“Start with being blessed beyond all measure. Part of those blessings include the people I have met along the way. People who gave me a chance even though the only quality that I had was my passion and my relentless approach to work and learning.”
Ned Colletti for
The National Business Post
October 11, 2021
Many days opportunity knocks — on both sides of the door.
I am an Executive-in-Residence at Pepperdine University. I have been called many names (some unprintable!) and titles during my life — never did I expect “professor” to be one of them.
I was a first-generation collegian — nearly 50 years ago. The number of four-year schools that accepted me after my senior year at East Leyden High School in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park are easy to list. None.
When I was growing up — first in a remodeled garage in Chicago and then in an 899-square-foot house in Franklin Park — my goals and aspirations were very lofty and rarely attainable in the hard scrabble, working-class neighborhood I grew up in.
My goals were: I wanted to, one day, be called “Dad” and if I were blessed with children, I wanted them to attend, and graduate, from college. And I wanted to be someone who paid a mortgage and didn’t always rent. That was it. Those goals were lofty in the part of town where I grew up. I was blessed with wonderful parents who valued the formal education that they could not afford to have neither in terms of paying for it or having the time to pursue it.
And without a four-year college option after high school, it took me a while to figure out how to learn. Most of my early education came from adversity. Few of us seek to learn the tough lessons; few of us seek adversity — yet most of my knowledge has come from adversity and figuring out how to fight through it.
I know many relatives and close friends who have died from cancer. I’ve worked through my own health challenges. I’ve gone to work with a dollar in my pocket. I’ve been overlooked, replaced, stereotyped, shunned, forgotten, and told many times I was simply just not good enough, smart enough, networked enough, or cool enough.
After two years at Triton College — the two-year community college in the school district — I was finally accepted at a four-year university. I completed a bachelor’s degree at Northern Illinois University — one of the schools that would not accept me as a student following high school.
Somewhere in that 18 to 22 age bracket, I started to figure out how to learn and build some confidence — an ounce at a time. And I am still learning.
Prior to the Pepperdine University professorship there were other opportunities that I never could have dreamt nor predicted. Never did I expect to be a Major League Baseball Executive for 40 years; or an Assistant General Manager for the San Francisco Giants or the General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers; or begin my baseball career with my hometown Chicago Cubs. Another title I never expected to have: Professional Scout, San Jose Sharks Hockey Team.
Along the way, there has been a bestselling book that I wrote without any intent of publishing (The Big Chair, Random House); there have been three Emmy Awards as a member of the Dodgers television pre- and post-game broadcasting team. There has been a coveted summer teaching opportunity in London. At 65 years of age, I spent more time in London than I had spent in Europe during my lifetime.
I learned to negotiate because of the neighborhood I grew up in and because early in my baseball career someone took an interest in helping me get better at it. I have negotiated more than $2B in baseball contracts during a 25-year span. During my last 25 years in Major League Baseball, teams I built or helped build, qualified for the playoffs 17 times, including four World Series appearances and one World Series win.
It has been a professional life that I could never even dare dream. How did this all happen to a person who lacked confidence, was painfully quiet and shy, lacked book smarts, was not gifted a road map to success and was not accepted at any four-year university or college following high school?
Start with being blessed beyond all measure. Part of those blessings include the people I have met along the way. People who gave me a chance even though the only quality that I had was my passion and my relentless approach to work and learning. I didn’t have the glitzy education, the family tree of financial success and its accompanying network, or a professional athletic career. As it turned out, I had something decision-making leaders respected: work ethic, accountability, and integrity.
None of those leaders were scholars. Of the ten prominent leaders in my career, only four were gifted as professional baseball players: One of those leaders pitched eight years in the major leagues and won just 20 games; two others batted less than .200 during their careers, a fourth never won a game in the big leagues and one never played a day in the Major Leagues. Just two of the ten graduated from college; in one case English was the person’s second language, and only one had an advanced degree.
They all had worked hard and paid attention to detail. And when the competition in their careers took a breath, complained about the hours or the management, or the pay, or all of the above; they saw an opening and forged through it. They, like my parents, also used failure, disappointment, or struggle as a motivator, not as an excuse.
They mentored, they taught, and fought through adversity. And they provided me their time and life lessons of wisdom. Invaluable. They took pride in helping others realize their goals.
Make no mistake, not everyone I worked for held the same standards to help the next generation. But I learned from them as well.
I learned that I would never want to manage in a way that my staff did not know or understand expectations; that my silence would cause unnecessary angst, doubt, or a lack of confidence; that my refusal to know who the people were would be the proper way to run a business or department; that I would terminate employment on a whim without so much as a detailed warning and reminder about expectations, that the only success I cared about and sought was my own. No, I not only learned what to do; I learned what not to do.
Three years ago, I was the recipient of the Northern Illinois University Alumnus of the Year. This past October, I was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame. Earlier I was honored with special alumni recognition at East Leyden High School and Triton College. I have watched my children graduate with three advanced degrees.
In these times of uncertainty, I encourage leaders to communicate — and not always use the easy way through text messages and emails. Leaders should provide clear expectations and opportunity. Grade point average is important but so is handling life. Making money is always a goal, but most successful executives can make more money. It’s pretty much impossible to make more time. So, use it wisely.
The effort it takes to learn who people are and what makes them perform to their utmost, is so important. I would hope someone else’s success that was nurtured by genuine leadership would bring the leader genuine joy.
I’ve knocked on the door and I’ve listened for the knock. Leaders are the people who answer the door when there is a knock. I’ve met many. I needed them all.
Ned Colletti is the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he had a highly successful tenure from 2006 to 2014. Before the Dodgers, he served as the assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants, after getting his start with the Chicago Cubs, his hometown team. Colletti currently appears as a baseball analyst on Spectrum SportsNet LA before and after most Dodgers games, is an NHL scout for the San Jose Sharks, and is a professor of sports management of Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
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