Turning Dreams into a Reality: 3 Management Lessons from Field of Dreams

There’s nothing more exciting to me than putting on that first sweater of the fall season. The first hint of crisp, autumn air reminds me that the kids are back in school where they belong, that eating carbs is ok again (after all – who will notice a few extra pounds if I am wearing a sweater?), and…it’s playoff season. As a lifelong Yankee fan, I realize that over the past two decades, I have become spoiled by getting to routinely watch my team play deep into October.  Whether your season ended in disappointing fashion (as mine did this year) or your team is making a playoff run, there is something in baseball for almost everyone.

I’m not just a baseball fan – I’m a baseball movie fan, too.  As I recently caught one of my favorite movies on TV for maybe the 100th time, I realized we could learn a little something from Ray Kinsella and his Field of Dreams made from an Iowa corn field.  The unapologetic baseball fan in me (and ardent proponent of good management and leadership) believes that we should keep the whispers from the corn in mind as we manage our staff and projects.

If You Build It, He (They) Will Come.

Ray hears the first whisper from the corn and eventually comes to believe he is to build a baseball field in the middle of his corn field so Shoeless Joe Jackson can once again play baseball.  He sets out with a plan and efficiently constructs his field, complete with lights, bleachers, bases, and backstop.  While his understanding of the whispers was wrong, it did not impede his ability to follow through on his plan.  In project management we strive for a correct understanding of our project purpose as well as remembering Ray’s drive and passion for his project.  Projecting an image of confidence and camaraderie is critical to the Project Manager’s ability to put a team together worthy of a playoff run.

Constructing a highly functioning and effective team is a mix of art and science, but requires the Project Manager to understand the project needs, roles and responsibilities, and what motivates and inspires the team to maximum performance.  When you, as the PM, can put all the pieces together properly, you will not only have your “A Team” on the field but also begin attracting “All Stars” to your squad.

  • Remember to take team chemistry into account when building your team.  You will need a wide variety of players to win the game of management – and they all won’t be swinging for the fences.

Ease Their Pain.

The running theme of the movie is Ray’s misinterpretation of the whispers where he wrongly assumes that he is to ease the pain of his favorite author from his youth.  While getting the author to agree to his request, Ray struggles with the job of explaining his purpose in being there in the first place.  As it turns out, the author has his own pains that need to be eased even though he has buried them deep from years of disillusionment and disappointment.  Easing the pain of your staff (whether it is disappointment, confusion, or even disillusionment) might just be the most important task you undertake.

Working for a good PM can be a real pleasure for any number of reasons.  They give you the latitude to complete your tasks with a level of autonomy and provide frequent and constructive feedback.  Joe Torre, the highly touted manager of the New York Yankees, was often credited for his ability to manage diverse personalities more so than his execution of X’s and O’s of the game.  He understood the importance of how and when to criticize (more often and in private) and how to deflect negative attention (we all remember George Steinbrenner) from his players.

  • Take a page from the Torre playbook and treat your staff professionally and allow them to make mistakes without fear of getting fired or publicly benched.  Remember, even the best hitters fail 70% of the time.  Hopefully you have developed a team that has a higher winning percentage by easing the fear and anxiety of failure.

Go The Distance.

Again, the signs direct Ray and the author to a small town in Minnesota in search of an old ballplayer who never had the chance to fulfill his promise.  While his career as an athlete was relegated to a footnote in history, his impact as a doctor on the town and the lives of the residents far overshadowed anything he could have accomplished between the lines.  Recognizing how and where to make your mark often distinguishes the true leader from those just seeking accolades.

Too many managers “talk the talk” but forget to “walk the walk.”  As a manager, I was often chided by my staff for showing up at job sites in shoes and dress pants and insisting on site inspections sure to leave me dusty and dirty.  On a number of occasions I joined them on overnight shifts of emergency work as a sign of solidarity, after all how could I ask them to do what I would be unwilling to consider.  The most famous general of World War II, George Patton, endeared himself to his troops because he recognized and understood their plights.  He was a self-admitted tough guy with little tolerance for malingering but was able to garner respect, admiration and performance from his troops.

  • When the tough days come in your office or with your project, and they most assuredly will come, don’t turn tail and run leaving your staff to deal with the fallout.  Show your staff that you have the nerves to stand alone and perform like Mariano Rivera with the bases loaded and a 1-run lead.  They will respond in a way you might not imagine.

As the movie draws to an end and the sun sets, we see a line of cars miles long coming to see the field and the ghostly baseball players.  Following these tips will not generate a line of eager prospective employees gathering outside your office door but will hopefully allow you to develop your current staff into All Star caliber players who trust you as a leader, trust and rely on each other, and work together to secure whatever championship you pursue.

Michael Riegel is the Managing Director of Engineers Are People Too and has spent over 20 years in the engineering and construction management industries managing projects and staff.  Michael recognized the need for additional management skills to help technical professionals “elevate their games” and has been providing training programs to technical organizations and staff since founding the company in 2012. 


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