Play Ball! What Agency HR Teams Can Learn from the Washington Nationals

At this time of the year, local sports fans usually have high hopes for their Washington Nationals. Why not? The team has compiled winning records every season since 2012, earning two NL East titles in the process. 

The Nationals have achieved much success because the organization is committed to a sound game plan – one that combines a willingness to pay for free agents while still investing significantly into the development of younger athletes in the farm system. True, players come and go. And we even have a new manager – the outgoing Dusty Baker. But the Nationals have never compromised the core values which contribute directly to outstanding personnel oversight.

In fact, when we take a closer look at the approach to player recruitment and development here, we can extract a number of “lessons learned” to apply to talent management at our government agencies. Here are four to consider:

Astute acquisition. You can’t simply write a bunch of big checks and assume that great things will happen. Many baseball general managers have failed by signing expensive superstars who never work out. For the most part, the Nationals have avoided this, carefully assessing and pursuing free agents who are good fits for the team as a whole. At the same time, the organization devotes abundant resources to the grooming of their farm system, where younger “diamonds in the rough” work hard to position themselves to play for the major league club someday.

Agencies can go about this in a similar manner, seeking both highly experienced professionals and young, promising talent. Then – just as baseball teams spend more than an entire month in spring training – they must enrich the skillsets they’ve collected through ongoing training and development programs. By combining astute talent acquisition with effective training and development, ball clubs and agencies ensure maximum productivity, performance and continuity.

A wide net. The Nationals select both free agents and farm system recruits from a variety of sources – high schools, colleges and other baseball organizations. Agencies should do the same, reaching out to candidates from a wide range of schools and outside agencies, organizations, etc. Baseball teams use analytics to pinpoint which particular schools have produced the most accomplished players, so they can dedicate more scouting resources to them. HR can follow the same path, taking advantage of analytics solutions to find out which colleges, for example, have produced the best employees, to increase their efforts at these schools.

In addition, a “wide net” refers to the types of skills you’re seeking. In baseball, pitchers need to master a number of different pitches to keep batters off-balance. Outfielders must hit for power and average, while running down balls in the field. Infielders have to combine quickness and agility – along with a strong, precise throwing arm – to turn opponents’ hits into outs. 

For agencies, the “wide net” translates to staffers with eclectic “hard” skills (accounting/finance, policy, IT, etc.) along with the required “soft” skills (communications, leadership, etc.) You need all of these to make for a complete “roster.” Otherwise, if you focus strictly on a narrow collection of qualities, you’ll find yourself lacking in the ones you’ve overlooked.

Attention to succession. Just as no baseball career lasts forever, government HR managers have to continuously monitor/predict which employees are likely to leave over the next six months, year, three years, five years and beyond. Before a key employee retires, managers should have the right replacement ready for the pending vacancy. In baseball, that’s where the farm system enters the equation, with the Nationals developing specific players for specific, future roles in the major leagues.

In baseball and the government, you must also stay on top of possible leadership voids due to retirements. But not everyone wants to be a leader, no matter how talented. Nationals player Bryce Harper is the reigning MVP, for instance, but he has overtly stated that he doesn’t want to be the team’s leader this season. Given this, federal HR departments should identify junior performers who not only convey leadership potential, but express the eagerness to stand out as a future leader. Then, HR needs to ensure these performers undergo the necessary training and development, so they’re ready to take charge when current leaders decide to step aside.

A culture of engagement. Baker is frequently referred to as “a player’s coach.” He’s gregarious. He knows how to speak to individuals at their level. He knows what motivates them, and what doesn’t.

This serves as an example of good management anywhere – including the public sector. Study after study has proven that strong employee engagement results in better performance and retention. When you demonstrate that you can relate to staffers “at their level” – by understanding and responding to their professional aspirations, while taking interest in their personal well-being – you establish a meaningful connection with them. You’ll not only reap the benefits of impactful, lasting employee contributions to your goals, but you’ll generate positive “word of mouth” about your agency – boosting recruitment “buzz.”

So, HR leaders, it’s time to “play ball.” In building and managing talent, you’re not preparing for a single inning or a game, or even a season. Like the Nationals, you’re aiming for excellence “on the field” year after year. By taking a strategic approach to recruitment, training/development, succession planning and engagement, you’ll cover all of the bases. And that’s when a winning mindset will emerge as a part of your organizational culture – for the long haul.

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