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What the Detroit Tigers tell us about organizational culture

May 19, 2017

By Mary Corrado, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Sparky Anderson used to say that you needed 40 games before you could truly assess how a major-league team is going to do for a season. We’re approaching that point now, so the time is right to give you my take on this year’s team.

What I see frustrates me, because it looks like the same-old same-old. We’ve got some big bats, better-than-average starting pitching, average to below-average defense, and that bullpen! It means we will probably finish about the same as we always do. Maybe we’ll be slightly above .500, maybe slightly below .500. Maybe we’ll even squeeze into the playoffs, but if we do we probably won’t go very far.  I find that frustrating.

It’s frustrating because our team always seems to have the same strengths and the same weaknesses. Not just in the last few years, but for as long as I can remember. Why is that?

I think part of the answer is organizational culture. Some aspects of organizational culture you can change. But some other aspects are so deeply embedded for so long that they are nearly impossible to change, at least in the short run. I know this from personal experience. 

I would describe ASE’s culture today as defined by four main components: transparency, family friendliness, high customer service, and risk aversion. I believe at least two of those components were not there when I joined ASE back in 1990. We were not as transparent or as family oriented as I believe we are now. In my time as CEO we’ve worked hard at becoming more transparent both to our members and to our staff and have strived to be a family-friendly workplace.  I believe those values have taken hold with our staff over time. High customer service seems to flow from those first two, and I believe high customer service has also become inherent to the way we operate every day. The feedback we get from our biennial member survey seems to confirm those three elements.  

Risk aversion is a different story. I believe we are still fighting a 115-year old—i.e., as long as ASE has existed–legacy of risk aversion.  I often wonder how that can be. We’ve had six CEOs in our history including myself, and I highly doubt we could all—every one of us— be predominantly risk-averse in our individual makeups. It had to be an institutional mindset that has somehow passed itself along from generation to generation, unconsciously, and the longer it’s been in place the more deeply embedded it has become.

In today’s business environment you have to be willing to take some risk in order to stay viable, let alone thrive. The risks you take have to be calculated, of course, but you have to take them. Obviously, ASE has been around for 115 years, so I believe we’ve handled risk well.  However, with the every tightening market, will we need to become comfortable with increased risk?  This would involve the challenge of overcoming a 115-year cultural mindset – not a simple task.

All organizations have cultures and each organization’s culture is unique. Culture is a powerful force in every organization. But most of us understand it only vaguely.  I believe you cannot change your culture like you can change your clothes. I think you can change certain elements of your culture, but only at the margins and only with a lot of sustained, concentrated effort.  Long-term changes take years.

Now back to the Tigers. Do you remember the old Tiger Stadium? I went there often with my parents and siblings as a child.  Do you remember how close the outfield fences were? Over the stadium’s long history the Tigers and their opponents hit lots of home runs. Naturally, Tigers’ management fell in love with players who could hit home runs. Now we play in Comerica Park, which has one of the biggest outfields in all of baseball – making it harder to make those long hits. But the Tigers still seem to favor players who can hit home runs because it’s ingrained in their culture.  But in reality, should they now be recruiting players that have a high on-base percentage?  

It’s difficult to change aspects of a culture that are deeply ingrained and have been for many, many years. But I hope the Tigers will try a little harder to make it happen.

Does your company struggle with overcoming culture issues?  I’d love to hear how your company is addressing them and if there has been any success in making long-term, ground-shaking changes to your culture.  Your feedback is always valuable and helps ASE get to know our readers better and see different point of views on various issues.  Email me at 

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