Lessons from The Sandlot

Dear Christian Radio…

We are the products of our youth. Our adult behaviors are often direct reflections of the influencers and experiences we had growing up. Perhaps it’s for this reason that “The Sandlot”—originally released in 1993—became a classic with audiences around the world.

On the surface, “The Sandlot” may appear to be one of any number of sports-related movies. However, the film’s story is one that transcends sports all together. “The Sandlot” is the coming-of-age tale of a young boy who finds himself through his new found friends and their countless misadventures. The movie offers up a warm slice of 1962 Americana, and even though I wasn’t born until more than a decade later, the film’s accurate portrayal of young, male group dynamics awakened memories of my own adolescent interactions.

Perhaps what’s best about the film is all of its quirky, quotable lines. If you’re already familiar with the movie, then you’ve probably been repeating these lines to yourself for what seems like “For-Ev-Er!” There are also many life lessons sprinkled throughout the film—some more obvious than others. The movie may have taught you to never swipe an autographed baseball—and actually play with it—but there are other lessons that can be gleaned from the movie’s more memorable memes.

A few of the more subtle lessons can be transferred from the proverbial sandlot and over to your own organization, group, or team—unless, of course, your team happens to be those mouthy little league Tigers. But I digress.

Communication strategy and protocols have been my professional calling card for more than 20 years. During the last two decades, I’ve been shown that many workplace cultures suffer from poor communication standards. A dependence on strategies learned from our childhood experiences are often brought into the workplace unrefined. Even so, these tendencies can be overcome once we know how to recognize them. For this reason, I’ve selected some of my favorite lines from the “The Sandlot” to help illustrate five common communication issues that organizations, leaders and their teams struggle to overcome. Master these solutions and your ministry will soon be hitting it out of the park.

The Line: “Some lady gave it to him…Some lady named Ruth. Baby Ruth.”

The Scene: In the movie, new kid in town Scottie Smalls aces a seemingly old baseball over a fence and onto the property of Mr. Mertle, who is rumored to be the meanest old man in town. Unfortunately for Smalls, the ball wasn’t just any old baseball. It belonged to Smalls’ stepdad—a legacy gift from his father—which just so happened to be autographed by the greatest baseball player of all time…Babe Ruth. “You’re dead as a doornail Smalls!”

Throughout the movie, Smalls’ new friends keep referring to Babe Ruth by every name under the sun: The Sultan of Swat, The Titan of Terror, The Colossus of Clout, The King of Crash, and of course, THE GREAT BAMBINO! It is only after the priceless ball is lost that Smalls learns that Babe Ruth just so happens to be the same guy.

The Issue: Your projects don’t have a consistent nomenclature.

The Solution: Nomenclature is one of those fifty cent words that doesn’t show up all that often, but you should make it a part of your professional vocabulary. In short, nomenclature simply means choosing a name or naming process…and sticking with it. Names matter. This is doubly true when you have a team working toward a shared goal.

Standardizing the naming process for all of your organization’s projects, tasks, and files drastically improves searchability and productivity. It also reduces the chance that a duplicate project is opened under a different name.

When organizations fail to standardize their nomenclature, communication channels quickly break down and chaos ensues. One simple way to standardize your naming process is to name your projects and tasks by hierarchy. I like this approach because it works well with any size organization. Keeping everything clear, concise, and consistent across all communications is what’s most important.

Here are three examples: one for a PROJECT, one for a Task, and one for a File

  • For Project Naming DEPARTMENT [AREA] Description
         Ex. PAR [SOCIAL MEDIA] 2019 Holiday Artwork
  • For Task NamingDepartment – Area  – Description
         Ex. Joy FM – Facebook – 2019 Christmas Banner
  • For File NamingDepartment_Area_Description_Date_PHASE
         Ex. Joy FM_Facebook_2019 Christmas Banner_FINAL

The Line: “George signed this?”

The Scene: The name George refers to George Herman Ruth, Jr. (a.k.a. The Babe). As it turns out Mr. Mertle is not a mean old man after all. To the boys’ surprise, Mertle is a former baseball player who personally knew Babe Ruth. After learning about the trouble Smalls is in, “Old Man Mertle” offers to trade one of his own signed baseballs—one autographed by Babe Ruth and the entire 1927 Yankees team—in exchange for Smalls now ragged and worthless ball…provided they come by once a week to talk baseball with him.

The Issue: You don’t have a clear and consistent approval process.

The Solution: There is an order to all things. In some cases, one person’s signoff just isn’t enough. While Babe Ruth’s signature often meets with approval, more sensitive endeavors may require the additional ink of Lou Gehrig and Murderers’ Row before you can go home. Knowing what signatures are needed before a project is considered complete is critical to any team’s success. This is where process comes in.

Every project needs a team leader and every team member needs to know exactly who that person is. If a project’s “Final Approval” means just one signature, great…but if further approval is needed, the person heading that project must present clear expectations and parameters before the team begins. The more standardized your projects and approval processes become, the easier it will be for your team to effectively operate.

The Line: “Just stand out there and stick your glove out in the air. I’ll take care of it.”

The Scene: Benny Rodriguez, the sandlot’s most talented and influential figure, tries to give Scottie Smalls some tips on how to catch a baseball. When Benny realizes that Smalls is overwhelmed by the prospect of having to catch a ball for the first time, Benny tells him, “I’ll take care of it.”

The Issue: You refuse to delegate tasks to your team.

The Solution: You may be the most talented person on your team, but you can’t do it all by yourself. There are many reasons why leaders fail to properly delegate tasks. Offices are filled with micromanagers, martyrs, control freaks, and guys like Benny who just want to help. However, always being the “go-to” person reinforces the belief that when it has to get done, you alone will take care of it. That’s not teamwork and it will lead to less productivity across the board. Dependability is an important characteristic of any leader. The trouble comes when you inevitably teach your team to only depend on you. 

As a leader, you must trust your team to do the job they were assigned to do. If they fail, it’s your job to provide solutions that will help them succeed the next time around.

The Line: “You’re killing me, Smalls!”

The Scene: Ham Porter’s indignant responses to all of Scottie Smalls’ shortcomings can be heard throughout the film. From s’mores to chewing tobacco, the iconic line captures Ham’s bewilderment toward all the common boyhood knowledge Smalls seems to lack.

The Issue: Everyone is on the same page except you.

The Solution: Nothing disrupts a team’s momentum faster than a team leader who is disengaged from the process. Good communication requires consistent involvement from all parties, not just the worker bees. Assign and resign communication tactics will leave your team frustrated and feeling as though they are being set up for failure. To avoid this, make it a goal to do weekly check ups on key projects. Make sure that you’re communicating with project leaders at least once a week, if not more. Be curious enough to ask team members how things are going. And by all means, keep your inbox up to date. As a rule of thumb, try to respond to any questions or concerns within 24 hours. You will find that doing these things will improve communication throughout your organization. What’s more, team members and leaders alike will know you’re invested in their success.

The Line: “I take it back. You’re not in trouble, you’re dead where you stand.”

The Scene: Benny and Smalls finally come face to face with Mr. Mertle. Instantly he senses that Smalls is in some kind of trouble. When Smalls explains the severity of his situation, rather than candy-coat what has happened, Mertle candidly clarifies just how bad a pickle Smalls is in.

The Issue: You don’t admit when a project is in trouble.

The Solution: French poet Jean de La Fontaine wrote, A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it. One of the biggest takeaways from the movie is how the boys could have easily avoided all of their troubles had they just gone to Mr. Mertle and asked for the ball back. The movie makes light of how childhood imaginations can make kids do some incredibly stupid stuff—especially when adding in an element of fear and the specter of consequence. These same adolescent behaviors can be found around most offices today. Bad reports get buried, numbers get massaged, hard “no’s” are offered up as polite “maybe’s” and so forth, until there is no other choice but to tell the truth.

Supporting a culture that values constructive candor emboldens team members to confront present and potential issues with a steady confidence. If a team doesn’t believe its leaders are willing to hear the bad in addition to the good, they will hesitate to ask questions or pass along difficult, but critical, information when it’s most needed.

Structure your organization in such a way that every team member has a clear channel of communication. Hold open forums. Encourage them to discuss issues with you and the team before they become full-blown disasters. And when that time comes and that disaster does strike, bring your team together and analyze what went wrong…just remember to focus on solving the problem, and not the people who were trying to manage it.

In closing, I leave you with one last inspiration from the film. The boys from the sandlot are similar to those of us in Christian ministry. In the movie, they did what they did for the love of it all. They didn’t have the best equipment or even the best talent…what they did have, however, was the best team.

Communicate with one another. Find ways to improve your processes. Lead by example and grow as a team. Execute your new plan as though you’d been planning it for years. Do these things well and you’ll be able to handle whatever the competition throws your way.

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