I’m a St. Louis Cardinal lifer so, for most Major League baseball fans out there, you probably assume I’m insufferable. (You may be right.) Still, don’t look for me to apologize that we’re in first place, have been for pretty much the entire season, and boast the best record in baseball. The postseason is upon us and, if all goes well tonight against Pittsburgh, we will wrap up another NL Central Division title and head into the postseason looking for yet another World Series championship. Yes, life is good.

One of the reasons so many fans find us insufferable is our talk of the “Cardinal Way.” Most people draw this link back to Branch Rickey, the pioneering baseball executive who first developed the Cardinals’ farm system before he went on to engineer Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Majors, thereby breaking down baseball’s color barrier.

Even if my Cardinals aren’t your cup of tea, bear with me for a bit because the franchise emphasizes several practices that offer some lessons for anyone managing a business that relies on contributions from everyone on the roster. Consider, if you will, the following:

  • Well Communicated Expectations:  Every player in the Cardinals’ system (down to the youngest player at the lowest level in the Minor Leagues) receives a manual of several dozen pages that details how the Cardinals go about playing the game. Every player in the system knows what the club expects of him on the field, off the field, and in the clubhouse. It is not a generic document, either, and management insists that players observe it. If you think about it, it’s not unlike an employee handbook, but I wager that the Cardinals put more effort than most of us into keeping their player manual up-to-date and in line with their real expectations. There’s a lesson to all of us when the time comes to review your manual–make it a living document central to running your business.
  • Habit: If you watch a Cardinal hit a home run, you will see the same thing nearly every time: The hitter rounds the bases, touches home, and heads to the dugout, and the players line up while the hitter goes down the line receiving congratulations from each and every player. The last guy in the dugout has a drink waiting for the hitter. It happens every time, with every player. In other words, the team makes sure they recognize accomplishments, and each member takes part in offering an “attaboy.”
  • Consistency in Management Ranks: Sure, there is some turnover; for instance, Jeff Luhnow left for the Astros and has built them into a contender (we won’t mention for now that the FBI is looking into whether some Cardinals’ personnel may have accessed the Astros’ computer systems).  Still, the general managers and ownership have been more stable than most over the years, allowing for consistent player development and assessment of personnel needs.
  • Succeeding Despite Roster Turnover: The first player to challenge baseball’s Reserve Clause 40 years ago was Curt Flood, a Cardinal outfielder. Flood lost his battle but the players won the war, ushering in the modern era of free agency. The Cardinals, however, have mostly avoided bloated free agent contracts and have been willing to lose players in free agency (e.g., Albert Pujols). The Cardinals usually don’t overpay for free agent talent (with some exceptions) and have preferred to restock their roster with players brought up through their farm system who have been steeped in the Cardinal Way for several years. In a similar sense, any business is bound to lose talent to other firms willing to pay a higher rate for their services–the question, however, is whether your business is developing new talent versed in your company’s culture and mission who can step forward when the time comes.

In all likelihood, no one reading this column runs a baseball team. You can, however, develop your organization’s culture, find the people who honor the habits that keep it going, foster consistent management, and prepare your people to step forward despite inevitable turnover. It’s a model worth considering.

And one other thing–go Cards!