Few endeavors are more challenging than an organizational turnaround, in large part because an organization undergoing a turnaround must work first against its own prior failures, and only then attack external impediments to success.  Failed strategies must be reassessed.  Leadership change is often essential.  A foundation for success must be laid.  And after all of that, seamless execution is still required to achieve success.

The Chicago Cubs had long been considered the lovable losers of baseball. A team whose long-suffering fans experienced a steady diet of heartbreak, punctuated by occasional flashes of hope that would only later be dashed by some combination of fate, management, and talent.  In short, an organization adrift on a sea of mediocrity.

However, under the ownership of the Ricketts family, something remarkable is happening with the team that calls Wrigley Field home.  The storied Chicago Cubs are undergoing a renaissance, an almost textbook turnaround, with 2015’s 97-65 record viewed by many as a taste of things to come.

In assessing the in-progress turnaround of the Cubs, it is instructive to consider three key drivers of success in a turnaround, and how the situation with the Chicago Cubs has aligned with those drivers.

1) Does the Organization Have a Reason to Exist?

Check. Often this existential question baffles organizations and stymies any further progress, but it is as challenging as it is essential.  Organizations that lack a reason to exist (i.e. the market(s) it serves would not suffer disruption if the organization failed) are organizations that are unlikely to received support from outside stakeholders when they stumble.  The Chicago Cubs, with a rabid fan base, and the highly marketable home base of Wrigley Field, certainly have a reason to exist.

2) Is Ownership Focused on Achieving Success?

Check. Many permutations of ownership can allow for success, but when current ownership has a track record of poor performance, a change in owner can be a necessary condition for a sustained increase in performance.  From 1981, the year the Wrigley family divested its ownership of the Chicago Cubs, through 2008, when the Cubs were put on the market, a period spanning 28 seasons, the team had an aggregate win percentage of 48.5%, and made the playoffs only six times.  Clearly, the status quo was not working.

The purchase of the Chicago Cubs by the Ricketts family gave the organization exactly the focused, goal-oriented ownership that was needed to lay the groundwork for success. 

3) Has the Groundwork been laid for Success?

Check. When Tom Ricketts speaks about his efforts with the Chicago Cubs, he emphasizes investments in coaching, talent, and facilities.  Additionally, efforts by the Ricketts family to renovate Wrigley Field, while a source of anguish for some fans, showcases a willingness to strengthen the economic underpinnings of the team, enabling it to continue to invest for long-term success.

A successful turnaround is a journey, and requires equal parts opportunism, leadership, and strong communication skills.  But above all, successful turnarounds require the courage to forthrightly acknowledge the mistakes of the past and remediate them.  During their ownership of the Chicago Cubs, the Ricketts family have shown themselves to be value-oriented owners committed to laying the groundwork for a turnaround of Chicago’s storied lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs.

About the Author

David Johnson Founder and Managing Partner of Abraxas Group, a boutique advisory firm focused on change management, strategy, and value maximization.  In his nearly 20 years as a change agent, David has served as an advisor, board member, interim manager, investor and operator at organizations ranging in size from pre-revenue startups to Fortune 500 organizations.  He can be reached at david@abraxasgp.com.