CSU researcher: Leadership changes can help an organization, and the Philadelphia Phillies are proof

The mid-season turnaround of the Philadelphia Phillies might be the story of this year’s World Series – and it’s a real-world example of Colorado State University College of Business Associate Dean M. Travis Maynard’s research about the benefits of  leadership changes. 

Back in 2017, he and three co-authors published the findings of their analysis of Major League Baseball data from 1974-2008, where they found 129 examples of teams that experienced in-season coaching changes. 

Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Travis Maynard

M. Travis Maynard is an associate dean at the CSU College of Business.

“It’s been fun to see the Phillies have such a tremendous turnaround, especially since one of my co-authors is at Drexel University in Philadelphia,” Maynard said. “We’ve taken pride in seeing what our article suggested actually come to fruition.”

Here are four examples of how insights from this research apply to the Phillies’ World Series run.

Most teams can benefit from a leadership shakeup

The story of the Phillies’ season might actually begin on June 3, when the 22-29 team fired manager Joe Girardi. Bench coach Rob Thomson was named the interim manager, and at the time, the franchise was 12 games behind the first-place New York Mets, and 5.5 games out of the final wild card spot in the National League. 

The Phillies proceeded to go 65-46 under Thomson’s leadership, and he became the fourth interim manager in Major League Baseball history to take over a team at least seven games below .500 and propel them into the postseason.

While the Phillies’ playoff run was certainly historic, Maynard and his co-authors’ analysis of other MLB teams found it’s not necessarily out of the ordinary. In fact, on average teams had a winning percentage of 43% prior to leadership shakeups, and 49% post-change. 

“Post-change performance was higher for permanent replacements, but across all the instances included in our sample, performance increased following both permanent and interim leadership transitions,” Maynard said.

A coach can make a difference, but they need the right tools to do it.

This goes without saying, but there’s only so much a coach can do if they don’t have the proper tools. 

And the Phillies have the talent, between NL home run champion Kyle Schwarber,  two-time MVP Bryce Harper (who was out for most of the summer with an injury), All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and, perhaps most importantly, pitchers Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. 

“When teams underwent leadership changes, we found that if they had good players in the strategic core – in this case, pitchers – and the non-strategic core (all other positions), their performance after the coaching change increases,” Maynard said.

Of course, good coaches also need to know how to use the tools at their disposal – and it’s something Thomson was lauded for after the first game of the World Series, when he took Nola out in the middle of the fifth inning and relied on his bullpen to close out the game for a victory.

Maynard’s research backs up this decision. 

“The impact of good pitchers on post-leader change performance was enhanced if the new manager engaged in more ‘action-phase functional leadership’ – or, to put it simply, more pitching changes,” Maynard said.

An interim leader needs to lead in a different way than a permanent replacement

Maynard’s research found that interim leaders need to engage with teams in different ways than permanent ones – mainly that interim leaders benefit from being more proactive in how they engage with key members of the team. 

Once again, Thomson’s leadership exemplifies this theory. 

Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said Thomson’s “calm demeanor and ability to communicate with players and staff” greatly benefitted the organization. 

In an interview with The New York Times, veteran Phillies second baseman Jean Segura also lauded Thomson’s leadership skills, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran or you’re a rookie, he treats you the same.” 

Segura added: If you respect me, I’m going to respect you back. It’s something Thomson does a really good job at — communicating.”

These lessons can also apply to real-world businesses

Hall of Fame MLB broadcaster Ernie Harwell once said that “baseball is a lot like life.” One could also say it’s a lot like business. 

Mayard said leadership tenure in organizations is declining, so studying leadership transition and interim leaders is more important today than ever. Case-in-point? Organizations such as Citigroup, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Sharper Image, H&R Block and Wendy’s have all had interim leaders. 

While Maynard and his colleagues used MLB teams for their study because of the archival data available and numerous leadership transitions, their hope is that other organizations could also gain insight from their findings. 

“Namely, if an organizational team is not performing up to its capability, a leadership change may be one way to turn things around,” Maynard said. “In addition, we hope to provide insights for individuals who find themselves taking over the responsibility of a team either in a permanent or interim capacity. In particular, for interim leaders, it seems important to take an active role as a leader – especially with the core members of the team.”

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.