The know-it-all

A brief essay on the dangers of expertise without experience…

In 1986 David Halberstam published a book called “The Reckoning” about the automobile industry and spent a lot of time talking about Ford Motor Company. If I recall correctly – and I often don’t – back when a Ford ran Ford he would start at the bottom and work his way up.

Ford’s philosophy was that it would be helpful if the guy at the top actually spent time on the assembly line or painting cars.

Learn the culture and what people who worked for you were actually doing and then when you got a complaint about the paint ovens you’d have some idea if that complaint was accurate because you’d actually done that job. Learn the business before you try to run it.   

That’s one management philosophy; here’s another.

Go to business school and learn management techniques that you apply to the company you run whether it makes shoes, ships or shotguns. Here’s a quote from a website that explains why you might want a business management degree:

“A business management degree prepares you for a career in business, which may stretch across any sector or industry.”

There are CEOs running companies who have no personal, real-life experience in what that company actually does and when the plane they’re piloting looks like it’s about to hit the side of a mountain, they jump to safety wearing one of those golden parachutes and go on to run another company.

The employees left behind assume the crash position.

Expertise without experience

As some of you already know, it’s a special kind of hell to work for a boss who has never done your job, but thinks they know everything about what you do and aren’t shy about giving advice.

There are managers who couldn’t sell ice water to thirsty Bedouins telling their sales people how to sell.

There are music executives who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket telling musicians how to compose songs.

There are people who couldn’t write a ransom note editing the work of published authors.

I think I speak for every political cartoonist ever born when I say the absolute worst kind of editor you can have is one who wants to “help” you create cartoons. Without exception their ideas are awful and then they want you to put your name on the flaming piece of dog poop they suggested.

I never questioned the editor’s right to correct a misspelling or refuse to publish a cartoon like the one I did showing Ronald Reagan pissing on a poor person and labeled the “Trickle-down effect” which is a cartoon I actually suggested.

(Hint to wanna-be cartoonists: I always found it helpful to show editors a sketch that scared the crap out of them right before I showed them the cartoon I really wanted to do. That pope-having-sex-with-a-goat sketch makes any other idea you have look acceptable. Context is everything.)

I did not question the editor’s right to edit, but I drew the line…so to speak…when they wanted to create cartoons. They had no expertise in putting together a cartoon and the quality of their ideas reflected their lack of experience.

Which weirdly enough brings us to baseball

The friends that know me best accuse me of always using baseball examples to explain life’s problems and I’d resent the crap out of that if it weren’t 100 percent true.

I started thinking about people running businesses in which they have no actual experience when I found out the Houston Astros had hired a new General Manager.

I tried to find out if the guy ever actually played baseball, but all I could learn is he graduated from Yale, wrote for an analytics website and then went to work in the Tampa Bay Rays front office.

One of the complaints ballplayers have about front office executives is what seems to be the growing tendency to hire guys who have never played the game. There’s something to be learned from playing baseball and living that life and I’ll give you an example.  

A player who was a backup was also partier and liked to party with a couple of young players who were starters. It didn’t matter that the backup player was coming into the clubhouse hungover; he probably wasn’t going to play that day, but the two young players would.

So a GM who sees everything through numbers would see the young players’ stats decline and think they were the problem; a GM who had played and understood a player’s lifestyle would realize the problem was the backup player and trade him.

Guys who have played the game are more likely to realize that a player who puts up great numbers, but makes two teammates worse is not a guy you want in your clubhouse.

It doesn’t hurt when your front office guys have on-field experience. Take a look at four examples from the Kansas City Royals:

  • General Manager Dayton Moore was an assistant baseball coach at George Mason University.

  • Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and eventually signed with the New York Yankees.

  • Assistant General Manager Scott Sharp was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1994 and was a catcher in their system through 1997.

  • Assistant General Manager Rene Francisco was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and played two seasons in the minors.

The people who have actually gone down on the field and played the game know things about baseball that rest of us never will.

Being smart about one thing doesn’t make you smart about everything

One of the many fallacies promoted by the book “Moneyball” is that a reasonably smart person could run a baseball team without any baseball experience.


But a guy without baseball experience better listen to those who have some.

I’m a “reasonably smart person” as long as you loosely define “reasonably” and “smart” and “person.” I thought I knew baseball until I spent 10 years listening to people who had actually played and coached the game at the highest level and over and over again I’d hear something that wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years because I never played in the big leagues.  

In 1994 John Helyar published “Lords of the Realm” a book that detailed the history of team owners and all the dumb stuff they did because they assumed that if they got rich running one type of company, running a baseball team would be a snap.

They found out it wasn’t.

Baseball has some pretty unique characteristics and you better know something about the game before you assume that someone who is good at accounting would also be good at running a baseball team.

According to the internet, St. Louis Cardinals owner William DeWitt, Jr. bought into that Moneyball crap and hired Jeff Luhnow – a guy with no baseball experience – and made him a vice-president.

Luhnow worked for McKinsey & Company and DeWitt wanted him to bring some of what he learned there to baseball and, boy, did he ever. If Satan started a management consultant firm, it’s hard to imagine he’d have a worse track record.

Look up McKinsey & Company scandals and the list goes on for a while: Enron accounting scandals, supporting authoritarian regimes, the 2008 financial crisis, insider trading, conflict of interest and somehow they’re involved in our current opioid crisis.

Luhnow ended up as GM of the Astros and considering McKinsey & Company’s history, stealing signs in a baseball game must have seemed like small potatoes.

What have we learned so far?

First, if you’re going to run a business or baseball team it might be helpful to have some experience in that area and second…

Your boss just might be a jerk.