It was a cold and windy October night in 2006, and HR veteran Marian Rhodes was working late for a Friday. Her employer, the St. Louis Cardinals, was one win away from capturing baseball’s biggest prize, a World Series championship.
Up three games to one in the Fall Classic against the Detroit Tigers, the Cardinals had the chance to seal a place in baseball history with a win in Game 5. Rhodes was in the offices at Busch Stadium making preparations for a potential trip back to the Motor City for Game 6.
Then, in the fourth inning, when the game was knotted up 2-2, infielder David Eckstein cracked an RBI groundout to give the Cardinals the go-ahead run.
“I said, pack it up! We’re going downstairs,” Rhodes said she told a co-worker. “We’re either going to do one of two things: We’re going to celebrate tonight, or we’re coming back up to the office to plan for tomorrow morning. But we’re not going to miss this. We can’t afford to miss this.”
Holding a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning, Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright slipped a slider past a swinging Brandon Inge of the Tigers, tallying the final out to seal the World Series victory. It was the Cardinals’ first title since 1982, five years before Rhodes joined the organization.
“I can’t even describe to anybody the feeling when you win any playoff game, any World Series and you’re a part of the organization,” Rhodes said. “We had employees in tears.”
Now the senior vice president and chief human resources and diversity officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rhodes said she’s eager for her current teammates to have the chance to experience that feeling. That is, those who weren’t around in 2001 when the Diamondbacks captured the organization’s first World Series title by defeating the New York Yankees.
Since joining the club in 2007, Rhodes has been vital to a Diamondbacks organization that’s become renowned for a different type of success. Known for producing great baseball, the Diamondbacks also have been turning heads by winning all sorts of non-baseball praise as one of the most successful businesses in Arizona. The Diamondbacks — nicknamed the D-backs — have been named one of the “Best Places to Work” in the Phoenix area by the Phoenix Business Journal and Best Companies AZ for the last four years.
A large part of that success can be attributed to Rhodes, who was promoted to her current role, one that was created for her, in January 2011. Her more than 20 years of human resources experience in baseball has helped the Diamondbacks create an employee development culture that has energized its employees and raised the bar on expectations for the organization, according to Derrick Hall, the club’s president and CEO.
“Our overall philosophy in talent management is we want to have people with exceptional talent working for us,” Rhodes said, “but we want to create a culture where people understand that they are respected and valued, and that they are a part of something that is bigger than just their everyday job … culture is what we live and breathe.”
Building a successful talent development culture at a Major League Baseball club is different than what some might think. Unlike those who work in Rhodes’ position at most companies, resources for top HR leaders at baseball clubs are scarce, said Ray Scott, vice president of human resources for Major League Baseball. Most big companies, he said, are amply staffed with vast resources.
That is not necessarily the case in baseball, where teams boast marquee brand names but employ small, tight-knit front offices and support staff, except for baseball operations personnel and the minor league farm system of players.
“It’s almost like being an entrepreneur within an HR function,” said Scott. “You’re pretty much on your own and you have to create policies and practices as you go along … so there’s a lot more creativity and innovation.”
Neither creativity nor innovation are foreign to Rhodes and the D-backs. Since 2007, she has implemented training and development strategies in tandem with the organization’s executive management team — led by Hall — that have bridged the gap between baseball operations and business, a practice that happens at some clubs more than others, Scott said.
Among the most popular programs she’s implemented is the D-backs’ Employee of the Month program and President’s Council, both of which have played dynamic roles in engagement and retention.
She is also an integral player in administering Diamondbacks University, the club’s employee learning and development platform, which enables individuals to customize their learning for each of the development courses the team requires.
“Marian has really taken it upon herself to make sure that employees do have a path, do have ways to advance, and they have ways to educate and develop themselves while they’re here,” Hall said.
Rhodes’ rise to one of just 30 top HR jobs in professional baseball is interesting, given she was initially uninterested in the sport and knew nothing of the talent management profession.
A 1984 graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla., and an accounting major, Rhodes’ first job was as an internal auditor for Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis-based brewer. “I had a real interest in numbers,” Rhodes said. “I became an auditor because I thought it was a good way to get into Anheuser-Busch and learn the company.”
She came to realize that being an auditor required that she play “bad cop” — a person who folks didn’t necessarily look forward to seeing. Rhodes, who considers herself a people person, said she questioned if it was a role she could embrace long term.
Anheuser-Busch had started an employee development pilot program with non-HR staff members as its teachers, and the senior leadership team tapped Rhodes to teach a course on personal growth.
Rhodes said it was in this teaching role that she first discovered her penchant for helping others develop professionally; it also helped her confirm that accounting wasn’t right for her. “I did my internal audit thing, but in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how do I get from an accounting degree to the HR field,” she said.
Rhodes earned an MBA in marketing from Webster University in St. Louis to satisfy her creative instincts while she continued auditing for Anheuser-Busch. Then she was given an assignment to do an audit of a then-Anheuser-Busch subsidiary, the St. Louis Cardinals. Not long after completing the assignment, Rhodes said the club’s vice president of business operations contacted her boss. The Cardinals wanted to offer her a job as a financial analyst. Her first season with the club was 1987.
“I guess a lot of people would have been over the moon and excited [by the job offer],” Rhodes said. “I wasn’t one of them. I kind of had some trepidation because, even though I was an athlete, I had no interest in baseball. I had lived in St. Louis for three years, and I had never been to a game. It just wasn’t a sport that was on the forefront of my mind.”
Slowly, Rhodes said she started to warm up to the idea of working in baseball. She also started making her way from finance to HR. It started small. In 1987 she handled EEO reporting and compliance issues for her new boss, who then promoted her to executive assistant. A year later Rhodes became human resources manager.
This role, which helped her take more of a leadership position in developing the club’s HR department, lasted until roughly 2002, some six years after the Cardinals were sold to a group of private investors, and right as the team started its quest to build a new ballpark.
The pursuit of a new ballpark increased Rhodes’ role and standing with the Cardinals. She was promoted to vice president of public affairs and employment, a position that expanded her HR duties and had her working to garner public support to build the new ballpark, which eventually was built without public money.
The new Busch Stadium opened April 10, 2006, the year the Cardinals won the World Series. “At the time, I asked myself: ‘Well, OK, where do I go from here?’” Rhodes said.
By this time Rhodes had established herself as one of baseball’s top HR professionals. That’s when the Diamondbacks called.
“I came out to talk to Derrick [Hall] and the leadership team, found out that my goals and their goals and my philosophies and my sense of what culture was kind of aligned with them, and [I] decided to make a move out here to Phoenix to start my quest again to develop a new HR function,” Rhodes said.
Working in baseball isn’t easy. Many of the games are played at night, and employees are often asked to put in hours long after the typical workday has ended. Further, the Diamondbacks employ a young workforce, and developing initiatives that keep workers motivated, focused and energized requires creativity. Hall said Rhodes brings a lot of personality to the role, and this has contributed to the Diamondbacks building one of “the best [employee] cultures in all of sports.”
Of all the programs Rhodes has implemented, one of the most effective also has been the most fun. Rather than holding a typical employee meeting once a month, Rhodes transformed the otherwise mundane exercise into a kind of show, Hall said.
Hoping to tap into her boss’ personality, Rhodes developed the concept for “On the Couch with D-Hall,” a Friday luncheon/variety show of sorts, with the club’s CEO as the host. “That was really her baby,” Hall said. “We run our meetings like we run a late-night show.”
Employees gather as the audience and eat a free lunch, while Hall opens up with quips and one-liners as well as pertinent information of what’s going on inside the organization. He then interviews guests on stage. Past guests have included the Arizona governor, Diamondbacks players and coaches, as well as Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Bud Selig.
The monthly meeting is also used to announce the employees of the month, an award nominated and voted on by co-workers. Winners are recognized with a plaque, a jersey and the opportunity to sit on the “President’s Council,” a panel of executives and employees who generate new ideas regarding the organization’s culture and talent management practices.
“It’s another communication vehicle for us to get some feedback as to how we’re performing as an organization,” Rhodes said. “Every employee comes up with a new culture idea each month.”
Rhodes’ reach doesn’t end with the club’s office staff. It’s not uncommon for her HR staff to consult with and run programs that involve the players as well.
The baseball and business sides of a sports organization typically remain separate — players and coaches focus on the product on the field, while the front office creates the fan experience and grows the business. But Rhodes said she’s had plenty of instances where players or managers required her HR expertise. “We’re not solely responsible for the HR function of the front office,” she said. “We’re responsible for the function of the Arizona Diamondbacks. If Kirk [Gibson, the Diamondbacks’ manager], has a question, he has no problem calling or having me come down and assist him.”
Moving forward, the line between business and baseball will be increasingly blurred for Rhodes, especially in the club’s minor league system, where future players are developed.
Aside from conducting annual benefits training for the club’s minor league affiliates, this year Rhodes and her staff have a training program called “Know Your Brand.” It is designed to give the organization’s minor league players — many of whom are not far removed from high school or college — insights into how to promote and protect their brand as they move through the organization and, if they’re successful, onto the big league club.
“That’s the thing about the D-backs,” Rhodes said. “We’re one company. The players are no more important than the people in the front office. We’ve actually taken our employees to the opening day meeting that our field manager gives to the players, to show them that we’re included.”
This is why she wanted to get into the field to begin with — to help people feel like part of something bigger, a greater cause worth cheering and working for. Having a team like the Diamondbacks to rally around has played a role in the club’s engagement success, said Rhodes, who now admits to being a “baseball junkie.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done. HR, like baseball, is always evolving.
“I think working at a team is a different animal,” she said. “How many organizations can you go to and watch a game in the afternoon and watch your team play? Here, everything is measured on wins and losses … we allow people to be a part of that. I come here every day and I feel challenged, I feel like [asking myself] what can I do to bring more value? That’s the burning in my belly.”