May 1, 2021
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we have the honor of sharing the Extra(ordinary)journey of Mark Shapiro, President & CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays. Inclusive and focused on collaboration, Mark leads with compassion and the goal to accomplish great things collectively; ensuring his team feels connected in ownership and accountability for driving performance and success. Mark built a culture of collaboration in Cleveland, and continues to develop this culture with his team in Toronto. He leads and inspires by trusting his intuition when tapping into his team’s personalities…impressing us with his ability to honor every single member's differing definitions of success; and collectively band them together in unity. This is a credible representation of Mark's leadership agility.
“I was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland”, Mark begins sharing. “I am the grandson of immigrants to the United States. My grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe, which is now Ukraine. Back then, it was Kiev, Russia. My grandfather and grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to go to high school, let alone university; they were just working to survive. My Dad and his siblings were the first generation to attend university. My Dad was driven and did very well. He attended Harvard Law School to become an attorney. He was always focused on what he wanted to accomplish. My Mom was also a university graduate. She instilled compassion and curiosity as underlying values in our family, and the love of life and people.” He smiles and continues, “My Dad was a very successful corporate lawyer, sports agent, law professor and is well-known in Baltimore, but he always modeled treating people without qualification, treating all equally. The underlying values that composed the fabric of our childhood was compassion, tolerance, learning, curiosity, and open mindedness. Those are still core values for me, not just individually and personally, but also organizationally.”
Mark attended Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, and takes us through the moments that led him to find his passion for working in professional baseball. “Baseball was the third job I had. Graduating from university, I began work with a large real estate developer in Southern California. Then, I became an analyst for a large retail organization in New York City. But, at that point, I had been trying to get into baseball and it took me a long time to have any opportunity present itself. The initial role was a no-title, entry-level role with The Cleveland Indians in 1991. I was compelled by the opportunity to work with people who shared common values and I was excited to be doing what I was doing. The leaders of the Indians at that time recognized that everyone is important, and as a leadership quality this of course is crucial. Our jobs as leaders, is to ensure that everyone feels valued and that everyone feels their work is important, and I was made to feel this in my entry level role.” Mark reflects on the leadership qualities he appreciated and learned to adopt that supports him and his team today. “If we’re going to do great things, if we’re going to exceed expectations, if we’re going to defy objective expectations and accomplish really incredible things, it takes collective effort and people doing exceptional work. A lot of what I try to think about is, ‘What is responsible for people doing exceptional work?’ Is it money? I would argue no, it’s not money. Is it a title? I don’t think it’s a title. I ultimately think that it’s belonging. People feeling a part of something that is bigger than themselves. It’s people feeling that their work is meaningful. It’s people feeling that what they’re doing is actually having an impact. It’s people feeling like someone cares about their role, their job and their development and progress.”
We admire Mark’s pride in accountability as a leader in the public eye, and the humility in which he guides his team with compassion from the foundation of his own core values. He reflects on his passion for baseball, and reveals the ambiguity he faced when choosing his career path. “Some people have callings and they know what they want to be - they want to be a doctor or a lawyer, etc. I graduated from a liberal arts education as a History major with no certainty of what I wanted to do; innately, I probably enjoyed leading people and learning about leadership but I had not led any team in a tangible way at that stage. And certainly, athletics was a part of a fabric of my life; this was mainly through a bond with my Dad who loved the game of baseball. I grew up around the game - watching it, playing it. So, sports were a part of my identity and a part of who I was; they were certainly part of a common thread for me growing up.” He continues, “When I speak with you young people seeking career advice, I emphasize that I think it is important for them to do the hard work of being aware of what their values are; to ask themselves when they’re happy, fulfilled, at peace and content; who are they with and what are they doing? An awareness of the answers to these questions can help lead them to develop clear, guiding values or a compass to navigate life decisions. I was not happy, fulfilled, at peace, or content at my initial job. It took me a very long time to actually get an opportunity back then to find any opportunity in MLB; so, when I was offered a new role, I moved to Cleveland, Ohio. This was the best decision I have ever made because I worked with two leaders who were invested in me, and they empowered me at a level that was beyond belief. They both, in very different ways, taught me a tremendous amount. Other than my Dad and one coach I had in high school, these individuals became the two biggest mentors and influences in my life.”
We discuss Mark’s success with the Cleveland Indians, and his decision to move to Toronto. “I was single for most of my time with the Cleveland Indians and I didn’t get married until I was in my mid-thirties. Cleveland was a great experience for me. I made a home there and established a sense of community that will remain an important part of my life. Best of all, my closest friends there were the people I worked for and with every day with the Indians. When we moved to Toronto, my children were ages eleven and thirteen, so Toronto and Canada overall were places that we were excited for them to spend the second half of their childhood in. Toronto is such a robust city! It is so international and diverse, open minded and progressive. It was an incredibly dynamic city for my children to be exposed to - someplace very different than the environment they had their childhood in. I lived in Cleveland for twenty-four years and really valued and still value the people I was working with and the environment that I was empowered by. I had opportunities to leave over the years; I looked at each one individually and spent time and energy thinking about what they would mean to my family and what they would mean to me. There were very few Major League Baseball teams that could offer me a real opportunity to grow and learn from the position that I had with The Indians. Toronto was one where I felt there was an opportunity to modernize the infrastructure and the systems of the organization. I could be involved in building a world-class training and development facility, which was somewhat outdated. And, be involved in advancing both the physical infrastructure and the system’s infrastructure – most importantly help transform the culture to insure that open-mindedness and learning would be the key to any new resources or systems. To be able to represent the Blue Jays at ownership meetings and participate in ownership committees; be involved in the long-term strategy and contribute to the direction of MLB; and, to lead without compromising values - being empowered at that level was a rarity. This opportunity is not common and I am incredibly fortunate.”
Mark reflects on the leadership qualities he admires and has developed through his personal and professional journey, which allows him to stay true to himself. “Leadership is always a sum of the pieces. It is made up of the attributes you have seen and experienced from those that have led you, as well as some of the things that you have learned not to do from watching leaders. Thereafter, you take these attributes and work to be consistent and true to yourself. You can’t just read a book on how to lead. You can’t just follow someone and say, ‘This is how I am going to lead.’ I had experiences where I failed trying to lead by modeling others in entirety and I realized that I can’t be my Dad, or my mentors; I need to be Mark Shapiro. It goes back to doing the work to understand who I am and what makes me unique and confident. This will contribute to me acting consistently, authentically and sincerely. When I reflect on this, I am working to have the leader I am be consistent with the person I am - the father I am, the brother I am. Leadership is a role that people tend to look at as some sort of elevated position. I don’t look at it that way. I see it instead as a reflection of who I am. I will be the same individual at a dinner at my home, at a meeting in our office or hanging out on the weekend in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m the same person. My leadership is very much built around the understanding that my talent lies in recognizing that other people are talented, special, and smart, and ensuring that they feel empowered and valued.”
Mark takes us through the hardships of his role as a leader on a global and public platform. “I have had plenty of tough professional moments. But I consider those challengers as opportunities to learn and grow from. This mindset is core to a growth focused life – or to me, a meaningful life. It is important for me to maintain perspective that I work in sports or in other words to remember what real adversity looks like. It is not a team struggling and being personally criticized - those things are temporary. I do think working in the sports and entertainment world where your work is dissected at a public level, people tend to make very short-term judgements, instead of thinking about the body of work. You learn how to separate your self-esteem and your self-worth from the outcomes of the team. It’s not that I’m shying away from wanting to win world championships - that’s what I want to do - but I’m definitely more process focused and more focused on building the best place to play and the best place to work. This sounds really simple, but if we focus collectively on doing that really well, then a lot of other things are just going to take care of themselves. The positive outcomes, the wins are naturally going to follow.”
Mark contemplates on his success and the measure of how to define it. “How do I measure success? Everybody’s journey has to be a little different. I make sure to take the time to spend on introspection and consideration of where my sources of happiness lie, and what is important for me to be at peace. When I look back at my life one day, what do I not want to regret? I would like to maintain self-awareness and say ‘This is not something that is going to be important to me twenty or thirty years from now.’ We all have obligations and things that we need to do out of responsibilities, but we often have more of a choice than we think. The biggest choice that we have is our time. What are we using our time for? Is it an efficient use of our time? Is it a use of our time that is a reflection of our values? This guides me. Prioritization is such a key to successful leadership and a core piece of happiness. How we spend our time and what we think about determines who we are and ultimately how happy we are. We all need to have a compass. How do we make the big decisions? That compass for me is driven by my values and who I am, as a person. Most important to me is my role as a father that my children are happy, secure, and self-confident; that they are prepared for the ups and downs that life has to offer, and that they are learners, curious, and compassionate…that they care about other people and want to make the world around them a better place. After my children, the other significant relationships in my life are ones where we mutually learn from each other and offer one another better and incredible shared experiences. So ultimately, I would measure success by relationships. Relationships are the legacy that I think are most meaningful. I want to win championships as well, but I don’t think those are what will define me. I think that relationships and the people – both those that influence me, and hopefully those that I have had a positive impact on, will be a better reflection of success for me.”
Mark agrees that vulnerability is an essential component of humility. Without embracing vulnerability, we tend to build up false armor that limits us from being authentic and sustainable, as leaders. This also impacts our ability to build genuine and meaningful human connections and bonds. We all inspire and bring out the best in others in ways we are often unaware of. Mark understands and channels his drive to lead passionately through his ability to be genuine and lead with humility. He is honest with embracing and recognizing his insecurities, his frailties, and his limitations. He naturally connects to people and is determined to develop relationships with others where he can become a part of something special…or lead people to do special things…or, help people see they are special and eventually show them why.
A team’s work isn’t just valuable, but essential to every organization’s success.
A team’s drive and intrinsic motivation is developed through compassionate and inclusive leadership.
The Blue Jays exhibit compassion to their community; each member plays with compassion for their fans and fellow players; and, the team is led with compassion…
...the biggest competitive advantage leading the Toronto Blue Jays is Mark.
"Leadership is about being true to yourself. It's the authenticity and sincerity that you demonstrate every day in your actions that are the true reflection of who you are. And, how you empower your team through your leadership so that they believe in who they are as well. My Dad would coach me often and say: ‘Son, life is a series of options or creating alternatives. The better you do in school, the more choices and options you’ll have for university. The better you do at university, the more options you’ll have for jobs. The better you do at your jobs, the more jobs you’ll be able to choose between.’ What I have learned through my journey is that when you are happy, fulfilled, at peace and content, then who you are with and what you are doing will become a reflection of your core values...and you will then naturally align your values with what drives you to succeed.”
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO