north of neutral dialog

September 1, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Joe Girardi, Manager & Coach, The Yankees, New York

When I first met Joe Girardi, I’ll admit that I didn’t know who he was – as a European I have remained somewhat oblivious to the U.S. sports scene (not something I’m proud of!).

I was quickly brought up to speed by friends though: ”This is the coach of the New York Yankees!” So, before our first conversation, I had a quick lesson about baseball, the Yankees and how Girardi is the coach who brought home the 2009 World Series. As part of my subsequent research about Girardi I found a number of write-ups that extended beyond sports media, including a very recent one in the June 2010 edition of the Harvard Business Review.

As a coach of high-potentials and star performers in the ‘executive playing field’, I am acutely aware of how coaching has its origins in the sports arena. I wanted to hear from Joe Girardi, one of the most experienced and successful sports coaches, some of his insights as to what makes a winning team.

The role

Joe Girardi has been coaching the NY Yankees for three years. Much like the CEO of an organization, a manager of a professional baseball club needs to cater to a variety of different audiences: the club owners, the team of players, the general public, the media and sponsors.

Together with his right-hand man, Tony Pena (the Yankees’ bench coach who is responsible for the team’s back stops), Girardi typically oversees drills. While Girardi is responsible for the team’s overall strategy and success, he has his bench coach to use as a sounding board, especially when it comes to in-game tactics.

In addition to strategizing games, Girardi spends a significant amount of time in one-on-one exchanges with players. “I think a big part of the job here is managing personalities. A lot of times you have guys here that actually want to play more than the time allotted because we bring in players that have played every day in other places.” A veteran player of 1,247 big league games himself, Girardi also knows that life can sometimes get in the way of winning a game, and so he understands the crucial importance of motivating the individual.”It’s important that you show players you care about them, and walk things through with them,” he explains.


One of five children, Girardi was born in 1964 in Peoria, Illinois. He and his siblings were often seen helping out at their parent’s Italian restaurant. Slightly below the average 6’2” height of baseball players, 5’11” Girardi became the catcher on his high school baseball team. He went on to play baseball at Northwestern University where he studied for a BS in Industrial Engineering. On campus, he was the first sophomore to be elected president of the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity (considered, alongside its LeaderShape Institute, to be one of the finest leadership skills training programs in the country).

His baseball coach at Northwestern describes Girardi as one of the most grounded players he has ever come across. Girardi was probably also one of the most focused and dedicated young talents of his time. He would sleep without air conditioning in the Midwest summer heat, and with a tube sock over his arm to minimize injuries and maximize his potential as an athlete.

Shortly after his graduation, in 1989, Girardi started his major league playing career with the Chicago Cubs, and the same year was named in Baseball Digest magazine’s Rookie All-Star Team. After three years he signed with the Colorado Rockies, where he stayed until 1995, and then went on to his first chapter with the New York Yankees as one of their catchers – receiving three World Series rings in the span of four years. Named in the Chicago Cubs All-Star team in 2000, he left in 2003 to play for the St Louis Cardinals, before returning to the New York Yankees in 2004 as their bench coach and catching trainer.
Following a brief stint with the Florida Marlins in 2006, Girardi signed a three-year contract for a reported $7.5 million to manage the New York Yankees in 2007. In 2009 Girardi and his team won their 27th World Series title. Girardi is often asked about the difference in winning as a manager and as a player. “As a player,” he says, “it’s something you dream about from the time you’re a little boy, so the immediate joy you feel is for yourself. As a manager, your joy really goes out to other people.”

Moments of pause

In 2006 Girardi became manager of the Florida Marlins and was honored with the award of ‘National League Manager’ of the year. A first-time manager for the Marlins, Girardi led the team on a highly successful run even though his players had the lowest combined payroll in Major League Baseball (the entire payroll was lower than that of several individual player’s wages in larger teams).

Despite the success Girardi achieved in his first year as manager, he was nearly fired when he got into a public argument with the owner of the Marlins. ”You can anticipate what it’s like to manage…but you never really understand all of the different hats that you have to wear until you have to do it.” As a player Girardi was used to answering for what he did in games, but as manager he had to master wearing a lot more hats – often a case of balance and poise.

Leading a winning team: walk the talk

What stands out in all of this is that Joe Girardi is a leader who truly walks the talk. On a professional note, he creates standards of excellence, translates his intention into reality, and sustains them through action and behavior. Here is a practical example: There is the ban of facial hair and candy bars at the Yankees Club house. Not surprisingly, Girardi is famous for his short crop and dedication to a healthy diet.

Girardi is equally committed to espousing his positive beliefs at home, and is a devoted family man. ”My hobby is my family,” he shares. With his wife of 20 years, Kim, he plays his part in raising their three children. The story goes that when his five-year old daughter, Serena, was afraid of getting braces, Girardi vowed he would get them too, should she need them. And this he did. At the age of 45 with perfectly straight teeth, Girardi was seen wearing braces alongside his daughter.

Another example may be his faith: the night of winning the World Series in 2009, Girardi was on his way to his home when he saw a driver in distress. He stopped in dangerously heavy traffic to ensure the women in trouble was receiving help. “Spirituality is first,” Girardi offers. “We can’t forget to be human beings.”

Numerous studies have been conducted on the importance of walking the talk as a leader. Integrity is a surrogate term for this leadership trait that is characterized by aligning public and private behavior with espoused values. Individuals with this personality trait keep their promises and commitments; they tend to be discrete and are able to keep information confidential. They assume responsibility for their decisions and the related outcome, and such integrity in turn breeds trust in others.

A side note: As I learned more about baseball and baseball teams (especially the Yankees), I have noticed how I am now more interested in this sport that is so engrained in the American culture. While I am far from being a baseball insider, as part of writing this dialog I have visited the Yankee stadium and will now stop and watch when I come across a game on TV. Curiosity breeds knowledge which potentially breeds more curiosity – sometimes in places you may have never suspected it… Secretly, I am now a Yankees fan.

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