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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

The Giver and The Grease

What a Book by Wharton's Top Professor and the Career of an MLB Journeyman Can Teach a Cross Country Team About Culture


Jonny Gomes makes a good analogy. "A team is like an engine," the 13 year MLB journeyman told a reporter in 2014, "Everyone looks at horsepower and the torque and how big the engine is. No one seems to value the grease. Like, you could have this 550-horsepower sports car, but it won't run long without grease."

Gomes made a career out of being "the grease." When he was called up to the Majors in 2003, he joined a Tampa Bay Devil Rays squad that would finish 63-99 on the season, good for last in the division. By the time Gomes left the team after the 2008 season, the Rays had just made their first World Series appearance. From Tampa, he went to Cincinnati, and two years later, the Reds won their division. After a short stint with the Nationals, Gomes was in Oakland for the 2012 season, where he helped the A's to an AL West title. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox needed some grease, coming off a 69-93 record in a year that was dubbed as one of the worst in franchise history. Gomes became their guy, playing an integral role in the team's unlikely turnaround that culminated in a World Series Championship. He would go on to earn a second ring with Kansas City just two years later before calling it a career.

Wherever Jonny Gomes went, the grease came with it. And, as grease does, the faltering engines he joined kicked into gear. Teams who had the grease started winning.

 

Every fall (until this one, of course), thousands of cross country teams at the high school and collegiate level gather to race distances from a couple miles up to ten kilometers. The ingredients for success are nuanced and wide ranging, but it would be hard to dispute that skill level and physical preparation play a large part in determining the range of potential outcomes a team can have. But how do you maximize that range of outcomes? How do you ensure that a team develops and performs at the upper bounds of its capabilities? For that, we turn to Adam Grant.

Grant has been recognized as the Wharton School of Business' top-rated professor for seven years in a row, and is the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success. The book's thesis is shaped by the premise that success "depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people." Grant identifies three styles of interaction - giving, taking, and matching - that we can bring to our relationships. While the delineation between each style can be murky, and certain situations can steer us towards one over another, we all tend to have a preferred style we adhere to most of the time.

When connecting with another person, givers ask "What can I do for you?" They prefer to contribute value to a relationship without worrying about what they will get in return. As Grant writes, givers are "other-focused" and "pay more attention to what other people need from them." Though he fittingly dodges the question in podcast interviews, Grant is, by all accounts, a giver. In a giving profession like teaching, his approval ratings serve as evidence.

 

At 6'1", 230, tattoos on every limb, and varying styles of facial hair, Jonny Gomes looked like the player you didn't want to mess with. To be clear, you didn't. But not in the way many would imagine. When Gomes was playing for the Tampa Bay Rays from '03-'08, he was hit by 35 pitches, which still ranks 5th on the club's all-time list. A guy who gets plunked that many times could've felt targeted. But Gomes never retaliated. He was content to take his base. However, the narrative didn't hold if you messed with his teammates. In that case, Gomes was the first to come to their defense.

During Spring Training of 2008, the year the Rays would win the American League, Yankees first baseman Shelley Duncan slid his spikes into the thigh of Tampa second baseman Akinori Iwamura as he tried to stretch a single into a double. Gomes, who was playing right field, came sprinting in to pounce on Duncan. Later that season in Boston, Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp charged at Rays pitcher James Shields after a fastball bounced off his hip. No sooner had Crisp thrown a fist than Gomes barreled him to the ground like a linebacker.

When his teammates felt threatened, Gomes knew they needed his support. It was one of the many ways he signaled his commitment to them. Being the grease was about being a giver. And Jonny Gomes was definitely a giver.

 

Takers are the opposite. Their thought is, "What can you do for me?" They are concerned with getting the credit for their efforts. Takers tend to have a "dog-eat-dog" worldview, which drives them towards proving their worth through self-promotion.

Matchers fall in the middle. They intend to maintain an even reciprocity of giving and taking. Grant refers to matchers as "relationship accountants," carefully ensuring that their debits and credits are balanced in their interactions with others. They "operate on the principle of fairness," and are the type to believe that if you do them a favor, they owe you one in return.

So, who climbs the highest on the ladder of success? After looking across a variety of spaces, from engineering firms to medical schools, Silicon Valley to the NBA, Grant found one group that consistently rose to the top: the givers.

Why were the givers so successful? Because giving makes better teams. "There's something distinctive that happens when givers succeed," Grant writes, "It spreads and cascades." When a giver succeeds, their team celebrates, because the giver's commitment to the team is undoubted. It creates this ripple effect that inspires and motivates. Conversely, when a taker succeeds, there is usually envy or resentment on the team because it's apparent the taker is only concerned with their own achievement.

 

In Oakland, Gomes played with Josh Donaldson, a first-round pick who seemed to exude the qualities of a taker - arrogant, flamboyant, and eager for attention. That persona alienated many of his teammates, but it was Gomes who took it upon himself to bridge the gap. When players rolled their eyes one day after a Donaldson homerun, Gomes turned to them and said, "YOU do that," reminding them that scoring runs helped the team. Conversely, late in a game that found the A's with a large lead, Donaldson threw down his helmet in frustration after striking out. Gomes got in his face and told him that kind of display had no place in the dugout when the team collectively was performing well. Years later, Donaldson would credit Gomes for helping him become a better leader.

When the Royals held their World Series parade in 2015, they gave Jonny the mic. To those on the outside, it may have seemed like a perplexing choice. While Gomes was on the team, he hadn't played in the postseason. But his teammates knew his worth. Infielder Christian Colon said Gomes helped him stay ready throughout the playoffs, ultimately paying off as he delivered the go-ahead single while pinch hitting in the 12th inning of Game 5 against the Mets. That hit allowed Kansas City to claim the championship.


As Gomes addressed the crowd, his words were fitting for a guy who put the collective above the individual. "Hey guess what, Cy Young winner, not on our team, beat him. Rookie of the year, not on our team, we beat him. MVP of the whole league, (turns around) sorry guys not on our team. But we beat that guy too!"

The message was clear: a player who only prioritized himself was no match for a team who prioritized each other.

 

This is where cross country comes in. Yes, skill level and preparation largely comprise the engine, but as Gomes says, how well that engine runs depends on the grease. And the grease, in this case, is a giving culture.

Let's be real. Most runners on a cross country team are not Jonny Gomes. In fact, according to Adam Grant, that's highly unlikely. Givers are few and far between. It's matchers who make up the majority of the population. But in the case of creating a giving culture, that's actually a good thing. For one, matchers will detect taking behavior very quickly, so they can help preserve a culture that champions giving. And second, matchers willingly give more when that kind of behavior is incentivized and reinforced.

In cross country, a giving culture can optimize what a team is capable of. When teammates look out for one another, they use their strengths to create an environment more conducive to helping someone improve. For example, a middle distance specialist could volunteer to lead reps on shorter, faster intervals. Someone with schedule flexibility could offer to do a workout with someone who has a class conflict. Someone who takes pride in their strength work could hit the gym with someone who is injured as a way of keeping them connected to the team. The options are endless, but the theme of giving remains constant. The reward is trust. That trust results in an atmosphere at practice that people want to be part of. It also pays dividends in competition.

In my experience as a coach, one of the least helpful emotions an athlete can feel before a competition is that of loneliness. Feeling alone leads the mind to a sense of powerlessness and a constant state of worry. Excess emotional energy is wasted as the mind begins to fight battles long before the body can actually engage in the race.

Having a giving culture on meet day changes all of that. It's like walking into class on the first day of school to see six of your best friends in the front row, waving you to an open seat next to them. Suddenly, an anxiety-inducing environment becomes one where you feel in control, confident, and ready to participate. What previously seemed like a threat is now a challenge.

Giving cultures are easy to spot in the hour before a race. They move as a unit in their warm-up. They signal their commitment to each other with chatter and various forms of embrace, from fist bumps to hugs to high fives. They seem less concerned about who else is there to race against them and more focused on those who will race with them. And, more often than not, when the gun goes off, they're the ones who maximize what they're capable of.

So how do you create a giving culture?

Damian Hughes, author of The Barcelona Way: How to Create a High-Performance Culture, argues that teams need to employ "cultural signposts" which both recognize what has been done to shift towards a desired culture, and also point a team in the direction of furthering that pursuit. Cultural signposts are deliberate, repetitive practices. They can be rituals, speeches, symbols, or ceremonies. While they take many forms, the mission is the same. Reinforce what is valued, and a team will move toward that value.

We've used a number of cultural signposts to promote giving behavior with our men's cross country team at the University of Portland, but like any culture, you don't force it overnight. You shape it over time.

In discussing some of our cultural signposts, my intention is not to signal that we have it figured out. Culture is a broad and complex topic, and many of the intricacies lie well beyond the scope of this discussion. Rather, these rituals and symbols have simply proven to be effective ways for shifting our culture towards the level of giving we aspire to.

Five Minute Talks

Giving is born out of empathy and awareness. It's easier to help someone when you connect with them. For our team, connection has been a theme of every Monday for the past two years. To start each week, someone will give a five minute talk to the team. The prompts have been broad in scope to allow each guy some discretion on how vulnerable they choose to be (examples include: finish the sentence "If you really knew me, you would know…" or "Why are you here?"). Some talks have ended in laughter, others in tears, but they all strengthen the connection between the speaker and his teammates. Being vulnerable in a safe space leads to empathy and awareness, and empathy and awareness lead to giving.


Sometimes, five minute talks call for a visual aid

Friday Shoutouts

Adam Grant makes it very evident in the book. If givers do not see that their giving has made an impact, they can burn out. They can also be taken advantage of by takers if their giving tendencies aren’t respected. So, we celebrate giving. Every Friday - after practice if possible - we do a round of shoutouts where guys will recognize a teammate for helping them out in some way throughout the week. It can range from something sport-specific like encouragement during a tough workout to something unrelated like help with studying for a test. Not only does this reinforce the giving behavior we aspire to, but it also validates the progress we are making in that direction.


To reinforce giving, call it out.

No "Captains"

This one can be controversial, and this isn't to say captains can't work. But naming captains puts the cart before the horse. It's a title to "take" before the leading has actually occurred. Instead, the absence of a designated "captain" allows the true leaders to reveal themselves through action. Not surprisingly, our best leaders have been the best givers. They're the ones who always looked to help the team get better. It doesn't mean they lacked individual ambitions. Quite the contrary. They just expanded their focus to include and align team goals with their personal vision. And while they didn't hold a formal title, everyone on our team could tell you who our leaders have been.


This is the kind of admiration takers would crave. Conversely, it's the givers who typically receive it.
 

If not for Joan Ryan's reporting, the story may never have been told. As the sportswriter chronicled in her book Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry, the Boston Red Sox found themselves down 2-1 in the 2013 World Series heading into Game 4 in St. Louis against the Cardinals. Manager John Farrell had posted his lineup for the evening, and it did not include Jonny Gomes. There were statistical reasons for this. Daniel Nava, who was starting in his place, had a better batting average on the season. Gomes had also been hitless in the first three games of the series. But unbeknownst to Gomes, who was taking batting practice, a group of seasoned veterans, including David Ortiz, Jon Lester, and Dustin Pedroia, went into Farrell's office and demanded that he play.

"Having Gomes on the field, the way everybody on that team felt about him - he pulled such a weight that was unexplainable," an unnamed Red Sox player later said.

Farrell acquiesced, shifting Nava to right field, removing Shane Victorino, and inserting Gomes in left. The decision paid off. With two men on in the top of the sixth, and the score tied 1-1, Gomes launched a homerun over the left field wall. That proved to be the difference in the game, as the Red Sox would win 4-2, and eventually go on to win the World Series.

 

Filling the Sheet

Cross country is a team sport. Track and field can be too, but the scoreboard is a bit more segmented. Whereas a distance crew has complete control over the score on the grass, they only account for part of it on the oval. At the University of Portland, we only have distance athletes on the men's side, which limits our opportunities to be competitive as a collective track and field team. Without a clear, shared goal, it becomes a challenge to preserve a giving culture. So, we created a clear, shared goal: fill the sheet.

"The sheet" was more like a grid. Down the left side, each athlete's name was listed. Across the top were four team goals for the indoor track season: 30 personal bests, 20 points at the conference meet (MPSF Championships), 10 race wins, and 1 athlete qualified to the National Championships. After every race, we pulled out the sheet, and recognized each person who helped us towards those collective targets. Did it generate the same sort of inspiration as trying to win an NCAA Cross Country Championship? No, but it did provide something to rally around, and helped us score 33 distance points at the MPSF Championships, most of any team at the meet.

 

Jonny Gomes has an ear for this kind of talk. Or maybe it's a sixth sense. I can't be sure.

This January, I had the opportunity to visit with the Arizona Diamondbacks' Mental Skills Staff at their spring training complex in Scottsdale. Tucked away in a dimmed room beyond left field, the conversation was somewhere between performance mindset and team culture when seemingly out of nowhere, there he was, sitting in a chair he'd just brought in from another room. Smooth as the grease he aspired to be in his playing days, Gomes had slid right into the discussion as though he'd been with us for the past hour. After retiring in 2016, he stayed close to the game, and is now an outfield and baserunning coordinator for the Diamondbacks.

This was my opportunity to gain some wisdom on team culture from a guy who made it his calling card. And just as he did for the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series, Gomes delivered a gem.

"The losing teams I played on," he said, "were all the same." They were plagued by individual interests, hidden agendas, lack of trust, complaining, and created an environment where Gomes said he dreaded going to work. The losing teams were plagued by taking.

However, "the winning teams," he said, "could not have been more different."

I was curious. "So, what was the common thread?"

"A goal," Gomes replied, "We all had a shared goal."

It was clear. That goal created a trust and an understanding that everyone would give to that shared mission. But there are many ways to grease an engine. For Tampa Bay, a young franchise competing with MLB juggernauts like the Yankees and Red Sox, it meant standing up for teammates to prove they belonged. In Oakland, it was about keeping young stars from becoming too individually focused. In Boston, it was about being a spark plug that rallied a team to reach its potential. In Kansas City, it was about taking a struggling teammate aside and providing advice. But no matter what actions Jonny Gomes took, the goal was always the same: win.

A team doesn't have to be filled with givers to be successful. But whereas a taking culture will never exceed its individual talent, a giving culture allows a team to rise beyond the sum of its parts.

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