Are You Wasting Your Time Sourcing Top Talent?

Dec 20, 2013

In this week’s roundup I address the issue of succession planning. Please pay attention, There will be a pop quiz. (Or not.)

As a talent acquisition professional (“recruiter” is so yesterday), your role in succession planning and workforce management is indirect, even if it falls on your shoulders to only source and present candidates who are the absolute best at doing the job for which you have a req.

Stick with me here for a minute as we walk through this hiring and succession moraine to reach the point where you will agree that the best plan is to fill promotions purely at random, while discovering that you and your colleagues are the only ones in the organization hiring people who must convince you they actually can do the available job.

Now, about that req that lands on your desk: it embodies the dreams of the hiring manager who lists skills, experience, and achievements no earthly human possesses. But still you find the three or four or five people who not only fit the req to a T, but who have shining personalities and abilities the hiring manager dared not even hope for.

It isn’t long before that hire makes the hiring manager look so good that when the director job opens up, the manager is promoted. That’s the nature of the meritocracy most companies profess to follow.

So now your talented candidate who has done so well at the job you specifically sourced them for is promoted into the manager’s slot. In a year, your shining star is gone (or maybe it’s the former manager who became a director who’s gone), having failed at a job for which they were not hired.

That’s the Peter Principle at work. We promote people until they reach the level of their greatest incompetence. Once they no longer merit promotion (based on success in their current job), they remain at the position until they leave or perform so poorly they get fired.

Basing a succession plan on merit and nothing more, means that over time, the most important company management jobs will be occupied by people who did really well at the job one or two rungs down. More than a few studies have demonstrated that promoting based on success in the current job leads to a reduction in corporate efficiency.

Recognizing that as the natural consequence of the Peter Principle, researchers at the Universit´a di Catania in Italy tried some alternative methods of promoting individuals to see what would happen. Using computer simulations (hey, it’s how they test new drugs, design planes, and plan for terrorist attacks), they discovered that if they promoted people purely at random that got better results and improved company efficiency.

Their conclusion:

..the strategy of promoting the best (workers) induces a rapid decrease of efficiency, while it works well only if members would ideally maintain their competence at each level, an hypothesis that, although in agreement with common sense, seems in practice very unrealistic in the majority of the real situations. On the other hand we obtained the counterintuitive result that the best strategies for improving, or at least for not diminishing, the efficiency of an organization … are those of promoting an agent at random or of randomly alternating the promotion of the best and the worst members. We think that these results could be useful to guide the management of large real hierarchical systems of different natures and in different fields.

One last word before you go shrugging off the results. Two management professors at the University of Texas came to a similar conclusion when they looked at four different promotional schemes:

The newly promoted may actually suffer from poorer performance in their new positions due to outdated memories and knowledge building processes. Thus, there is this irony: promotion of best performers may actually degrade the overall organizational performance, when compared with just promoting a random member of the group.

My work here is done.

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