Lessons from Great Coaches and Other Myths

Jan 9, 2013
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

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 part of a series called Opinion.
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