The surprising business case for the Locker Room Guy/Gal

In business, there’s something called the 20-70-10 rule. What this means is that in a group of 10 people, two employees will stand out as the top performers. The next seven are like the peloton in the Tour de France. And then the bottom person is a non-producer. If you follow this system (created by GE’s Jack Welch), the belief is that you should fire the employees in that Bottom 10 category, because why would you keep around a non-producer?

When I looked at this system, my brain immediately went to basketball for comparison since that’s my go-to arena for any analogy. So I pulled up the ’96 Bulls roster (this is the Bulls team that went 72-10) and looked at their top 10 players. Turns out the 20-70-10 rule fits pretty well.

The 20/Superstars – Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

The 70/Role Players – Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, Dickey Simpkins

The 10/Low Producer – John Salley

You look at the 70 group, and Dennis Rodman is clearly at the top of that class. But he’s not in the same class as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two of the all-time greats. Going down the list, John Salley as the Number 10 guy could not have worked out better for the argument I’m about to make. Mainly because John Salley was one of the ultimate locker room guys.

What is the locker room?

In business, as in sports, there’s the arena and there’s the locker room.

The arena is where the actual work is happening. So, in sales for example, the arena is your presentations, demos, calls, etc.

The locker room is where the team is interacting with each other. Are they getting along? What are they saying about the coaching staff? Are people upset about their salaries? The locker room is the daily lunches, the water cooler chat, the happy hours. The locker room is as important–if not more important–than the arena itself.

Because here’s what happens once an organization or specific team starts to lose the locker room. The top two performers are happy. They have success and are making good money. Recognition, meaning, fulfillment, advancement, opportunity, you name it, they’ve got it. There’s no reason to leave. Like if Michael Jordan got a lucrative offer from the New York Knicks, the Bulls would match or exceed it. No chance were they letting him go.

The next three people are usually feeling fine too. They’re all contributing and playing a key role. Look at the Bulls, Rodman led the team in rebounding. There were games when Harper had the most assists. There were even a few games where Kukoc led the team in scoring. With this group, there might be a little bit of jealousy toward the top two, or interest in seeing what they could make elsewhere, but they’re usually pretty secure and happy.

It’s the next four where the locker room can start falling apart. This group is not receiving the same level of recognition. Where Rodman and Harper are hearing, “Here’s what you are doing well, we really need you,” this next group consistently hears what they need to improve upon. Here’s where you fell short. This group looks at the charts and see “bottom half” next to their numbers. They receive “performance plans” or have the fear that one is coming. One-on-one meetings with their managers have the comfort of a root canal. There’s this constant question of, “Should I be looking for another job?”

This takes a huge mental toll and can start to divide the locker room. For example, look at how frustrations boiled over for Steve Kerr when he literally punched Michael Jordan in the face. Unhappiness spreads a whole lot faster than happiness in a locker room.

Which means pretty much every locker room is sitting at this delicate balance of five people being happy, and four people not. So your 10th person, the “bottom performer,” is actually this really important piece of the puzzle. They’re the swing vote. Vote happy, you’ve got the majority, 6-4. Vote unhappy, now it’s a tie. All it takes then is for one more person to join the unhappy crew and you’ve officially lost the locker room. Once the locker room is gone, an organization either fires the manager or experiences the costly expense of high turnover. Or both.

Instead of looking at ways to fire the 10th person, I think organizations should evaluate this person on what they bring to the locker room. Questions of, “How did they help the business grow?” should be replaced with things like: Do they host the annual Euchre tournament? Do they thrive on the pancake griddle? Do they order a round of shots at happy hour and have this incredible pulse for exactly what the Spotify playlist needs at each point in the day?

Most importantly, do they get along with your top two performers. Ever wonder why college basketball teams sometimes sign the brother of a star player, even if the brother is not really good? It’s all about keeping the superstar happy. If Michael Jordan wanted Danny DeVito to be on the Bulls roster, hey, you make that happen. If you’re not counting on the 10th person to contribute on the scoreboard, why not have this person be a locker room force, one that always keeps the morale high.

A great example of a modern day Locker Room Guy is Boban Marjanovic of the Philadelphia 76ers. Boban is 7’3” tall. But he only averages 4 points per game and over his career plays just under 10 minutes a night. Why keep him around? For moments like this.

Two times now Boban has been traded along with Tobias Harris as a package deal. Tobias is a top performer, scores 20+ ppg. He takes care of business on the court. Boban takes care of business in the locker room. Boban may stay in the league for another 10 years simply for the dance moves.

So then what do you pay the Locker Room Guy/Gal? There’s a delicate balance here. It’s all fun and games until the team finds out the 4th highest paid person is the one in charge of Friday Breakfast. The system only works if the Locker Room Guy/Gal is making the least amount of money. People can appreciate that trade-off; you want your team to be able to say, “I’m working my butt off and he’s serving pancakes by the printer. But I drive a BMW and I think he drives a Razor Scooter from 2001.”

The Locker Room impact needs to be measured too. Put your Locker Room Guy/Gal on a monthly quota. KPIs include Number of tequila shots ordered. Happy hours planned. Pats on the back given and/or crisp high fives out on the floor with an accompanying, “Wooh! Let’s go!” 

A solid Locker Room Guy/Gal allows you to start building your team differently. Forget 5-5 or 6-4 splits. An organization can set their sights even higher and reach that rarefied air where the entire locker room is happy.

Here’s how it works, once you secure the 6-4 happy vs. unhappy majority locker room vote, you slowly build the team in a way that the 6th – 9th performers are all rookies. The focus should be on them having a year to learn the ropes. Study the top performers. Practice. Trust the process. All that good stuff. Instead of applying pressure to this group, let them grow into the system. And have them grow together as friends. That’s your next pledge class. They’ll be the ones leading the team in a couple of years.

And, when they’re feeling down, questioning if they’re any good at their job, questioning if they should look elsewhere, there’s the wily ol veteran pulling up a chair, sliding over a plate of pancakes. He changes up the Spotify playlist to match the mood in the locker room.

“Hey, hang in there. Now watch this dance move.”

I’m aiming to have a new Medium Rare post up every Monday until March. Next week will either be some Medium Rare poetry (first time ever on the blog) or a post on why giving things 79% (instead of giving it 110%) is the most sustainable strategy.

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