Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Game 3 Employees

This morning I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio talk about the Los Angeles Lakers’ win in Game 3 of the play-offs against the Celtics.  I’ll paraphrase: The Lakers won Game 3. Big deal. The Lakers were supposed to win Game 3. Teams that lose the first two games in a basketball play-off series almost always go home and win Game 3. It’s practically a given. And it doesn’t mean a thing.

“Game 3,” Cowherd said, “is Fool's Gold.”

To prove his point statistically, he noted that the Lakers have about a 15% chance of becoming World Champions. That’s the history of NBA teams, at least after falling behind in the first two games. So, while miracles do sometimes happen in sports, the Lakers are effectively cooked.

Cowherd ended by saying that, after the first two wins by the Celtics, this series was established.

It got me to thinking about all the “Game 3” events that occur in our lives.

Suppose you are on a diet, trying to lose weight, but find yourself ever-so-accidentally in the drive-thru of Burger King at lunchtime. And, being starved, you order a Whopper with cheese, an onion ring, and a Diet Coke.

The Diet Coke is essentially a “Game 3” event. It’s good of you to do, but it doesn’t matter. You might as well have gone with the chocolate shake, because once you’d ordered the Whopper and onion rings, you had no chance of sticking to your diet. The no-calorie drink was “fool’s gold.”

Your lunch was, in Cowherd’s terms, established.

Or how about this. You have a bad experience with an on-line merchant and launch a complaint. In return you get a form email and no other response.

Finally, after repeated calls you get through to customer service, which apologizes and offers you a credit against future purchases.

That’s a “Game 3 event.” By the time you have a bad experience with the service and a second bad experience trying to correct the first, it doesn’t much matter what customer service does.

That merchant is established.

Many years ago I was offered a job with a questionable boss, a lousy salary, but an office with a great view of the Rocky Mountains. The view was entirely Game 3. The job was already established.

I’ve often thought that one of the toughest things in business is to manage the “Game 3 Employee.” That’s the person capable of delivering superior work--and who does so for stretches at a time--but habitually falls off (for whatever reason) to perform at an unacceptable level.

What happens? You try to correct through conversation, compensation, review, or even warning. And, inevitably, after one of these sessions, good performance returns—often better than before.

But, in 85% of the cases, this is a Game 3 event. It’s fool’s gold. Because, with time, the Game 3 Employee inevitably falls off the wagon again.

And, trying to be good managers, we meet once more with the employee and correct the performance. And off they go again, turning in stellar work.

For a while.

It’s a frustrating activity at best: Too good to fire and too bad to keep.

And you become aware, once you’ve been through the cycle two or three times, that all you’re really getting from the employee is a series of “Game 3s.” You can root and you can hope, but the percentages are entirely and inevitably against you. There’s probably no champion here.

This employee is established.

Of course, you can always try again. And a lot of us do.

But history would indicate that the smarter thing is to cut our losses and move on.