How did the Cubs do it? Business lessons from the turnaround of the century

By Alyssa Hurst

This week, the Chicago Cubs are playing their first World Series since 1945, in the hopes of winning the championship for the first time since 1908. Chicago’s lovable losers have finally given their rabid fan base a reason to celebrate after decades of failures. What’s more, they’ve done it by investing in a strong bench of talent and a winning culture.

Whether or not they end up besting their opponents, the Cleveland Indians, the 2016 Chicago Cubs will go down in history as one of the best squads in franchise history, with the National League pennant and 103 wins under their belt.

Yet, just four years ago, the Cubs had one of their worst seasons in history, losing almost as many games in 2012 as they won this year. Superstitious fans would say that The Curse of the Billy Goat is finally starting to wear off, but others point to a major shift in leadership and culture. Theo Epstein began his tenure as president of baseball operations after the 2011 season, and immediately started making big moves that have included acquiring ace pitcher Jake Arrieta in 2013, and drafting third baseman Kris Bryant, who was named the rookie of the year in 2015, and shared the honor of National League Championship Series MVP this year.

Early on in his tenure with the Cubs, Epstein created “The Cubs Way,” a living, breathing manual and philosophy that defines the way the organization approaches all aspects of the game. And, in 2015, the Cubs brought in former Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon as manager for the 2015 season, and his leadership style in the clubhouse and on the field has been noted as a major factor in the team’s recent success. Though baseball is a game, it is also a business, and in some respects, the players can be considered employees. So what can your business learn from the team’s quick and effective turnaround?

Business lessons from the Cubs

  • Do the little things right. Since joining the Cubs in 2015, manager Joe Maddon has continually pressed the importance of doing the little things right, says Fansided. “Doing the little things right means focusing on the fundamentals, playing good defense, and treating each game like it matters,” the article states. For businesses, Inc. says this is vital: “When even the optimists among us see volatility on the economic horizon, it’s a good time to revisit some specific good business fundamentals. After all, no matter what part of the cycle we’re currently in, good fundamentals will lead to good ongoing business practices, and provide us with a greater chance to succeed over the long term.” Things like data, customer service, scalability and execution are business fundamentals that should never be ignored.
  • Focus on young talent. From the moment Theo Epstein joined the Cubs franchise, he made it clear that he planned to build his roster around young players, notes the Chicago Tribune. Older players who weren’t performing well, like veteran pitcher and notorious hothead Carlos Zambrano, were traded away in favor of younger players and future draft picks. Though the team was left with a lack of experience at the onset of this strategy, those players quickly developed into some of the team’s top talent. Similarly, Harvard Business Review says companies should invest in programs that nurture rising stars, focusing particularly on engagement.
  • Build a cohesive culture. While building a strong roster of young talent was half of Epstein’s battle upon joining the Cubs, Talent Economy points out that the other half was building a winning culture. To do this, Epstein created “The Cubs Way” to standardize the organization’s philosophy all the way down to interns. With the addition of Maddon, the team was able to truly establish a culture of high expectations, balanced with remaining “loose and even-keeled.” “Yes, talent is the most important resource when it comes to driving performance, but without the proper organizational philosophy and culture, even the most talented teams won’t accomplish their goals,” says Talent Economy of the lesson the Cubs can teach businesses about the importance of culture.

Alyssa Hurst is the associate editor of SmartCEO magazine and Contact her at