When the People in High Potential Programs Aren’t

At a recent professional conference I attended there was a lot of talk about high potentials.  Specifically, how to best measure potential versus actual performance (good luck getting managers to understand the difference).  The idea of identifying high potentials (HiPos) is critical for a couple of reasons:

  • If you are going to do good succession planning, you need to look at people based on their potential to be leaders at the next level (or for the first time) and not just how well they are doing in the current position.
  • Investing training dollars in HiPos will give you a much better return than the investment in lower performers. High performers got that way because they are continuous learners who welcome feedback.

But, do companies really do a good job of identifying HiPos?  This article suggests that they do not.  Using 360 feedback as a metric, the authors conclude that many of those selected into HiPo programs are not rated well on important leadership dimensions.  How does this happen?

  • Companies use the wrong data to identify HiPos. Our tendency is to use current performance to determine future performance.  And, if looking at a person’s potential in that job, this would be the best predictor.  But, it is not a good predictor if you’re trying to determine if a great individual contributor will be a good manager, or if a good manager will be a good executive.  The skill sets are too different.
  • I allude to it above, but companies place too much weight on factors that are not related to potential. I understand that it is hard to put blinders on and only focus on those attributes that would indicate success in another role (e.g., strategic thinking), but it is critical to do so in identifying HiPos.

The best way to combat this is to identify future success factors, such as strategic thinking and developing effective followers, in your organization.  If succession planners are presented with only this type of relevant data (as opposed to everything that might come out of a 360 or assessment center), it is more likely that those with the highest potential will be put into the HiPo pool.

Is Seeing Really Believing?

Something I hear frequently from clients is, “I wish I had a day/week/month to see my candidates do the job.  Then I would make fewer hiring mistakes.”  It is, of course, an intriguing idea.  We test drive cars before we buy them.  Why not try out people before we hire them?

There is a long history of sampling work behavior in selection systems, whether it be using Assessment Centers to hire/promote managers and executives or having people make things for craft positions.  The accuracy of these types of assessments is good, falling somewhere between cognitive ability tests and interviews.  For candidates, the appeal is that they feel that they can really show what they can do rather than have their job related skills or personality inferred from a multiple choice test.

The issues in using a job tryout would include:

  • Paying the person for their time. There is an ethical, in some cases legal, issue in having a person work for free.  So, be prepared for your cost per hire to go up significantly.
  • Candidates would either need flexible schedules or plenty of PTO to participate in such a program.
  • Having meaningful work for the candidates to do. If you are going to narrow the gap between what the assessment and the job look like, then you would have to have projects that impact process, customers, etc that you would be willing to have a short-term contractor do.  Or, that you already have them doing.
  • Determining how to score the job tryout. Most organizations do a pretty poor job of measuring job performance over a full year, let a lone a couple of days.  Developing scoring criteria would be key for making good decisions and avoiding bias.
  • Having someone who is not your employee perform work that could affect your customers or the safety of others will make your attorney break out in a cold sweat.  This is should convince you not to do job tryouts, but you will have to sell that person on the idea.

What got me thinking about job tryouts was this article.  I was impressed that the company had thought through the problems in their selection process and came up with a creative way to address them. They certainly handle the pay issue well and they currently have the growth and profitability to make the program worthwhile. What is left unsaid, but communicated through some derisive comments about multiple-choice tests, is that they feel that using tests would not fit their culture well.

My concerns were that they are more worried about “fit” than skills.  This also translates into not having an objective way to evaluate how well a person did.  This leads me to believe that they would run into the problem of only hiring people who are just like them.

Lastly, they have a pretty high pass rate that “feels right.”  If I worked for them, I would be concerned that a lot of time and effort is being spent confirming what was seen in the less valid interview.  This is particularly true in a company where metrics are important for everything else.  Having people work for you for a few days and not having an objective way to measure how well they did is not going to lead to better candidates than a series of interviews.

Advances in selection tools will likely come from start-up companies who are not bound by tradition when it comes to hiring.  The tech sector presents a lot of opportunities to improve valid selection systems by their nature:  They are setup to disrupt and they gather a lot of data.  This presents a great platform for seeing what people do before you hire them to do it.

Learning to Manage

I cannot tell you how many times I have worked with a client who has told me some sort of story about how they promote from within, but have a problem with the supervisors and/or managers not being able to let go of wanting to do the technical work instead of managing the technical work.  It is not hard to understand.  People get into a field because of their interests or passion, rarely for their desire to manage others.

An organization’s challenge is to either create technical career opportunities or help those who are technically proficient to successfully move into management.  But how?  Here are some tips:

  • Clearly identify the skill sets required of managers and note how different they are from those required of technical workers. One of the places I would start is with Delegation and Holding People Accountable.
  • Make the management skill sets part of your internal recruitment AND learning and development process.
  • Require internal candidates to demonstrate management skills before being promoted through an assessment center or other valid selection process.
  • Start people at an appropriate management level, regardless of how technically proficient they are.

While I’m not one to think that sports are necessarily a good analogy for the business world, I found this article to be an exception.  It describes how John Elway,

a multiple Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Denver Broncos, learned management skills from the ground up.  He wasn’t made a Vice President of the team after he retired.  Rather, he honed his business skills in another field and then transferred them to a low level of football.  It wasn’t until he demonstrated success there that he was giving the big opportunity.  The time spent out of the spotlight clearly led to many learning experiences.

What makes the story powerful is the understanding that while there were some technical skills which would translate for him from the field to the front office, Elway (and his bosses) understood that others would have to be learned.  The organization was willing to let him take the time to learn how to manage and lead in a non-technical role.

The lessons for the rest of us are that:

  • Management skills are different from technical ones (e.g., the best sales person is not necessarily the best sales manager). We can use valid tools to identify which of our technical experts possess them.
  • Management development is a journey, as is the acquisition of any skill set.

Yes, We Are All Biased, But We Don’t Have to Be

Nearly all judgments we make about people are subject to some bias. We carry around these mental shortcuts so that every social situation doesn’t have to consist of obtaining all new information. I will leave to the evolutionary biologists to fill in the details as to why we do this.

From a practical point of view, these biases invade our work related decisions, such as deciding who did better in an interview, which employee should get a special assignment or a higher performance evaluation, etc. Of course, these biases go both ways. Employees are making the same types of judgments about their boss, interviewer, etc.

We have good ways to minimize these biases in hiring tools (evaluate tests scores by group to ensure that different groups are scoring equivalently, adding structure to interviews, using objective performance metrics rather than ratings, etc.). However, these biases also extend to how we communicate broadly.

Take a look (or listen) to this story. It describes steps that a company took to widen its applicant pool (BTW: This is my favorite way to combat adverse impact). Through a data analysis of language in job postings it was found that certain words/phrases would encourage or discourage certain applicant groups. Changes were made and applications increased.

The article addresses two uncomfortable truths:

  • We all have biases
  • They cannot be trained away.

The second one is a bit tougher for my friends in OD to deal with because a core tenant to diversity training is that if we are aware of our biases we can some how eliminate them. The research indicates that this is not the case.

However, in recruiting and selection, we can take steps to reduce bias from the process, including:

  • Careful wording of recruitment notices so that they don’t send unintended messages that would lead members of certain groups not to apply.
  • Using selection tools which minimize human bias, such as validated pre-employment tests. Perhaps this also means using audio, instead of video, for evaluating interviews, assessment center exercises, and work sample tests. Many symphonies now do this when evaluating musicians.
  • Adding as much structure as possible to interview protocols.

We know that good selection techniques have a higher ROI than training. Likewise, it is more cost efficient to implement good practices to mitigate bias than to train it out of people.

What are you doing to reduce bias on your selection/promotion procedures?

For more information on valid pre-employment testing, structured interviews and other fair selection techniques, please contact Warren Bobrow.

Do It Yourself Leadership Training

In my experience, top performers get there through understanding their deficiencies and then doing the hard work of correcting them. Aptitude and natural talent gives some people an initial advantage, but it doesn’t last. The question then becomes, “What’s the best way to develop talent?”

This blog post suggests that for leaders the development power is in their hands. Note how the description of successful leaders follows the same model of developing other talent: Leaders with a high learning orientation are seen as being more successful.

There are practical implications of learning orientation for valid selection and development of leaders:

  • Learning orientation can be evaluated via valid pre-employment tests (Openness to New Experiences is a good place to start), assessment centers (evaluating inquisitiveness during exercises), and behavioral interviewing (development steps the person has already taken). This allows for the conscious choice of bringing in (or promoting) leaders who are driven by learning.
  • Allow leaders to choose their develop plan rather than use a cookie cutter approach. Those who use their own observations and other data (such as 360 feedback or employee engagement survey results) to develop their own path have a strong learning orientation and should be encouraged. Those who do not use the data and are content are letting you know that they have no plans to improve themselves (or your organization).

For more information on validated pre-employment testing and leadership development, please contact Warren Bobrow.

Really, We Can Do That

The Sunday NY Times had an interesting interview with Daniel Hendrix of Interface, Inc.  The primary focus of the discussion was on Hendrix’s views on work-life balance and delegation.  That message is important to leaders who are working way too much.  Unless you are about to find a cure for cancer, work can wait as there will always be more.  Spend time with your family (or, at least away from work).

The conversation also goes into hiring and interviewing.  While some of the things that Hendrix says he likes to interview for will make your legal antennae go up (asking about family?), others are potentially quite insightful (Does the person have work-life balance?  Does s/he understand principles of servant leadership?).  This is particularly true when he addresses candidates’ ability to see and address the “big picture” rather than doing things as they appear.  Hendrix admits that these are hard things to get at in an interview.  Is interviewing the best way to measure these kinds of complex attributes?  I don’t think so.

You can measure the attributes he is talking about in assessment centers.  This process puts leaders in realistic work situations and their behavior is recorded and assessed using objective scoring methods.  It’s much more powerful (and valid) to watch someone generate work product and/or behave in a situation than asking them to talk about past experiences in a behavioral interviewing setting.  This is because recalling what we’ve done is not objective.  This is not to bash behavioral interviewing, which when used well can yield valid and valuable information about candidates.  However, I’d much rather watch a person do something than tell me about it.  It’s more valid and I can provide them with specific behavioral feedback.

It’s good to see an executive thinking seriously about which attributes should be used in selecting future leaders.  It also shows that there are opportunities for HR to introduce innovative tools that executives don’t know about.  It helps us demonstrate our value in a language they can understand.  Don’t miss things kinds of opportunities!

For more information on pre-employment testing, assessment centers, skills assessment, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.

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