't just me — is that we made baseball and turned it into a meritocracy. The best and the brightest now will run baseball teams. Not because you played, not because you came up in the business. It's a more diverse, dynamic, robust employment base now. We have more women involved in this. We have more diversity. Not just people from this country. Farhan Zaidi’s family was from Pakistan and he grew up in the Philippines. Now he’s running one of the biggest sports teams on the planet.
I'm very proud of the fact that in 10 years, I won't be smart enough to apply for my own job. I said to David Forst, I said, ‘I wouldn’t even get an interview today.’ And I looked at him as well and I said, ‘By the way, you wouldn't either and you went to Harvard.’ [LAUGHS]
David Mead: There's a lot of competition in hiring.
Billy Beane: Yes, because managing large amounts of data are important for every business today. It's the thing, you know, you heard when you're a kid. The math, it's the sciences.
David Mead: So, Billy, before I let you go, what didn’t I ask? What’s the question that people ask you a lot that we didn’t have a chance to get to today?
Billy Beane: ‘What kind of a guy is Brad Pitt?’ And, honestly, he's a great guy. He's smart as a whip. He's funny. He's humble. You wouldn't find a more grounded person. I never heard him say one negative thing about anybody. And that's a very rare … that you could ever say about anybody. I mean, he literally is just a good guy.
David Mead: Great hiring is both an art and a science. Billy Beane brought a lot more science to the process in Major League Baseball, but he's good at the art of business too. By looking outside baseball for the people who could change it, Billy has had a lasting impact on the game and on other businesses too.
I'm David Mead. Thank you for listening. Thanks to Billy Beane for crossing the bridge to share his profound modestly delivered wisdom. We hope you'll subscribe for more episodes of Behind The Talent so you can meet more experts at hiring people who, like Billy, bring fresh perspectives on how to find the right people for a job.
On our next episode, the story of talent agent Shep Gordon.
[TEASE OF NEXT EPISODE]
Shep Gordon: I always, I would tell everybody in my office, ‘We don't have a normal job. We have a person's life in our hands. If we fail with Luther, we go on to Max or somebody else. Luther doesn't go on. He's got one life. You have a life in your hands.’ Be of service to that person.
David Mead: Shep Gordon is on the next Behind The Talent.
Behind the Talent is a Wondery production brought to you by Indeed. Find more Behind The Talent as well as videos and articles about the world of recruiting at indeed.com/lead.