Contender of Pretender? Identifying Both in Sports and at Work

Contender or Pretender? It’s a recurring segment in sports media, and a fun talking point amongst fans, where the debate is whether a team is “for real,” particularly early in the season. Read on to see how contender or pretender can be applied to employees.

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Take the NFL. After two weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 2-0 and flying high, having defeated one of the top contenders in the NFC (New Orleans Saints), and the defending Super Bowl Champs (Philadelphia Eagles). They won one game over their next seven, nosediving (predictably to most) to the bottom of the standings. Pretender status confirmed. The Miami Dolphins started a red-hot 3-0. But a closer look demonstrates that two of those wins were against pretty bad teams, and they are now 5-5 and trending in the wrong direction. Unless they prove something against good competition, a pretender for now. The Houston Texans started an uninspiring 0-3. They’ve since won six in a row and lead their division. Believe it or not, they have turned themselves into contenders for a playoff spot.

This same exercise is happening now in the NBA, which began its season less than a month ago. Can the Boston Celtics shake off their early-season rust and become the top team in the Eastern Conference that many predicted? Are the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, who everyone thought would be good, actually this good and ready to make a leap into the NBA Finals? Is it possible that the Houston Rockets, who made the Western Conference Finals last year, will actually miss the playoffs this year?

Even though NBA teams have only played 15% or so of the season schedule thus far, the experts are digging into the numbers and analytics to determine whether these slow (or fast) starts are for real or if there is more under the surface. Hindsight is always 20/20, so in the NFL it is easier to dissect and explain the early season results now that we are in Week 11 of the NFL season and have a clearer picture of where these teams stand. Obviously, in sports, there are always upsets and surprises, but the more information you compile the more accurately you are able to predict who will be the top teams heading into the playoffs at the end of a grueling regular season.

The same goes for employers and their best talent. The more information you gather, the more you pay attention to the details and communicate with your workforce, the better you will be at identifying those employees who are true “contenders”—key contributors to your team both currently and for the future. We talk a lot on this blog about legal compliance issues and how employers can run their operations to minimize their risk from a liability perspective. While this is of course incredibly important, the fact of that matter is that businesses have, well, a business to run. Therefore, while employers must keep up to date and adapt to changing laws, they also must focus on how to put the “best product on the field” so to speak.

One of the factors in running an efficient, profitable and successful business is not only to recruit and/or identify good employees but also to ensure you foster and ultimately retain those employees who you believe are important contributors to your workforce. As expected, this takes work and effort. Communication is necessary to identify who are your top performing and most dedicated employees, and also to ensure that they feel valued and are happy with their job. Creativity may be needed to provide competitive employee benefits to ensure these valued employees don’t leave for a competing offer—while salary surely is a component to this, certain studies have shown that a large percentage of employees value additional benefits over a mere pay raise, so strategic thinking towards this goal is a benefit.

Installing a professional development plan helps to locate those employees who may have a bright future with the company, and an employee who sees a commitment to them (in terms of education and training) will be even more motivated to remain with the company to reap these future benefits. Training managers and supervisors to pay attention to signs evidencing that employees are becoming disgruntled or are experiencing deteriorating motivation may be a good idea so that these issues can be addressed before they poison the entire workforce or result in an exodus of workers.

Identifying your company’s “contenders” is often more than just looking over easily available numbers and figures, which can be misleading without the appropriate context. You have to do your research, and dig below the surface, to determine who has the requisite skills, talent, and motivation to be a contributor for years to come. And then you have to consider the steps necessary to invest and foster that talent to ensure that employee stays a productive member of your workforce and/or management, and to retain that talent so that your investment gives you a great return.

In doing so, be patient, don’t jump to conclusions, and do your due diligence. Over time, true talent reveals itself and it’s up to you to determine who is “for real” and who is not. Just think, if the NBA season ended today, the Rockets would not make the playoffs and the Celtics would be only a 6th seed in the Eastern Conference. But this obviously isn’t the case and there is a lot of season yet to be played.  Well, as a Celtics fan, I sure hope so.

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