Baseball & Business: What It’s Like to Lead the Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall takes us behind the scenes with our state’s MLB team, their core values and how far they’ve come as an organization. Hall also talks about his leadership experience running a corporation that has a business side and a game side, and the lessons learned from leading those different cultures.

Try to find a way to win even when you lose.

Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks Tweet

INTERVIEW

Eric Sperling: Hello everybody, welcome to Arizona Achievers where we are all about empowering leaders. And look who we have with us today, we have the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks Derrick Hall, thanks for being here.

Derrick Hall: Thanks for having me.

Eric Sperling:  One of the questions I have for you, and if you are not a sports fan…

Derrick Hall: Everybody is a sports fan.

Eric Sperling: What does the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks do?

Derrick Hall: The Diamondbacks are like any other large corporation. You walk down the hallway and you would see you have every department you would see at any corporation any organization where you have H.R. functions, and legal functions, and marketing, and community affairs. We have nearly five hundred full-time employees and when you look at our full time staff, international staff are close to two thousand, but if you took all of our departments and you be basically split it in half where you have the baseball side, the baseball operations and you have the business side and now it is almost an half and half numbers wise. But keep in mind you have minor leagues, you have Dominican academy, you have international scouts, so many people all over the world. Yet, here in Phoenix we are looking at probably four hundred to five hundred of those full time employees, but it depends on the day, what its calling for, where we are focused on, government affairs and the next day we may be focused on what kind of impact we can make on the community that day, there are most days when we are focused on the performance on the field or how we can improve the team with winner meetings, the trade deadline, that’s where your focus is. It just depends what’s happening, but very full days and very long days, in baseball you’ve got the longest season, one hundred and sixty two games, these individuals that work for us get in at seven thirty, eight o clock in the morning and with a home game, they not getting home until eleven or twelve at night.

Eric Sperling: And if you go to a Diamondbacks game, there you are ten o clock at night sitting there.

Derrick Hall: Yeah, exactly, sitting there either with a smile on my face or in agony.

Eric Sperling: And I think a lot of CEOs, business leaders, they are familiar with that structure, you mentioned. You have the business side, you have the baseball side kind of funneling up to you. And those are two very different cultures sometimes, and the way you lead those two sides, and an interesting thing about the Diamondbacks is to so many publications that rank you as one of the best places to work, and I just overheard the United Nations gave you that award?

Derrick Hall: We did. We were named the most positive organization in all the sports by the United Nations, we were the first ever with the award. And it’s great, I think when we get named best place to work over and over again I think it’s been twelve straight years, that’s really about the employees who we call our team players and they are the ones that create that environment, create that culture, they love coming work each and every day. But you are exactly right because if you talk to those that are part of the business side, it is a different culture, and you see people that have been there from day one that are still there fifteen, twenty years later. People that began as interns that have moved their way up and gotten promoted they are still there now as directors or vice presidents. On the baseball side, that longevity is not really there, there is a lot of turnover, people jump ships with opportunities to go to other teams, you’ve seen managers and general managers on that revolving door. Our goal is to always have them in place forever, it doesn’t always happen realistically but it’s a challenge for me to make sure that we have that same culture that we have created on the business side on the baseball side as well. We are starting to that, and we’re weaving the two together, and it’s difficult at first because it’s always been us and them, or in other organizations you would hear them say “the suits don’t want us doing that”. We don’t want that breakdown, we want everyone to feel like they are part of the organization, a part of the family, and it’s very important that we communicate to them the same way we do our front office and that the players really feel like they are part of that family too and they do, it’s not an us versus them, it’s a ‘We’.

 

[03:56]

Eric Sperling: And as leaders, I talked to other people who have sat where you are sitting. One of the most frustrating things is dealing with things that are outside of your control, so you mentioned the two sides of the business; the baseball side and the business side, like you could be rocking and rolling on the business side and culture is fantastic meanwhile on the baseball side you are seven, ten games losing streak, tell me how you balance that world as a leader?

Derrick Hall: It’s a lot of broken TV remotes at home, I can tell you that. It’s tough because I take every game so personally, you know, I want to win every game for our season ticket holders and die-hard fans and our employees, and our team players deserve rings every year; the sweat and tears they put into that organization, so it is tough. Yet, there is a balance, because you know you are not going to win every year, you can’t control that. We try and say “try to find a way to win even when you lose, so that’s a challenge of ours each day. Yet when things are going great people are still only focused on “what’s the record of the team?”, “how’s the new first basemen doing?” and it’s tough, and so I think we have done a nice job of things we can control we are doing such a good job with, for example making that positive impact on the community, here we are, we are little over twenty years old, and we have already given back over sixty-five million dollars to the community. That’s something that our fans can be proud of each day regardless of how we are playing, so that’s a way to win even when you lose, making sure that we do have the best possible culture, that we are providing the best fan experience, that’s up to us, and to make sure that we are very consistent in those areas where we do control items.

 

[05:26]

Eric Sperling: I want to talk about your community involvement for a bit because you give back more than any of the team here in the Valley. And you know, we’ve seen firsthand some of the things you do in various neighborhoods, tell me how passionate you are, the rewards you get and maybe a brief specific story of one of the most moving things you have been a part of.

Derrick Hall: Its powerful. I mean there aren’t to many organizations or individuals that we turned down, and I look back at what we’ve done over the years and I think the most powerful image we would say first and foremost because it’s actually the field itself, the physical field when we started giving Diamondback’s field building programm, now we have forty two of those fields throughout all of Arizona, that was the biggest thing we did. Now, it’s just one of many, we are giving away this grand slam awards of a hundred thousand dollars plus, and we are giving away say five to ten of those a year, and we are giving away grants anywhere from twenty five hundred to ten thousand dollars, and we are giving away 75 or a hundred of those. When we are making sure that kids that couldn’t afford or leagues that couldn’t afford uniforms to play baseball or softball, now we are providing those uniforms so the leagues can stay open or wave entry fees or build concession stands or fix their fields, we have that going now. When you are in the schools and you are given a hundred thousand dollars away through challenges each year with all these schools that are benefiting, when you are going to hospitals and making a difference that’s what it’s all about. And it’s not just us, it’s our players, it’s our coaches, it’s ingrained in who they are. We teach them at a very young age in the minor leagues that they need to go to schools and read stories to kids, they need to go to hospitals, not with the camera behind them but because it’s the right thing to do. So by the time they get here they are still doing that and we get phone calls from PCH saying “boy, you wouldn’t believe it but your first placement has come by each of the last three weeks of the off season” and we didn’t know, you know that’s powerful, and it sends a message to the entire organization that you don’t do it for the accolades, you don’t do it to be talked about, you do it because you know you have a social responsibility and you can truly make that impact.

 

Eric Sperling:  You said at the beginning, you said everybody is a sport a fan.

Derrick Hall: Not everybody.

Eric Sperling: Not everybody is a sports fan, not everybody is an Arizona Diamondbacks fan.

Derrick Hall: What?

Eric Sperling: What?! When you do this in the community, when everything you just rattled off, do you find especially in Arizona where you know, I’m from Pittsburg, Chris is from New York, everybody comes from different markets so we have affiliations to other teams. But, you know, on the business side you are building a brand, you are building the Arizona Diamondbacks team as a brand. Have you seen the transition from am not even a sports fan, to now all of sudden I am a Diamondbacks fan, now am going to the games because of what you’ve done?

 

Derrick Hall: That’s a great question, and yes. We hear stories from fans all the time who say exactly that “I have never been to a game, but you gave money to my kids’ school, and I felt like I needed to go,” or “I wanted to see what this is about.” The fact that we are the most affordable ticket in all of baseball and we have been for about eight straight years, the fact that you can go to our games and you can bring in your own food, your own water, you can find valued pricing, two-dollar hot dog, corndog, popcorn, soda, milk, these things fans are hearing about so they want to try it and once they try it, they want to come back. However, this is a unique market in that we are still a very young franchise, it’s always been a baseball mecca, and you had The Giant Triple-A team with the Fire Birds, you have Dodger fans that have been here, you had Cubs fans, a lot of Cubs fans because people have moved from Chicago, very transient people who have moved. They have picked up their lives they’ve come to Arizona with affiliations to other teams. When I first got here and I would look down from my office that overlooks the concourse, if we were playing a perfect example is the Cubs. If we were playing the Cubs, I would see a family walking on the cart course and the parents would be wearing Cubs jerseys holding their  hands with kids wearing Cubs jerseys. About five to seven years later, I would look down and notice the parents for that series were still wearing Cubs jerseys holding the hands of kids wearing D-backs jerseys and what I see now is parents that are wearing D- Backs jerseys holding the hands of kids wearing D-backs jerseys. It’s taking that time now and you realize that there are some kids that are twenty or twenty one years old, they don’t know any other team, D-backs are their team. So it’s taken that next generation but it has happened, even people that weren’t necessarily sports fans, we find that they are saying am a D-backs fan because I like what they do in the community. I like the players they have come play for them, because we are very particular on who we want wearing our uniform and I think they are proud of ownership in our front office too. I hope so.

 

[09:49]

Eric Sperling: We just talked about how great you are, everything you guys are doing in the community, changing the culture, building a winning culture. And as a leader all these things are rocking and rolling for you and then you still going to hit with controversies.

Derrick Hall: Oh, all the time.

Eric Sperling: Every time you scroll through social media, you watch local news, there is something about what’s going on with the stadium, or are you guys moving. Tell me about how you handle that.

Derrick Hall: I think that’s really good because it challenges us, it keeps us on our toes. We have to continuously look in the mirror and ask how we can get better and what we can do better. You’ve talked about the controversy over the stadium or over moving we should be called under the rug for that, what exactly is going on, isn’t Chase Field good enough, can’t we stay there? You are talking about a hundred and eighty million dollars of repairs, well why should we have to pay for that,? Granted, and I agree with all that. So I think it’s important for us in our leadership roles to make sure that we communicate properly that we are as transparent as possible. That’s what they appreciate and if you will take the time to listen to the fans. I hear from season tickets holders all day long, they may be upset about increase in the pricing, they may be upset about the condition of their seat, they may not like something that we played music-wise and between innings. That’s important to me that we are fully accessible, that we listen to them and that we say we are sorry and we fix it, that’s really all they want. And out there fans have questions, they have concerns and they should, and we should address them. Perfect example like you brought up with the stadium, that’s our major issue and you know the rumors “are they going to leave?” “they are going to Henderson” “they are going to Las Vegas”. Naturally, other cities out there have interest in getting major league teams, getting any of the major sports franchises there, and they are going to one day, while we want to focus on staying right where we are particular Downtown. At Chase Field, we are slowing things down, we are doing all our due diligence to stay there, but when rumors are flying, when people are concerned that “they want to take the money and run,” “they going to try to take public money and build another stadium when they don’t need to” they should ask those questions.

Eric Sperling: They should ask those questions, and you just mentioned proper communication, and you just mentioned rumors, and maybe tapping into your expertise and also educating some big brands out there, you know this is a different world than it was ten years ago as far as controlling that message, we are talking about, before you just had TV, radios and newspapers, and now its social media and it is different.

 

Derrick Hall: Exactly, so I would say in the past when we talked about having five hundred employees, one of those departments was always communications and PR, and you had to deal with the media. So we are dealing with you, giving you, we are hoping you say something favorable about us in your comment, we are watching you know ten o clock at night, we are opening the paper the next day, and it wasn’t that bad whereas now, we can write those stories, we can create those stories because people want the information now. Now we have the department dedicated to social media, we have the department creating our content as well and creative. So for us to be able to have almost our own media department, and if people want something now and they want to hear it accurately or get the truth or first hand, we are there to provide it as well.

Eric Sperling: Right, people are watching this right now on an app, you guys have your app, with your content developers, and then those questions can come right from the fans to you, there is not a question that goes to a third party that ends up with you.

Derrick Hall: That’s right and as accessible as we are and want to be, that’s why each month, I hold a monthly, for exactly that reason, a chat, an open chat where people are sending in their questions, and we have a half-hour. We are as accessible as anybody, we want to make sure every phone call, every e-mail, every letter goes answered and you know for me to walk the concourses and talk to employees and talk to per time staff, and talk to season ticket holders, I mean it’s great. When I first got here, and I was with the team in L.A. that rhymes with Fodgers, and we were like I would wear a suit every day, that was my culture, I had a woman walk up to me at my seat and say “Mr. Hall, can I tell you something?” I said” absolutely,” she said “you look like an idiot,” I said” excuse me?” she said “yeah, you are wearing a suit, it is a hundred and ten degrees outside, this is a baseball game. You are asking us to buy this stuff and you don’t even wear it” and I thought “wow you are right,” We got rid of that and it changed our culture, but it’s listening to the fans. One day I am going section by section thanking our per time staff and ushers for the way they are treating our fans, and one of the haboobs starts picking up, and it’s getting dusty and dark and hotdog wrappers are swirling and BPs going on, and this fan walks up “hey Mr. Hall?” I said “yes sir,” he said “shouldn’t you shut the roof,” I said “come on, in Pittsburg it’s probably sprinkling, in Atlanta it’s probably humid and windy” and he said “yeah, but in Pittsburg, if they had a roof don’t you think they be smart enough to close it?” and I thought “you are right” it’s so easy to go “hey guys close the roof” but listen to your fans, listen to your critics, and be open book.

 

[14:35]

Eric Sperling: I am so glad that we are laughing right now because one of the things I do want to touch down with you is levity in leadership, and if you don’t know Derrick, he’s a funny guy. Tell me about bringing that to the table in the leadership role and how important that either is to you or can be if for brands out there that have people within their organization that kind of provide that.

Derrick Hall: First and foremost every leader must be who he or she is really is. We can’t be somebody we are not. And so the first thing we have to admit is what our faults are, what our mistakes are, what we don’t know and surround yourself with the right people. In addition to that, I believe we have to have a lot of fun at work I truly believe that and I say work hard, play hard. We are a family, we actually spend more time with our work family than we do our family at home. And so in order to that, we’ll have employee meetings once a month where it’s like a late night talk show, and we have a stage, and I have a chair and table and a couch, and we have special guest, whether it’s the commissioner, or the Mayor, or the governor, we’ve had all the above and we’d have musical act, we’d have our employees of the month named as special guest as well, it’s awesome. That’s how we do, we really try and do everything. We have quarterly outings that are mandatory, whether we going to play golf or we are going to the food pantry, whatever it is we do things together, we have fun. I really believe in that, I think it’s an important part of who we are. I always say the customer does not come first, and people raise their eyebrow, they’re like what? No, the employee comes first, because if the employee fees appreciated, rewarded, respected, invested in, he and she are then, in turn, going to treat our customers the way we want them to. We have this acronym that we created it’s called F.A.W.T.S.Y which is; Find A Way To Say Yes. We actually have it copyrighted

Eric Sperling: You copyrighted FAWTSY? I think we own that.

Derrick Hall: (Laughs) Well, we’ll get you for that. A long time ago, we asked our staff, especially our game day staff – except for security…

Eric Sperling: (Laughs).

Derrick Hall: Find A Way To Say Yes, right. But that’s our approach to everything , “find a way to say yes” and we empower our employees “go be pioneers, take some chances, make mistakes. It’s okay, but learn from those mistakes when you make them.

Eric Sperling: Well ≥Derrick thank you for taking time to talk to us about leadership, to talk to us about everything you guys are doing in the community, best of luck of course to the team this year, best of luck to you guys, thank you so much.

Derrick Hall: I appreciate it, thanks for having me.

Eric Sperling: We’ll see you next time.

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