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WAR in the Workplace

I don’t know about you, but for my family and me, this time of year is all about baseball. My two sons play Little League and the regular season, along with their selection for a post-season All Stars team, means we watch them compete for months. We’re also rabid Mets fans, which consumes the rest of our free time. (We continue to watch even though they are horrible this year – but we won’t discuss that any further). 

Major League Baseball has gone metrics crazy over the last few years with it even being the focus of a Hollywood film called Moneyball where the lead character was played by Brad Pitt. Of the dozens and dozens of statistics tracked in baseball, I personally like the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) measurement the most because it isn’t one single statistic, like the player’s number of home runs. Instead, WAR is combination of statistics that, together, measure the player’s value to the team as a whole. According to Wikipedia, “A player's WAR value is claimed to be the number of additional wins his team has achieved above the number of expected team wins if that player were substituted with a replacement-level player; a player who may be added to the team for minimal cost and effort.”

What does this have to do with the workplace? I personally think there are three ways in which the WAR concept is applicable.


One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received came from a professor who said that the only way to ensure job security is to do such a good job that you become difficult to replace.

Becoming excellent at your job requires constant self-evaluation. This can be awfully difficult. Many people spend too much time justifying their work or covering their butts.

But what if, every once in a while, you asked yourself a simple question: Compared to others, how much MORE value do I provide?

What are the wins that you’re giving your organization above a replacement? You might be great at certain things in the workplace, but what real value are you contributing? If you were gone tomorrow, what would the organization lose much in your replacement? You might be terrific at that one skill that makes you look good to others, but is that activity really worthwhile to the organization? Is it something you do just because you know you’re good at it? Are you avoiding more impactful or substantive work? Are you growing your skill set by doing things that are unknown or uncomfortable for you? These are all important questions that we should be asking ourselves regularly.

You need to determine the whole of your impact, not the individual parts. A baseball player can hit a ton of home runs but do a poor job in every other area. Just because he’s good at hitting home runs doesn’t mean he can’t be easily replaced. A workplace example might be that person who holds the keys to the database. Their role as the database expert doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t come in and figure it out.

When push comes to shove, organizations will spend time determining your value above whatever option exists to replace you. If you can make the case that your value far exceeds a replacement, you better position yourself for things like job security, increased pay, and new opportunities.

Evaluating Leadership

The nonprofit sector as a whole does a poor job of evaluating the work of CEOs. If evaluations do exist, they tend to be superficial or improperly focused.

I think the evaluation processes of our leadership would be more impactful if part of the conversation involved the question, “Does this person provide a high level of value above an average replacement?”

Compared to a CEO you consider average, how does your leader stack up? How many wins do they give you above a replacement?

I’ve encountered some truly incompetent leaders and then have had baffling conversations with Board members who say things like, “We can’t possibly afford to get rid of him.” When you dig deeper, it is often not the person that‘s keeping the Board from pursuing a replacement — it is a laundry list of other factors in play, like long-past victories, or their "heart for the mission," or just the difficult nature of replacing someone. The thing to remember is that these factors don’t have anything to do with the person’s real value to the organization. Instead, CEO evaluation should take into account the whole. Do they do a good job monitoring programs but a poor job fundraising, communicating, leading staff, and managing the Board? What do all the measures say about the person’s ability to lead the organization?

Of course we can’t expect our leaders to be great at everything, but they should be good leaders who can maximize their strengths, and mitigate their weaknesses, in order to give our organizations a number of wins above an average replacement.

Building Up Staff

I would not encourage leaders to measure their staff using the WAR metric. Often, staff are limited by their leadership. They can’t increase their WAR because of the box their leadership puts them in.

Instead, leaders should actively look for opportunities to help staff increase their WAR. They should invest in professional development opportunities for staff. They should give staff the opportunities and experiences that lead to growth and new skills. They should help instill in staff the desire to get better—to increase their value. They should look for opportunities for their staff to be good at a variety of things, and not be pigeonholed. Leaders should build up those staff so that others look at that staff and say, We want people like that on our team!

And nonprofit leaders need to get over the fact that these highly talented and valued people that we have helped build up will someday leave. Guess what: THAT IS OKAY! I’d rather enjoy 2 years of service from a highly productive staff member than 5 years of service from a staff member who hasn’t been developed at all.

This gets us back to baseball. Major League Baseball teams spend a lot of money, time, and effort developing stars from within, all the while knowing they will eventually hit free agency and likely leave. They make those investments because those stars can help them win while they’re there. No team has a strategy of winning with players who are average or replacement level. Neither should we.

Next steps

So what does this mean? Well, if you are a…

  • Board member — Have an honest conversation about the value of your CEO over an average replacement. If the value is not high, look at developing that CEO or look at going in another direction. If the value is high, look at how you can retain that CEO.
  • Leader — Work with your staff to increase their value. Set aside your worries, your insecurities, and whatever else is holding you back and work with your staff to be the best they can be. Your goal should be to make them too valuable to keep, all the while encouraging them to stay.
  • Staff member — While those above you might put you in boxes, there is a lot you can do to increase your value. Do your job the best you can. Seek out free educational resources, which are plenty. Volunteer to do work that helps you grow, even if it isn’t in your wheelhouse. Work hard and make people notice. See what others are doing or aren’t doing and stand out.

So go ahead and do your best to create more wins, for you and your organization

The Nonprofit Partnership's offices at The Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Transformational Philanthropy are open Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM.

Phone 814.240.2490