Weak Employees? Blame Recruiting

Aug 10, 2005

Here is a take on an old math problem. Suppose we filled a big jar with marbles. The jar is opaque and the marbles are all so dirty that we cannot determine their colors without washing them. We expect the majority of marbles to be green, but after a few years of picking and washing, we learn that 20% are green, 60% are yellow and 20% red. Now let’s apply the marble analogy to work. Look around. If you are like most organizations, 20% of your managers, salespeople and associates will be stars (green), 60% will be “muddle-alongs” (yellow), and 20% will be duds (red). Be sure to remember that hiring managers and recruiters thought each of these folks was green under the grime when they were hired. The jar represents a typical labor pool in an organization: a pool that supplies managers, career succession candidates, cross-functional team members, competitive response teams, salespeople, and so forth. Each time the organization has an empty position, a manager puts his or her hand into the jar and pulls out a marble. What? You say that no one knowingly picks red or yellow marbles? Quite true. But remember that no one can see into the jar, and the marbles are all dirty! What Color is Your Marble? Every candidate has the same objective: get hired (or promoted) now, perform later. We read about it in books, interview suggestions, and career planners. That strategy works well when jobs are so simple anyone could do them, but not when they require special skills like decision-making, occupational knowledge, planning, selling, coaching, fast learning, and so forth. Manufacturers during the industrial revolution made their jobs so simple and repetitive they could be learned in a short time. Henry Ford, for example, incorporated the use of gage blocks (pieces of precision-machined brass and steel) so that employees could assemble cars without being able to read, write, add, or subtract. Mindless job design worked for Ford, but things are different now. In the jobs we see today, workers have to sell complicated products, manage cross-functional teams, make on-the-fly decisions, deal with customers, solve problems, and so forth. All this complexity makes it necessary for people to be smarter, learn faster, work more proactively in teams, and care more about quality. Increased job complexity leads to increased recruiting demands. Interview questions like “Sell me the pencil,” “Tell me your greatest strength and weakness,” or “What is your greatest accomplishment?” are bush-league responses to major-league problems. In marble terms, these are verbal test questions that cannot “wash off” enough dirt to allow you to see the underlying color. This affects succession planning, promotion, reorganization and hiring. Recruiters have a difficult role: They have to source and they have to qualify. In essence, a good recruiter makes his or her recruiting job very hard. Not only must recruiters find someone willing to talk, they must also work hard to disqualify many of the very same people they worked so hard to find. A recruiter who uses yesterday’s tests to find green marbles is like a doctor who treats every patient with aspirin and bed rest. Professional qualification will be an elusive fantasy and high placement fees will be unwarranted. On the other hand, a recruiter who knows how to “clean off as much dirt” as possible ó so the hiring manager can see a glimmer of red, green, or yellow underneath ó is tomorrow’s true professional. Recruiters (like it or not) must accept the responsibility for the color of the marbles in the organization’s talent jar. As we mentioned earlier, a recruiting ratio of 20% success, 60% barely passable, and 20% failure represents poor performance in any job. Let’s shift to the impact of a 20-60-20 ratio on the organization. Sales and the 20-60-20 Ratio Ever wonder why 80% of an organization’s sales come from 20% of the salespeople? It’s because the 80% who don’t make their sales numbers tend to suffer from one or more of the following problems: call reluctance (a motivational issue), disorganization (a planning, organizing, and motivational issue), not asking enough discovery questions (a motivational and cognitive issue), or not learning the product (a motivational and cognitive issue). In other words, they don’t have the selling skills to make them effective at selling. It’s not the candidate’s fault. The “professional” recruiter who hired them did not scrape away enough dirt to determine (at the time of hire) the color of the marble. And unfortunately, almost every sales manager is a sucker for a good sales pitch. A 20-60-20 performance ratio will always lead to lower than anticipated sales performance. Knowledge Workers and the 20-60-20 Ratio The effect of the 20-60-20 ratio on knowledge worker performance is harder to evaluate because their work product is less tangible. Knowledge workers are generally evaluated by project results. Engineer’s measure performance by successful products, IT measures it by code efficiency and bugs, project managers by time and budget, and research scientists by new products. A knowledge worker may even be more important to an organization over the long run than a salesperson, but unfortunately their “special skills” are much harder to evaluate. A 20-60-20 performance ratio among knowledge workers means accepting more product mistakes, longer development times, more worker expense to produce the same product, and serious questions about the organization’s long-term financial viability. Management and the 20-60-20 Ratio Managers can be drawn from almost any jobholder pool, but they are seldom chosen based on their people-management skills. The sales manager is often one of the top salespeople; the engineering manager is often one of the most successful project managers; the accounting manager is often a certified professional; the legal manager is often another lawyer. Many other people get promoted to managerial positions because they are tall or good looking, have not screwed up (that we know of), or play golf. Not only are managers drawn primarily from the shallow green pool, they are more often individual contributors, not people managers. The 20-60-20 pool hits management ranks very hard, because as people rise higher in the organization, jobs become more complex. As jobs become more complex, so do the skills required for performance. Delivering sales dollars personally and delivering sales dollars by working through others takes a very different set of skills. Being in charge of a project and being in charge of people who manage a project also takes a different set of skills. Management jobs usually require deeper and broader cognitive ability to assess and evaluate data that is often obscure and abstract. Planning expands from months to years, and so do contingencies. In addition, the temptation to misuse management power increases with organization level. A quick look at Enron, Tyco, politico power abuse, and other news stories of greed underscores the tempting corruptibility of power. Again: No large pool of promising raw material, no promising management talent. Changing Colors The only way to change color ratios is to “stock the jar” with more green marbles. In its simplest form, stocking the jar means screening out a larger percentage of people who might be red or yellow under the dirt layer. Only professional recruiting practices have the potential to wash off marbles prior to candidates joining the organization. When the colors of the marbles are better known beforehand, recruiters can change the color ratio in the jar from 20-60-20 to about 50-40-10. Then, each time management reaches into the employee talent jar, they have much greater odds of pulling out high performance. In the mean time, ponder these questions:

  • If you are not using mental alertness or other tests of cognitive ability, where do you think future management talent will come from?
  • If you are not using simulations that evaluate coaching, selling, or presentation skills, where do you think good interpersonal relationships and teamwork skills will come from?
  • If you are not using tests of attitudes, interests, and motivations, where do you think people with highly productive attitudes will come from?
  • If you are still relying on managers to evaluate candidate skills, who do you think is better skilled to stock the jar using systematic evaluation tools: someone who claims to do it as a profession, or someone who does it out of necessity a few times each year?

Want to be a pioneer? Want to leave an occupational legacy? Take responsibility for restocking the jar with more green marbles.

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