Working for a Major League Baseball team might seem like the pinnacle of big business for some. And Brian Barren certainly has the background to take on that challenge: He led multifunctional business teams across a dozen of Procter & Gamble’s brands for 24 years before joining the Cleveland Indians as executive vice president of sales and marketing in 2014.
But what he found when he arrived at Progressive Field was that baseball teams tend to be run like a small, family-owned business instead of corporate giants like P&G. Luckily, the lessons he learned at P&G have served him as his role has evolved with the Cleveland Indians.
In a conversation for the Second in Command podcast, Brian provided insight about everything from developing business processes to figuring out when to go with the flow.
Learn from your neighbors, regardless of industry
Brian joined Procter & Gamble right out of college, spending more than two decades leading customer business development teams. But P&G is actually where Brian became familiar with the business operations of the Cleveland Indians, years before he joined the organization.
A chance meeting between Brian’s boss at P&G and Mark Shapiro — a former college football teammate of Brian’s who had gone on to work with the Indians — sparked the idea of working together to share best practices.
Both businesses signed confidentiality agreements, then went to work: P&G wanted to learn more about how they could harness the power of data in its own operations, while the Indians wanted to learn about P&G’s methods of determining strategy and creating processes.
The companies spent almost four years working together, and in January 2014, Brian joined the Indians. Not only did he know it would be a cultural fit, he also already had a handle on the team’s challenges. “I had a bit of a running start and knew many of the challenges we would face organizationally operating as a smaller market team in Major League Baseball,” Brian recalls. He was named president of business operations in 2017.
Brian’s enthusiasm for collaboration and idea exchange has continued in his work with the Indians. For example, the organization has worked with KeyBank, a regional bank walking distance from the ballpark, so that leaders from each business could talk through challenges and ideas. “They’re literally right in our backyard,” Brian says. “We can take things and find our counterparts there, bounce ideas off of them, and learn faster.”
That same mindset exists within the organization, too. Brian says more than half the business leadership team has more experience outside of MLB than inside the league. “Often times, we’ll look at a dilemma or a problem and we get the benefit of several different points of view from different industries,” he says. “We can work through something on a much faster cycle time.”
The worst process is no process
Brian credits his professional tenure at Procter & Gamble with preparing him to make business decisions backed by processes.
“One of the things I learned over the years at Procter & Gamble was the importance of capturing things in writing and constantly ensuring clear expectations,” Brian says. While the sports-business world can sometimes operate on a handshake, one of Brian’s goals was to codify as much of the Indians’ business process as he could.
“We had a lot of institutional knowledge, a lot of things that were in people’s heads,” Brian says of joining the Indians. He needed to “Get it out of their heads and down onto paper so we could learn and ensure that process is the best one,” he says.
“The best process is always the right one. The next best one is the wrong one, and the worst thing you can have is not having a process,” Brian explains. In his early days with the Indians, he knew once he could put processes in place, he could work to refine and improve them.
His dedication to developing processes has helped Brian set goals not just for the short-term, as he might have in his early days with the team, but for the long term — like five years, the benchmark the Indians set for getting to the middle of the pack for its peer group of seven teams for metrics regarding paid attendance and revenue.
Own what’s uncontrollable
When he first joined the Indians, Brian says he made the mistake of looking for short-term fixes when attendance dipped or other challenges arose. But he’s come to realize he has to look past the next few games and seek long-term solutions.
It’s necessary in baseball especially because of the uncontrollable factors Brian now recognizes as standard risks: weather and team performance. Even if the team is playing well, the weather can tank sales for a team with an open-air stadium.
“We struggled with weather in my first year,” he recalls, due to lake-effect fronts and summer thunderstorms. Brian says when he’d try to solve a short-term challenge, he’d get “Checked into the boards by some people here in Cleveland saying, ‘Hold on. You’ll learn as we go through this.’” That guidance taught him to create a plan and see it through instead of trying to pivot and chase new goals with limited resources.
“The good news is whether it’s on or off the field, you will fall flat on your face more than once and you have an opportunity to learn from that,” Brian says. As team performance has improved, Brian has found it easier to manage other challenges as they come along.
“When you’ve got the tailwinds of decent weather and strong performance, they tend to cover up a lot of mistakes,” he says. It’s a matter of putting a spotlight on those positives, and “Learning from them regardless of how well the team is playing or not.”
This article is based on an episode of Second in Command podcast, where your host Cameron Herold interviews the chief operating officer behind the chief executive officer to learn their tips, systems, and insights from being the second-in-command of an amazing growth company.