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What relationships contribute to an individual's career success? Emotional support counts most, baseball Hall of Fame study suggests

February 1, 2011

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

"When your family is behind you 100 percent, you don't have to worry..."
--Frank Robinson, Baseball Hall  of Famer
What relationships are key to an individual's career success, and how do they contribute to it? A study in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal probes those questions in an ingenious and unusual way -- by analyzing the speeches of baseball stars when they are inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In the process, the researchers make some surprising findings.
For example, in a group that achieved extraordinary career success in a field demanding the highest physical skills, Hall of Famers' words of appreciation were mostly for individuals who had provided psychological and social support as distinguished from those who gave practical career assistance. Thus, almost two thirds of the thanks bestowed by inductees (about 63%) were for things like emotional support or friendship or inspiration, while only slightly more than one third (about 37%) were for coaching or other important kinds of utilitarian help.
Comments Richard D. Cotton of Appalachian State University, who carried out the research with Yan Shen of Boston University and Reut Livne-Tarandach of Boston College, "Although we thought that psychosocial support would be an important part of these success stories, we wouldn't have guessed it to be as predominant as it turned out to be. Interestingly, too, most of it comes from outside the organization -- from family or friends or individuals who had a powerful influence from afar as role models or sources of inspiration."
Equally surprising, the professor says, was the marked difference between the amount of thanks bestowed by Hall of Famers who were elected in the very first year they became eligible (described by Major Leaguers as the "ultimate honor") and by those chosen at a later time. First-ballot inductees acknowledged others'   support about twice as often as later inductees did, giving thanks for emotional support an average of 8.11 times, compared to 3.09 times for later inductees, and citing friendship 4.85 times compared to 1.6 for later inductees. On average, the first-ballot inductees identified support networks of 22.44 people, almost twice the size of the 11.71 average among later inductees.
Is this sharp difference attributable to some extraordinary attractiveness or magnetism of the sport's top stars? Prof. Cotton demurs. "While that may be true to a certain extent, it is not likely to be true of players' families -- and first-ballot inductees thanked their families about twice as often as later inductees did. In general, the richer support networks of the first-ballot inductees probably reflect an ability to get the most from potential support-givers and developers of all stripes, whether family members or coaches or others."
Ironically, the difference between the two groups was more pronounced in the size of their support networks than in some important career statistics. Both groups had about the same career batting averages, slugging percentages, games played, and fielding percentages. Where they parted sharply was in the incidence of single-season honors: 19 of 27 first-ballot inductees were chosen most valuable player at least once, compared to 8 of 35 later inductees, and 23 of 27 won a major batting title at least once compared to 18 of 35 later inductees. Comments Cotton: "Our findings suggest that career success is strongly related to the depth and variety of support networks but also that those networks likely make more difference in short-term achievements than in long-term baseline statistics."
The study's findings are based on all available speeches, 62 in total, made by former Major League position players inducted into the Hall of Fame between 1956 and 2005. Among the many speeches quoted were those of Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Hank Greenberg, Ernie Banks, Wade Boggs, George Kell, Robin Yount, Frank Robinson, Paul Molitor, and Mike Schmidt. Pitchers were excluded because, in the words of the study, "a pitcher's performance criteria are fundamentally different from those of position players." Analysis of speech content identified all individuals whom the inductees cited for contributing to their career success, with contributions categorized either as psychosocial support or career support and further divisions being made in each of those broad categories.
By far the largest type of contribution cited by inductees was emotional support, which accounted for 323 citations, about 22% of the total of 1,464 for the entire sample. Families accounted for about two thirds of that emotional support, suggesting, Cotton says, that "extraordinary career achievement depends largely on the support you get from your family. Choose your spouse wisely."
The second largest contribution was friendship, accounting for 187 citations, most often of Major League teammates. Next came role modeling, cited 163 times, with about half the role models being star ballplayers from an earlier era and most of the rest being contemporaries of the inductees. The fourth largest contribution, cited 156 times, was coaching, mostly by Major League managers and coaches.
The research responds to a growing sense among management scholars that new approaches to understanding career success are required in an era of what management scholars call "boundaryless" careers, a time when, in the study's words, "career mobility is often no longer bounded within organizations or occupations and where individuals are challenged to continuously learn and gain access to information and resources from multiple sources within and outside their employing organization."  Major League baseball, in which pressures for performance and creativity coexist with frequently shifting commitments between employers and employees, serves as a likely model in the context of today's careers.
Cotton sees lessons in the study for both individuals and employers. "Individuals," he says, "benefit when they view their career success as an outcome of life in all its breadth, something to which family and friends and all manner of role models can contribute. Employers, for their part, benefit from evaluating workers not simply on the basis of performance but on their developmental networks -- whom they relate to in the company and beyond and whom they might benefit from relating to. Performance appraisals, in other words, should focus not just on the what but on the who."
The new study, entitled "On Becoming Extraordinary: The Content and Structure of the Developmental Networks of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers," is in the February/March issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives and Academy of Management Learning and Education
Media Coverage: Baseball stars thank friends not coaches. (Thursday, March 03, 2011).
The Globe & Mail. Thank you speeches and what they show. (Saturday, February 26, 2011).
Toronto Star. Who inspired hall of famers to greatness? Choose your spouse wisely, says researcher. (Tuesday, March 15, 2011).
United Press International. Elite players thank family, friends most. (Thursday, February 24, 2011).

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