What CFOs should learn from baseball - introducing CFO Awards speaker Brian Farley


"You don't have to have the best ten players to have the best team. You just have to have a group of guys who are really committed and all seeking excellence. You don't have to have perfection," says 55-year-old Brian Farley, an American-born baseball player and coach turned business performance coach. Brian will be speaking at the upcoming CFO Awards, held at Summer Place on 12 May.

Brian played college baseball at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee before being drafted and signed by the St Louis Cardinals, where he played for five years before an injury temporarily took him out of the game. Fast forward a few years and Brian found himself playing international baseball in Australia and the Netherlands. He joined a Dutch team in 1986, met and fell in love with a local girl, and decided to make the country home. After five years as a player-coach at RCH Brian took over as coach of a team called Twins, which he led for the next four years. He was then approached to coach one of the country's top teams, HCAW, which he led to enormous success when they won both National and European championships.

Brian spends much of his time these days giving workshops as a performance coach, as well as sharing his knowledge and expertise around success. "If you can get people to focus on the process and not the results, you can change mindset and attitude. If you can get people to see they are all there to develop themselves, you'll have a better result." We spoke to Brian about his various successes and what he learnt from these, what it takes to be a good leader, and how to build a solid team.

Tell us about the World Cup win in 2011. What takeaways did you have from the victory?
"It was just an amazing journey and an amazing time. Our team was good, we had talent and had been successful at previous championships, but we had difficulty playing against teams like the USA, Cuba, Japan and Korea, where baseball is the number one sport. We managed to gain momentum early in the tournament and played really well as a team. The team was really un-selfish in their approach and each player was very focussed on growth and doing what was best for the team; understanding what it meant for us collectively. This was a crucial part of our success. We didn't have anybody who was too big for the moment. So we gained a lot of momentum and when you start to have success executing the game in a certain way it builds confidence and fearlessness. We went through the tournament building this momentum, and we were no longer intimidated by the circumstances or the opponents.

"What I learned was that you don't have to have the best ten players to have the best team. You just have to have a group of guys who are really committed and all seeking excellence. You don't have to have perfection. The guys took a lot of pride in ensuring they weren't the weakest link in the chain but didn't allow their egos to affect each other or get in the way of the team's needs. We achieved what we did by performing as a collective, rather than as individuals. In every game we won, and we won 15 out of the 16, there were probably three different players who ended up having games that carried us, but the players were different every time. There was a collective reliance on one another that gave us a feeling of unity. We were unified behind the 'why' and we achieved success."

"It was amazing. As a team we didn't have one player who was statistically good enough to make the all-star team, and yet we won. When a team plays together they can achieve much more than as individuals."

How did you become a speaker and coach?
"I was approached by several speaker agencies after the success of the 2011 win, because it was a big deal here. They asked me to tell my story. I wasn't exactly sure what I was expected to do so I went over and started talking and discovered I enjoyed it. The message was extremely well received, and I found I had an affinity for speaking. I enjoy the connection that I make with other people who are in totally different worlds to me on a day-to-day basis. That connection and ability runs to the core of my mission in life: to help people see the possibilities. It gives me great fulfilment. That's where the core of motivational speaking comes from. I use my experiences as a baseball coach to shape the messages I give. What I talk about I learnt as a coach."

What are some of the concepts and ideas you speak about when you address audiences?
"I talk about the power of perception or perspective, and how it affects behaviours. I've always been curious about why we behave like we do. A lot has to do with how we perceive our environment. This is based on our narrative and our experiences in life. The way we see things is usually a culmination of many influences throughout our lives that have impacted how we see certain events. This depends on factors like your upbringing, your religious and political beliefs, your family and so on. Your past experiences impact how you view new experiences, and your thoughts elicit emotions. So you'll feel a certain way at that point, and you'll behave based on those feelings."

"What we teach our guys on the team is that how you think will influence how you behave. Sometimes you have to interrupt this pattern, because it can lead to negative behaviour that has nothing to do with our 'why'. But it takes a certain skill level to realise you're going astray. Experience plays an important role in how you expect things will develop and conclude."

You speak about the 'three As: attitude, adversity, adapting'. Why are these important?
"These are key to being successful in a very competitive environment. First, you need to believe you belong. So, I have a contribution to make and I'm going to use my skills to influence that decision in a positive way. Also, I'm conscious of the impact I have, and I'm going to influence that impact to the best of my ability by empowering myself and others around me. That's my attitude."

"Second, throughout everything we experience we are going to face adversity. The difference between a winner and loser is the ability to deal with what happens. You need to see adversity as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. In most cases, the people we admire and look up to are people who handle this the best. They can overcome, adjust and evolve, and do what's necessary to find another way. They don't allow that adversity to be a reason for failure. But a lot of adversity is outside of our control, and some people have a very difficult time dealing with things outside of their control. They allow their focus to be on those things, rather than on what they can control. This comes back to the perception issue."

"Thirdly, adapting is the ability to handle what comes our way, to have a plan and to take action. To have the knowledge, wisdom and experience to know whether that action you're taking has the desired result. If not, you have to adapt to the situation to find a way to achieve what it is you set out to accomplish. It's the 'why'. You need to say, my intent is clear about what I'm going to do and I'm not going to let adversity impede my intent. If it does, I'm going to adapt to the obstacle I'm facing, evolve and focus on what I can do to bring about a positive end to this mission."

Could you talk about the notion of 'good management' and what this entails?
"Good management is about what you leave behind; your legacy. The true reward in management is getting somebody to the next level. I believe that every good manager should, in the end, make themselves redundant. Good leadership is not about ego and holding onto power; it's about giving that power to others and allowing them to experience it for themselves."

"If you can make a group of people in your team feel power through knowledge and experience, you take away the fear of failure because you create a culture where people are given the power to create and lead. And they feel they can make mistakes, take risks. Too often organisations try to hold that power to themselves. If you have the skills to get people to the point where they no longer need you, you've done a great job. Trust me, if you, as a manager, are competent in making your people so good that they don't need you any more, you are going to be very much in demand!"

You believe there are two very specific elements to getting better. Could you talk about what these are?
"There are two axes to growth: the desire to learn and the desire to change. In my experience, many people are open to learning but very reluctant to change. As we get older that gets even more difficult to do. Partly because of the way the brain works. The brain develops the cognitive highways that are used to doing a thing a certain way. Those electrical impulses are part of the performance of doing things. They become like super-highways in our brain. They become the way we act and behave, which becomes a natural way of doing things."

"When someone comes with a new way of doing things there is resistance. You might be interested, but there's resistance. The problem is that you have to be open to change to be open to learning. In an organisation there's often a desire to change the culture or way of doing things, but there's not the commitment because people fear the change. The lowest common denominator for each person is that we either want to pursue pleasure and creativity or we want to avoid pain - emotional pain. Those are big concerns for many people and are usually one of the biggest blocking norms for success or change - the fear of not being good enough."

What is most important to consider when building a team?
"Leading by example. Change has to come from you initially, from the leader. You have to walk the talk. Also, there's not the same engagement at the top to changes at the bottom. You need to know what people are experiencing or there's a disconnect and what you're trying to do will fail. I'm a huge fan of the show 'Undercover Boss'. I think leaders would do well to spend time at different levels of their organisations, getting to the roots of issues. I recommend to any senior manager to spend some time on this, because they've likely forgotten over time what these people face. Just making that commitment to your people goes a long way to having them get onboard with change; them knowing you're willing to do it first yourself. Also, you need to focus on the things that are going to deliver the biggest amount of impact."

How can CFOs build teams that respond well to change, and which are strong and adaptable?
"In addition to leading by example you have to understand the intent of what you're trying to achieve as a team, and not just you as an individual. It's important that the people in your team are allowed to contribute to the direction that the intention will take; to feel that they are contributors to the end result. Engagement and intrinsic motivation helps to get people on board. It's not always possible in business to know whether everybody is motivated, and yet it's important to know. You need to know why people are there, at work, in this job. Why do they want to do this? You have to get into the intrinsic motivation."

"If you can get people to focus on the process and not the results, you can change mindset and attitude. If you can get people to see they are all there to develop themselves, you'll have a better result. You need to work on the process of what we as a team can control to get ourselves more productive, wiser and stronger."

"That said, a lack of productivity has a negative effect on the whole. Sometimes you may need to cut someone from your team. Sometimes it's necessary to pay upfront a short-term loss than suffer the long-term effects of someone not engaged in the efficiency of a team."

What learnings can one take from sport into business?
"I think this has to do with the desire to compete for what you want to achieve. Sport at the top level is very competitive. There's always a winner and a loser. From sport, if you want something bad enough, you have to compete for it. So this could be an individual or team KPI. If you want something, others likely do too, so you have to compete for it. That's the juice of life. You have to ask yourself, 'Of the things I'm passionate about, how good am I?' And the only way to know that is to compete against the best for it. It's a personal growth moment, and doesn't have to be against someone else, it could simply be against yourself. How good can I get at doing what I love to do? If you lack passion or desire to master what you're doing, eventually when adversity gets too big you'll disengage. People who are most engaged surrender last. If you're leading a team, it's critical to ensure your team is engaged with the task. If they are not, you must ask yourself how passionate they are about what they're doing. That passion creates the flow. Also, try to avoid managing through fear. It may bring you short-term success, but in the mid to long-term it's unsustainable. People won't be as creative and enjoy what they're doing as much as if you create a culture of pleasure."

What are your plans for the year ahead?
"I'm going to be pursuing performance coaching on a business level and further develop my skills in this. So I'll be working hard on the workshops and methodology behind the concept of performance coaching. I'm coaching my son's baseball team. I'm also looking to open the first indoor baseball facility, which will be situated near Amsterdam. It's a big project and there's still lots to do. I've got the location and know what I want to do, but I still need to finalise financing. I'm excited. It's going to be great."

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