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Lessons from Great Coaches and Other Myths

by
Dr. Wendell Williams
Jan 9, 2013, 6:45 am ET

Screen Shot 2013-01-08 at 7.18.29 AMEvery so often someone publishes an article about lessons learned from great coaches, offering advice about how to select people. Sorry, this is useless nonsense.

Great coaches don’t work with players who pass an interview. Their players are thoroughly pre-screened by skilled talent scouts who watched each and every one of them excel at the game. Only the best and most talented players ever got to meet the coach. In the corporate world, coaches would be similar to line managers. Talent scouts are represented by recruiters. But the analogy ends with titles.

HR recruiters in the corporate world don’t use tryouts, so they don’t really know whether candidates can do the job. Line managers are generally promoted into their job because they were good individual contributors, so about 70% don’t have any coaching skills at all. Just imagine what a team would be like if talent scouts used corporate recruiting methods: “Are you fast? Yes. Agile? Yes? What kind of barnyard animal would you most like to be?” And, if coaching consisted of “Do what I tell you.”

Yep, organizations seem to think advice from great coaches them all they need to know about candidate skills. But have you ever considered how great people are really selected?

  • If you want to be a Navy seal, not only will you have to prove your skills before entering training; you will have to survive grueling exercises designed to push you to your limit.
  • If you want to be a great musician, you have to graduate from a good music school, practice long hours every day, and participate in rigorous tryouts.
  • If you want to be a great pilot, you have to graduate from a certified flight training program, fly a plane thousands of hours, and spend considerable time in a flight simulator.

But, if you want to work in an organization, all you have to do is successfully answer a few questions. Do these questions screen-in people with skills? Generally not. They screen out people with bad answers. Is it any wonder so many employees fail on the job?

Best Practices = Profitability

But this is just my personal idea, right? No. Best hiring and promotion practices were published over 30 years ago by the Department of Labor in the “Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.” Yet, when I bring it to the attention of HR, recruiters whine about not having time to do all that stuff and managers complain about losing control. I could understand if they both were doing a great job … but, not so much. Can you imagine your lawyer, doctor, or anyone else claiming to be a professional complaining about needing to learn all they can about their profession?

Why am I making this into such a big problem? Hundreds of studies show employees in the top half of the workforce out-produce employees in the bottom half by at least 2 to 1 (e.g., it’s even higher for managers and professionals). Think about it. An organization staffed with fully qualified employees is either amazingly productive with the same number of people, or needs a much smaller payroll to do the same amount of work. Put some numbers to that!

What’s the Problem?

What exactly do the ‘Guidelines suggest that bugs these whiners so much? Simply this: organizations should base hiring/promotion/selection standards on job requirements and business necessity; they should conduct validity studies to ensure each hiring tool accurately predicts job performance; and, they should reduce adverse impact whenever they can.

Now, if you are a recruiter who cares about hiring/promoting/selecting fully qualified employees, what part of the ‘Guidelines do you think is unimportant? Job requirements and business necessity? Using effective tools and doing validity studies? Reducing adverse impact? Or, do you only care about filling requisitions, and the hiring manager can just live with it?

Rinng! Rinng! Rinng!

Why don’t organizations follow the pros examples? It can be reduced to seven basic explanations…

  1. Both internal and external recruiters seem to think becoming a professional means they can learn as they earn. After all, anyone can ask interview questions. There are even lists posted on the Internet. As a result, they think it’s all about getting to know the candidate instead of determining whether a candidate has job skills. In my experience, the longer a recruiter or HR manager is on the job, the more he/she thinks she knows all about HR. Admitting a serious lack of professional knowledge is a hard pill to swallow.
  2. Job competencies are hard to identify … and knowledge-worker competencies are tucked inside the employee’s head. In spite of what you hear, job competencies are not something you produce … they are how you produce it. Knowledge-worker competencies are mini-steps leading to results, and the right skills lead to the right results just like individual plays lead to the final score. It’s not easy to identify and measure them. It takes years of practice.
  3. The HR workspace is filled with strongly opinionated people whose only technical qualification is they “learned as they earned.” They seldom have any formal graduate-school education to back-up their opinions. Everyone who ever worked in an HR department, asked an interview question, led a workshop, or earned a designation thinks he/she is a people expert.
  4. Explaining best hiring/promotion practices is like describing water to fish. It’s hard to see and even harder to explain why quality is important. Someone who has spent all his/her life in organizational waters where traditional interviews are the norm really does not know any better. Without formal education in job analysis, validation, and hiring tools, it’s very easy to think bad employees are a normal part of business.
  5. Junk science abounds and vendor claims verge on the ridiculous. Most Internet-based hiring tests were developed by untrained lay-people with no knowledge of professional test design or professional validity practices. Without the professional knowledge to spot a quack, HR is quick to buy into junk-science studies and bogus tests.
  6. It’s hard work and HR does not live with the results of bad hires. Once screened, the candidate is tossed over the wall to a hiring manager who doesn’t want to admit mistakes. Bad employee decisions are usually swept under the rug.
  7. Lastly, no one takes the time to calculate the astonishing cost of too many people on the payroll doing too little. Not executives, not HR, and not even some line managers. Nor does anyone systematically follow up to see if newly hired or promoted employees actually have the job skills he/she was hired for.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Only one department holds the keys to immediate ROI; and, it has a choice: remain comfortably asleep at the switch; or, do an honest self-assessment, dump traditional interviewing in favor of job-tryouts in the front-end, screen-out more unqualified employees, and stop expecting line-mangers to sort-out bad performance later.

So, the next time you read an article praising the secrets of great coaching, remember talent scouts first sent them fully skilled people, and coaches are skilled at coaching. BTW: in case you think this idea is new, many of the Fortune 500 have been using best-practice hiring/promotion technology for almost a century, and many of the Fortune 1000 use it every time they open a new manufacturing facility. What benefits do they enjoy? Faster startup … higher quality … better productivity …and, less training. How about them apples?

Nevertheless, I’ll bet after reading this wake up call, 99% will just hit the snooze button again and fall back to sleep.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Martin Snyder

    WW you might know plenty about Industrial Psychology, but it looks like you don’t know much about sports……

    Where do coaches come from? Very often from the ranks of “line performers” such as Phil Jackson and Bill Belechick. Where did the greatest pilot of them all come from? He taught himself the finer points and blew the minds of his flight instructors. (see Hoover, Robert, A.) Where did the greatest musician come from? Mozart was a child savant better at 7 years old than most pros of his time.

    Greatness is a helluva a lot more than skills: Bob Hoover escaped from a POW camp, stole a German fighter plane, and flew himself home. Belechick usually plays the highest proportion of undrafted / unwanted free agents on his way to stellar seasons. Jackson takes groups of people with bad attitudes and molds them into cohesive winners, time after time after time.

    All of your advice about the guidelines, validity, and the value of simulation is well founded. Anyone hiring at scale doing it randomly by gut is not doing it right- we can agree on that.

    But what you consistently fail to grasp or don’t want to acknowledge is that innovation and leadership are very often emergent results. Even giant companies (and nations) are led by relatively small groups of people, many of whom are often defective on multiple levels. Knowledge work is so often based on tacit knowledge, which by definition is not available for analysis in advance. In fact, “greatness” is a poor teacher because by definition it happens outside of statistical norms.

    Using solely your methods, Jobs, Gates, and Ellison are never close to an employment offer, Tom Brady never sees the field, and the Wright brothers are assigned to the bicycle assembly line rather than the R&D works.

    However, if you are Starbucks and you use modern scientific methods to hire baristas, you are going to do a MUCH better job of it. Same goes for a giant insurance company hiring hundreds of salespeople. Your advice works great at scale, but at the scale and nature of sports (and top executive and creative leadership), it’s virtually worthless or downright counterproductive.

    That’s why people keep throwing the sports analogy at you- and why your answer to it is short of the mark. The bottom line is that ‘greatness’ is not specifically compatible with scientific hiring, but substantial marginal improvement of scaled employment efforts most certainly is.

    I enjoy having this discussion with you year in and year out WW- makes me feel young again!

  2. Joseph Murphy

    Nice sports and skill demonstration analogy Wendell.
    Yes, recruiters are faced with the challenge of gaining insight to performance potential of someone they have never observed.

    “HR recruiters in the corporate world don’t use tryouts, so they don’t really know whether candidates can do the job.”

    Some organizations do.
    The use of job-specific simulations, as a form of talent audit is a growing practice.
    Organizations with high-population jobs find it easy to build a business case for the development and validation of simulations for pre-employment assessment of talent.
    This in effect allows candidates to take elements of the job for a test-drive, thus producing a work sample that predicts on-the-job performance.

    In committing to the development of in-house, job-specific simulations, an organization resolves every counterproductive practice you describe in numbers 1 thru 7.

    Companies who use simulations enjoy the same results of talent scouts in sports. They only invest the time to observe (screen/interview) those individuals who have produced evidence (stats) of their talent.
    Companies using job-specific simulations often report a 50% reduction in interview to hire ratios and consistently document the quality of hire as compared to the current workforce.

    Readers interested in an overview of the technical merits of simulations for selection can read about a session from the 2012 Society of Industrial Organization Psychologists (SIOP) Conference Here

  3. Dr. Wendell Williams, MBA, Ph.D

    I think Martin raises some issues that serve as good examples of what not to do. As Daniel Patrick Moynahan once said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

    For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows about 360,000 people hold company management positions…so a few (or a few thousand) one-off manager examples do not represent the real world. The lesson here is to look at best practices and major trends and ignore the minor exceptions.

    Superstars can seldom be identified until after the fact. But, what we do know about them is they emerge unexpectedly out a pool of fully qualified (job skilled) people, are often ego-centric, and don’t play-well with others. A company filled with superstars might not be the best place to work.

    Best practices are called best practices because they work for all jobs…not just for the masses. They minimize the number of people who are not qualified to do the job and helps decision makers base their opinions on (as much as possible) objective data instead of whether the candidate is likeable and makes a good impression.

    People practicing Industrial Psychology are job experts. They know how to identify all job requirements and how to measure jobs from the most simple to the most complex. The field has been around for about 100 years and it’s principles taught in the best universities around the world. Yes, we are throughly familiar with every major peer-reviewed article ever written on leadership.

    BTW…if any I/O’s from the EEOC are reading ERE articles, and I assume they are, they are probably getting a great chuckle from learning that “greatness is not specifically compatible with scientific hiring”. Man. How can you make this stuff up?

  4. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Dr. Williams.

    “If you want to be a great musician, you have to graduate from a good music school, practice long hours every day, and participate in rigorous tryouts.”
    Except in the case of professional classical musicians and perhaps a few others, I believe the part about the music school is not correct, and that the vast majority of highly-proficient musicians outside this area have not graduated from elite music schools.

    “…managers complain about losing control. You’ve hit the problem on the head- the GAFI Principles of Greed, Arrogance, Fear, and Ignorance/Incompetence. Increasingly we are learning that people are prone to many deep-seated and often unconscious biases in our thinking. A hiring manager may actually be consciously convinced that hiring the objectively-best candidate is the right thing to do, but there is a reasonable likelihood that s/he really (and unconsciously) wants to hire the person s/he THINKS is best, and these reasons may not be logical. Taking away the choice is perceived as a threat, and indeed it is.

    “…top half of the workforce out-produce employees in the bottom half by at least 2 to 1 (e.g., it’s even higher for managers and professionals).” Which top half? Performance, pay, seniority, benefits? If it’s performance, I think the presumption here is that companies can get the very best people if only they hired better. In reality, lower-half companies shouldn’t expect to consistently hire upper-half people. Think about it: why would the superior people consistently go to work for the inferior companies/jobs?

    As far as UGESP is concerned, I think using them would probably be a very good idea, at least better than the horrible processes, procedures, and protocols (3P) we usually have to perform. In my centuries (OOPS! I mean decades) of recruiting, with companies large, medium, and small; functional and toxic, I have never heard of UGESP being discussed by anyone in a recruiting capacity within the firm.

    “Rinng! Rinng! Rinng!”
    IMHO, the biggest reasons for the current mess are:
    1) Too much money is made through the current status quo, and a lot of business would go away if companies used hiring best practices, or even just asked the recruiters how to make our reruiting better and more efficient.

    2) A lot of very high-level people would look quite stupid through creating, implementing, or overseeing highly dysfunctional policies, and no emperors like to be told they have no clothes.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  5. Andrea Colantoni

    Wow, good points in the article as well as in the counter-arguments.

    This is a controversial issue but i beleive that no matter what role we play in all this, I think it’s hard to not admit that today’s recruitment practices (in-house, external) are to a large extent abysmal (I said in general, before all you star recruiters start protesting :) ).

    Bottom line is that current selection standards are too geared towards complying with a process and not very focused on defining the factors for success. Recruitment comes down to checking boxes, not astutely defining the key competencies required. Becuase that takes tremendous skill.

    And herein lies the problem: today recruitment is geared towards minimizing costs, not maximizing benefits. So we have people with far too little experience and knowledge making decisions that can cost organizations millions, and very little effort is put into measuring the outcome of recruitment – which is NOT the recruitment budget.

    Forget employer branding and social media strategies and so forth. Most organizations would need so much less people if they re-defined recruitment to be the process of attracting the best instead of weeding out the worst.

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