An Arm around the Shoulder and a Punch in the Chest

How to Support and Motivate Employees to Unlock Their MVP Power

By: Eric Herrenkohl


Every March, our family begins another journey to October, following the ups and downs of our favorite baseball teams, Little League or Major League. To celebrate, I’m reminded of a Sports Illustrated article on baseball that helps us learn how to motivate our A-players and encourage our potential stars to fulfill their potential.

[In] July [of 2011], Gary Smith wrote about Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, catcher for

the Philadelphia Phillies, and his ability to tailor his approach to fit each pitcher for whom he catches. For the emotional Cole Hamels, [Ruiz] encourages, berates, smiles and curses. For the laid-back Cliff Lee, he is fun-loving and fast-paced. For the stoic Roy Halladay, he is quiet and focused.

Ruiz often walks to the mound to encourage his pitchers. First, he puts an arm around their shoulders, listens to them, strategizes with them and encourages them. Then, right before turning to walk back to home plate, he reaches around and pounds them on the chest.

Recently, I was coaching a successful but inexperienced manager on how to motivate the best young salesperson on her 20-person staff. “You have to tailor your approach to each person you want to motivate,” I reminded her. “To motivate this particular employee, you’ve got to put your arm around her shoulders and then punch her in the chest.” *

In business, this approach means that we have to provide more encouragement as well as greater challenges to people on our teams. First, this manager needed to look for opportunities to praise and encourage this employee (the arm around the shoulder). Even the smartest… most self-assured people need leaders who believe in them.

“Don’t be put off by her ambition — appreciate it,” I told this manager. “Tell her that you think she’s capable of having your job (and beyond) one day.”

A-players are deeply motivated to move to the next level in their careers and in their lives. Recognize this drive, appreciate it, and harness it.

Then and only then, with this relational foundation in place, I told this manager to (figuratively!) reach around and punch this employee in the chest. Help her to connect the dots between the recognition she wants and the additional responsibilities she must shoulder to get it. Point out to her that she wants to get promoted, but she’s the first person to leave the office at the end of the day. She wants to be seen as a leader, but doesn’t invest any time in helping her teammates. She says that she wants to run the whole place one day, but she doesn’t look for additional responsibilities that she can take on right now. Challenge her with the disconnect between her aspirations and her actions.

Finally, I told the manager, you have to challenge this employee to buy into your game plan. When employees know that we are good at what we do, and when they know we’re committed to their success, they will follow us anywhere. That’s why, when Ruiz punches his pitchers in the chest, they accept the thump for what it is — a challenge from another talented player who is able to help them win more games.

This manager is one of the most highly regarded leaders in her company. She also sincerely wants to see this employee succeed. I told the manager she had earned the right to challenge this young woman to invest more time in learning now so that she would be prepared to take on more responsibility later. I wanted her to tell the employee about her own experience — that she came in early, stayed late, and actively looked for ways to be of more value for three years before she got promoted to manager. That’s what this employee must do if she wants to turn her talk about being promoted into a reality.

We know that different people respond to different leadership approaches. Ruiz gives the hug/punch treatment to Lee and to Hamels but never to Halladay. When catching for Halladay, Ruiz has learned to call a game that fits his quiet, intense pitching style perfectly. Chooch understands Halladay so well that of the 219 pitches he called during the Halladay’s two no-hitters in 2010, the pitcher only shook off one pitch. One pitch!

Ruiz understands that Halladay doesn’t need an arm around the shoulder or a punch in the chest. He just needs brilliant pitch calling, and that is what Ruiz gives him. For every pitcher, Ruiz alters his approach because he appreciates each pitcher as a unique performer. His pitchers know that when they are on the mound, they are the most important people in the world to Ruiz.

No one can win alone. Even the best pitchers in professional baseball need a great catcher (and better hitting, but that’s another column).

Successful people in business also need a great leader who can help them to connect the dots between their performance and their potential. Excellent leaders are students of people — they are always figuring out the best ways to motivate their A-players. They know that some people need to be encouraged and challenged — the arm around the shoulders followed by the punch. Others need a quieter but no less intentional approach. Almost everyone, however, responds to a leader who understands them and helps them to figure out how to achieve more. If we are willing to be such leaders, we will be like Carlos Ruiz: a talented player in his own right who is admired and valued because of his uncanny ability to help other talented people do their best.


Eric Herrenkohl is president of Herrenkohl Consulting, a retained executive search firm that works with the top executives in supply chain and manufacturing. He is also the author of the Amazon bestselling book How to Hire A-Players. Copyright © 2014, Eric Herrenkohl.

*Please Note: In this article, the author is appropriating an analogy that comes from interactions between professional athletes to make a point. CareerHQ has zero tolerance for violence or harassment among colleagues in an office environment.