Chicago Cubs: The Cubs Way

It’s a hot and humid June day in Chicago, and the city is buzzing.

Nearly a million sports fans pack the downtown streets to await a lively celebratory parade for the Chicago Blackhawks, who a few nights earlier captured their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons, an achievement that has the city mired in hockey fever.

About seven miles north of the championship festivities, things are much quieter. In a nondescript brick office building a few blocks west of iconic Wrigley Field, Bryan Robinson, the vice president of human resources for Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, sits in his office beaming with excitement — happy for the Blackhawks, to be sure, but eager to put his employer in a position for a ticker-tape parade of its own.

Wearing jeans and a button-down shirt layered with a royal blue team pullover, Robinson can only imagine what the celebration would be like should the Cubs match the Blackhawks’ championship success — something the organization hasn’t done since 1908.

“There is 100 percent total selfless commitment to the goal,” Robinson said, referring to the Cubs’ goal of winning the World Series, as office TVs broadcast the Blackhawks’ parade.

Indeed, the idea of ending the Cubs’ championship drought is a big reason Robinson left a lengthy HR career with General Electric Co. about four years ago. It’s one of the reasons why many talented individuals — from President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who helped orchestrate a drought-ending Boston Red Sox championship in 2004, to star left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, who signed a $155 million free agent contract last winter — ultimately make their way to the Cubs.

“If we win here, they will burn the city down again,” Epstein recalled Lester saying shortly after he signed with the team, according to an April cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.   

With a baseball operations rebuild in its early stages, Robinson was hired in February 2012 by Crane Kenney, the club’s president of business operations, to help take what was then among the smallest front offices in baseball — at about 70 employees — and turn it into a modern organization capable of supporting a business expansion needed to drive the team’s on-field success.

This included new training facilities in Mesa, Arizona, and the Dominican Republic, and the biggest renovation of Wrigley Field in its 101-year history, which the team says should lead to new revenue-producing sponsorship and media deals.

But the infrastructure Robinson entered on his first day consisted of a small staff and a drawer of incomplete, and largely ignored, performance reviews. The department’s office was also a trailer next to Wrigley Field.   

Since then, the Cubs’ front office has more than doubled to about 200 employees, with overhauls of the club’s sales staff, operations and ticketing departments. The trailers have been replaced with a temporary but trendy office building, located on the site of a former employee parking lot. A new office is in the works.

Cubs Chicago Wrigley HR
The Cubs’ human resources team sits in the Cubs’ third-base dugout in Wrigley Field.

Meanwhile, Robinson and the rest of the Cubs’ six-person HR team have implemented organizationwide goals and values; standardized a new hiring and performance appraisal process; and initiated a partnership with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management for the organization’s learning and development.

Now, with a good chunk of the ballpark expansion complete (the most visible evidence being two video boards in Wrigley Field), and as the Cubs begin to put a more competitive product on the field (at press time, the Cubs were 89-62, with 11 more games left in the regular season), Robinson and his team are entering a more robust stage of the club’s transformation.

Still, Robinson is quick to deflect praise of HR’s accomplishments, and he declined to declare victory — not until the Cubs’ ultimate goal is more within reach.

“I like to say that if HR is the hero, then you have a really messed up organization,” Robinson said, the sound of jackhammers seeping through the wall as the Wrigley renovation continued nearby.  

Changing of the Guard   

In October 2009, the then-bankrupt Tribune Co., which used the Cubs mainly as media content for its TV and radio stations, sold the team to the Ricketts family for $845 million.

The Ricketts’ fortune came from what’s now known as TD Ameritrade, the discount stock brokerage founded by Joe Ricketts, father of Pete, Laura, Todd and Tom, a former options trader and Wrigley “bleacher bum” who now runs the Cubs day-to-day as team chairman.

Despite the Tribune’s persistent neglect, the Cubs in 2009 were coming off a string of winning seasons. But the team’s patchwork model — relying on big-name free agents, with little to show for player development in its farm system — eventually crumbled. In 2011, Ricketts hired Epstein from the Boston Red Sox as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations to rebuild the team.

Epstein’s blueprint for the Cubs was simple but blunt: Gut the team and build a consistent winner by developing a farm system stacked with young prospects, a process that would take years. The team’s business side, meanwhile, needed gutting of its own.

Prior to the recent renovation, the Cubs spent $10 million a year maintaining Wrigley Field, using nets to guard against the potential for falling concrete. What’s more, a tinfoil bonnet designed by an employee to keep out rain protected the organization’s computer servers, Robinson said, and group ticket sales were processed using carbon paper, and staff tracked progress by the number of times they refilled the fax machine.

Nevertheless, new ownership meant a new way for the Cubs. And in 2010, Kenney proposed to Tom Ricketts a list of 12 major projects, including the Wrigley renovation and a major organizational transformation, to get the Cubs into the modern era, according to the Bloomberg story. He hoped a few would get the nod from the new owner; all were approved.

This was a huge commitment. The projected cost of the Wrigley renovations, which includes not just the stadium but also the redevelopment of the surrounding area, is $575 million, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Sloan Park, the Cubs’ spring training ballpark in Mesa, Arizona, that opened in 2014, was built for $99 million through a public-private partnership, Robinson said, while the Cubs fully funded the $6 million cost for the facility in the Dominican.

Specialized Talent

Once the new baseball operations team was in place, Kenney went about figuring out how to build a modern front office.

It wasn’t long after that Robinson, comfortable in his role with GE in Fairfield, Connecticut, with a 400-square-foot office overlooking the company’s helipad, received a call from search firm Spencer Stuart about the Cubs’ top HR job.

“It was thanks, but no thanks,” Robinson said. “I worked really, really hard at GE to get where I was, and I loved it.”

Kenney persisted, and eventually persuaded Robinson to come to Chicago for an interview and, ultimately, an offer. He took the job. Robinson’s first day came on a cold February day in 2012 with an introduction to his new office: the second of three trailers parked behind Wrigley Field.

“I walked in and met the team and kind of took a minute and went into my office in the trailer, closed the door and said, ‘What have I done?’ ” Robinson said.

Robinson first inquired about the organization’s performance appraisals, which were not stored digitally but in a filing cabinet in the trailer. Robinson said most of the 15-page appraisal documents were incomplete; others were missing entirely. “I realized pretty quickly that what we really needed was infrastructure,” he said.

Before Robinson’s arrival, the Cubs’ executive team had devised three main organizational priorities: be a good neighbor, preserve Wrigley Field and win the World Series, the main goal that the other two are centered on. The executive team had also established a set of strategic plans toward achieving those goals.

“That included everything from baseball to business to culture to operations to building new facilities in the Dominican and Mesa for spring training,” Robinson said.

“So when I got here, there was a laundry list of probably 25 items of all the things that we had to do,” he continued, “starting off with what does the org design look like for those facilities.”

The organizational design for the Cubs’ training facilities was just a part of what needed to be done. HR needed to craft an organizational structure and talent philosophy for the entire front office.

“The first thing the Ricketts family said was, ‘We need to invest; we know we need great people, great talent,’ ” Robinson said. “And it was really our job in the HR function to say, ‘All right, what does that look like?’ ”

The talent philosophy Robinson and his HR team settled on was specialization. “We needed to specialize; we needed to segment,” Robinson said. “We wanted people to have a lot of depth in what they did.”

The organization at that time lacked specialization. “When you looked around the business, it was generalist,” Robinson said. The club’s ticket office, for example, included a staff that was responsible for not only handling thousands of season-ticket holders but also printing the tickets and running the walk-up window on game days.

Such generalist structure had pervaded the organization for some time, said Alex Sugarman, the Cubs’ senior vice president of strategy and development, who has been with the team since 2010. “What was abundantly clear was that we had a good group of executives and had a good group of folks who are good front-line executors,” Sugarman said. “But we didn’t have strategic leaders that were the bridge between the two.”

Nearly every organizational design structure going forward would be segmented and specialized, Robinson said. Each of the Cubs’ sales functions were segmented between ticketing, service, sales and operations. The same went for the club’s corporate partnerships function — an important driver of revenue in professional sports.

“Instead of having people in partnership sales [and] sponsorship sales that were having to find new business, renew current business, maintain relationships and do activations with clients, we split it into hunters and farmers,” Robinson said.

Doubling Up

With the specialization strategy set, the Cubs’ HR team turned to ramping up talent acquisition — but not before it determined an accountability structure for every employee, along with a revamped recruiting process.

Establishing an employee goals and values system helped the organization set standards of what kind of people they wanted to hire, said Rachel O’Connell, the Cubs’ assistant director of human resources. Much like Epstein and the baseball operations team had established for the players, the front office aimed to create a “Cubs Way” when it came to each job’s skill profile.

“How you do it is just as important as what you’re doing,” said O’Connell, who Robinson hired in August 2012.

Robinson, O’Connell and their HR team created a group of 17 employees from across the organization to conduct focus groups to determine ideal employee characteristics and skills. The team also established a ratings scale, which painted a clear picture of what exceeding, meeting and missing expectations looked like.

“It wasn’t just HR saying, ‘These are your values and this is why you’re rated this,’ ” O’Connell said. “It was really the organization saying, ‘No, this is what we think it should be,’ which, from a buy-in perspective, was really critical.”

Each employee would also have firm goals. Before 2012, each Cubs employee had vaguely defined goals, either a number they needed to hit or a project to complete. “But no one had taken the time to write anything down,” O’Connell said.

From then on each employee would be required to identify firm goals, each of which were attached to clear definitions of success. These goals were now the basis of the Cubs’ improved performance appraisal process, which was also digitally upgraded and standardized using Halogen Software.

Then the hiring began.

With specialization top of mind, Robinson and the HR team set out to find senior-level specialists on a national level who were tops in their field. Because professional sports organizations are built on the prowess of sales and marketing, those areas would receive the most attention.

As applicants rolled in on the prestige and novelty of working for the Cubs, Robinson and his team found their specialist leaders.

Among them was Alison Miller, who would join as the Cubs’ senior marketing director. Robinson said Miller is emblematic for what the Cubs are trying to accomplish with its specialist talent model: Miller had a 12-year background in consumer packaged goods marketing at General Mills Inc. and a Harvard MBA.

‘Fans don’t want to hear about how your values system is fantastic or your performance appraisal process is great. But that’s important to keep us marching forward in what is a really ambitious plan — which is to win a World Series, preserve Wrigley Field and be a good neighbor.’

—Bryan Robinson, vice president of human resources, Chicago Cubs

Similar leadership profiles were sought after in all the Cubs’ major business functions.

“We hire a lot of strategic doers who may have worked previously in an organization where [they] had 15 direct reports and an administrative assistant,” Robinson said. “But you come in here and you’re a team of one with maybe the task to build a team of five, and you’re designing what the next new organizational design should be like for the Mesa facility, or you’re designing what your tagline should be as we think about representing the brand. And then, the next day, maybe you’re pushing a broom or you’ve got a mop.”

Aside from hiring “strategic doers,” a large part of the Cubs’ hiring effort involved bolstering its sales staff. But instead of going after experienced sales employees, the HR team mirrored the strategy taken on the Cubs’ baseball side of accumulating young talent, training them in the “Cubs Way” and promoting them.

Started in July 2013, the Cubs Sales Development Program brings in recent college graduates and provides them with customized sales training and development. By taking recent college graduates and giving them development on each aspect of the sales process, O’Connell said the front office is able to customize development so it can build sales leaders equipped to do sales the Cubs way.

In the last three years, the Cubs’ sales staff has doubled to about 60 employees, O’Connell said.

In all, the Cubs’ HR team has hired about 150 full-time employees in the past four years. From initial phone screens through each of the club’s multistep in-person interview process, Robinson said the Cubs’ small HR team is involved at every stage.

However, to ensure every hire is culturally and strategically aligned with the club’s goals and values, Robinson said each candidate is assessed through a cross-functional hiring committee that oversees the entire process.

Growing the Farm

Now that the Cubs are nearing the midpoint of their transformation, according to Robinson’s estimates, the club’s HR team is putting more effort into employee development.

“You can have the best performance appraisal process in the world,” Robinson said, “but if you don’t know how to help people grow, especially today, whether it’s millennials or young folks, what’s important to them is development and training and feeling like they’re part of something special.”

Thanks to his GE roots, Robinson is well-versed in the world of employee development. GE’s corporate university, Crotonville, has been for many the model for employee development.

While the Cubs have done its part to establish a development culture of its own, Robinson said the organization doesn’t have the full capability of a corporate university. So in 2012, the club initiated its partnership with Kellogg.

Each quarter all of the Cubs’ front office employees visit Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to participate in development activities. Additionally, the club’s sales team participates in separate training throughout the year, while managers engage in Kellogg management and leadership development training.

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ executive team, both baseball and business, holds a multiple-day Kellogg development event in November, in large part to reflect on the club’s progress against its goals and to align on strategy.

The HR team hopes to build off this development framework by creating better-defined career path plans for each employee, O’Connell said.

With all that the Cubs’ HR team has accomplished in the past four years, Robinson remains tempered in acknowledging the successes. “Our baseball guys would say we have to be careful,” Robinson said, “because we haven’t done anything yet.”

Still, while Robinson would prefer HR not play hero, he knows the department’s contribution is an important part of the bigger picture, however large or small it may seem to those on the outside.

 “Fans don’t want to hear about how your values system is fantastic or your performance appraisal process is great,” Robinson said. “But that’s important to keep us marching forward in what is a really ambitious plan — which is to win a World Series, preserve Wrigley Field and be a good neighbor.”