Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Rocket's (Negotiable) Red Glare  

Negotiation when you don't really need to take the offer across the table can be relaxed, it can be playful, it can be win-win...with yourself.

If you have a job you like at a place you like and a recruiter calls you and fishes for your interest in another company's offer, you can interview with no pressure. If it comes to them offering you the position, you can name your own price. It might take a few minutes to get to the number, but I always counsel clients to build themselves a win-win situation with themselves. You do this by asking and then answering a simple question:

What price can I name
that if they say "yes", I have a big smile on my face
and if they say "no", I have a big smile on my face.

It's not a position anyone who wasn't born to great wealth faces all that often, but if you have safely gotten to 3rd Base in the MBB Model, that is, if you're conscious of your own place in the scheme of things, your own needs, you're in the catbird seat...can shoot the moon.

Shooting the moon is exactly what Roger Clemens did this week in a perfect example of this kind of negotiation stance. Clemens, who retired before last season only to unretire in order to play for his home-state Houston Astros, went into arbitration and coming off a good season that was not remotely the best season a pitcher has ever had, or even the best season any National League pitcher had last year, or even the best season he has ever had, put up $22 million as his arbitration proposal for a 2005 salary. The Astros, btw, put up $13.5 million as their side, and, in case you're not familiar with how arbitration works, the simple description of the outcome is the arbitrator will choose from the two proposals. At the end of the process, Clemens will have:

  • a $22 million contract, or
  • a $13.5 million contract, or
  • he can retire.

Clemens, as a multi-millionaire, doesn't need the money. As a 42-year old, he's recognized as one of the greatest pitchers of his own (long) era, and one of the great pitchers of all time. He doesn't have much to prove beyond breaking his own records or setting trivial new marks for, say, most strikeouts by a 42-year old (though I think Nolan Ryan's 301 might be a challenge; it's more than The Rocket ever notched for a season and 38% more than he harvested last year).

He almost walked away from the game on his own terms before the 2004 season, and if that was his last campaign, it was a solid note to end on.

On the other hand, as a hyper-competitive person, winning the largest arbitration award ever would be a feather in his cap. The money wouldn't change his life in a significant material way, but it would feel like an accomplishment, and the award itself would constitute another mark that could hold up for a while.

While some commentators' eyes bugged at the $22 million he and his agent filed for, what does he have to lose? It appears to me he put himself in the situation I was discussing above, with a grin either way: If the arbitrator says "yes", he wins the lottery and continues to play a game he seems to love, and if the arb goes for the team's $13.5, it's still almost twice what he made last year and could take it or leave it (and the game).

NOTE: As I was filing this essay, I read a really insightful note on Baseball Primer by the pseudonymous Srul Itza positing another alternative outcome I hadn't thought of:

I think that Clemens is planning on retiring, and on doing so before the arbitration hearing; and that this number was thrown out there only to keep the process going forward while he fully comes to grips with the fact that he will not be playing professional baseball for the first time in over 20 years.

I think Srul Itza's insight is clearly worth considering. It doesn't belie the point I was making, but it does put another possible motivation behind the move.

In negotiations, people don't always know themselves well enough to gauge the exact homeostatic point where they could grin either way. I've been lucky enough to be there a few times in my life, a couple of times with jobs, a fair number of times with writing assignments.

I've erred, too, most frequently in the past by underestimating the cost of taking on a job I didn't really want but where the money was good. About 1990, before I mastered this technique myself, I was approached to do a white paper for a notorious software company known for being amoral and gratuitously aggressive. I had had run-ins with this company back when I'd been Test Center Director at InfoWorld, one of them a major one where they tried to have me officially reprimanded by my own management for printing something they knew to be true but their marketing department claimed was untrue. In short, they were the kind of client I would find unpleasant.

When they described the job, the content was interesting, but I knew how they operated, so when they asked me to name my price, I took 2.3 seconds, measured the high end of what the market was charging at that time, and then doubled it. I imagined that was my personal win-win moment. If they said "no", I knew I didn't really want to work for them anyway, and if they said "yes" the money was so good it would pay for the pain.

Wrong. They said yes & I did the job. The hourly return was very high, but nowhere near enough to compensate me for the pointless fire drills they put themselves (and me) through.

This software company's native soulessness, like a two-out sacrifice bunt, transcended the measures of any possible win-win. Logan's Law (named after Chris Logan) says that if you know yourself well enough and care about yourself enough, there are jobs that no amount of money can balance out. I think Chris is right -- if the job is intrinsically unappealing.

Some jobs, though, are basically appealing, and that's when you apply Rocket's Razor: if you're in the situation where you can calculate a personal win-win situation, find that most-excellent point and relish every moment.

Even Roger Clemens doesn't get to experience many of them.

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