Lessons for Aspiring Finance Directors from Major League Baseball

April 5, 2016 – Charlie Francis


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April 5, 2015

Most weekends race by. But the previous one moved slower than a snail because, all weekend, I waited for Monday and the chance to don a cap for Major League Baseball’s opening day.

One of the most anticipated games was between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The teams may be heated rivals, but both have rookie managers: Dave Roberts on the Dodgers, Andy Green on the Padres. Andy and Dave rose to the top and now they lead the team.

They decide who runs onto the pitching mound, plays in the infield, shades their eyes in the outfield, or squats behind home plate. Oh yes, and they decide who steps into the batter’s box! Because if you can’t score runs, the best baseball defense can’t win games.

Andy and Dave’s promotion offers lessons to those of you who want to be a Finance Director. You have had a good career so far. You already serve on the accounting team, as the budgeting team lead, or as the financial reporting and auditing manager. But you feel destined for more: now you want to take the helm.

First, you need to take the California Society of Municipal Finance Director’s (CSMFO) Financial Management Skills Inventory to both assess your technical knowledge, problem solving, communication, and supervisory skills, and analyze the breadth of your professional network, the depth of your community involvement, the extent of your political ability, and the nature of your ethics. This tool will help you document your demonstrated assets, and more importantly, create a personal career development roadmap and coaching program to become a strong finance director candidate.

Both Dave Roberts and Andy Green were high performers, well educated and trained, actively engaged in their profession, good mentors and mentees, and finally had fabulous reputations:

  • “I was looking for somebody you can partner up with and go bounce ideas off of, whether that person was 68 or 38,” said Padres general manager A.J. Preller. “That’s why we chose [Green]. He’s knowledgeable, he’s prepared, he has a ton of energy, and I think he’s going to connect well with everybody.”
  • “We sensed that there was going to be a real collaborative process in how we put the team together, how he chose to run the team and that really excited us about it,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said. “There’s a sort of positivity and energy about Dave that’s sort of the overriding thing in any conversation with him.”

You also must be a high performer, well-educated and trained, actively engaged in your profession, and a good mentor and mentee.

But is that enough? Let’s examine the statements from both teams’ general managers a bit more close and extract a few key phrases:

  • Someone to partner with
  • Collaborative
  • Bounce ideas off
  • Overriding thing in any conversation with
  • Connect well
  • Positivity
  • Energy

Resumes do not list these qualities; they define us as individuals! According to Zaidi, these traits “really excited us.”

It’s clear what will excite the Executive Recruiter and City Manager as you prepare for the next stage of your career. First, you must have a positive attitude. Optimism and “can-do” exude from you as you step into the interview room. You have real-time examples that the impossible was, and will be made possible through your leadership.

We live in a VUCA world: a military term that means Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. You thrive in this world because you demonstrate that you have, and will be able, to make volatility yield to vision, uncertainty yield to understanding; complexity yield to clarity; and ambiguity yield to agility.

Municipalities do not have the resources anymore to continue business as usual. You know this, and can develop sophisticated solutions to complex problems – and calculate, and communicate the return on investment.

Finally, you are fearless when walking into the City Council Chambers because this is your playing field – you are the home team. It’s here where you bring your finance team’s endeavors to victory with effective public engagement and solution-based policy decisions that move the City towards fulfilling the City Manager’s and City Council’s respective mission and vision.

When you get the job, you will grow.

Rookie baseball managers become seasoned like Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants (my home team). Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at San Jose State University, says Bruce Bochy epitomizes what management consultant Jim Collins calls a “level-five leader,” someone who can transform a company from good to great through a “paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”

In a Harvard Business Review article, Collins says a level-five leader demonstrates compelling modesty, shuns public adulation, and never boasts. She acts with calm determination and relies on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate. She looks in the mirror to assign responsibility for poor results and looks out the window – to other people, external factors, and good luck – to give credit for success. She also “demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.”

And now with wishing you good luck on your career endeavor as a Finance Director, I’ve finished my blog on time to head out to the ballpark to hear the sweet words of Spring “Play Ball!”


Charlie Francis is a municipal finance expert. He has more than forty years of local government financial management experience in both the public and private sector, including twenty years of experience as a Chief Financial Officer. Most recently, he served as the Director of Administrative Services and Treasurer for the City of Sausalito where he earned the unofficial title of “OpenGov super user”.  He has also served as a finance manager for the Town of Colma, CA and as CFO and acting City Manager for the Cities of Indian Wells, CA and Tracy, CA.

Questions or comments? Email Charlie at cfrancis@opengov.com.

Category: Government Finance