Can We Accurately Evaluate Leadership Before Someone Has a Chance to Lead?

In general, our personalities are pretty stable over our adulthood. Yes, we mature and big life events can alter us, but the building blocks of who we are as people are closer in stability to our eye color than our hair color.

This stability has been important to the science of employee selection. The underlying idea of giving any type of pre-employment or promotional test is that the knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic being measured is stable in that person for a given period of time so that it can be used to predict future performance. With skills, we assume that they will improve over time, so we look for those that a person has right now. For personality and cognitive abilities, we assume that a person will have those at a consistent level for many years and that these aptitudes can be used to develop specific skills, such as leadership.

When I conduct leadership workshops, I typically ask participants if leaders are born (e.g., do some people just have what it takes) or made (e.g., pretty much anyone can be an effective leader if given the right opportunities to develop). The conversation gets people thinking about what behaviors are necessary to lead (good communication, willingness to direct others, attention to details, etc.), which of those can be taught, and which cannot. Put another way, to become a professional basketball player, I can improve how well I shoot, but I cannot do too much about how tall I am.

But, what if we have the direction of trait to leadership wrong? What if the traits to become a leader don’t blossom until someone is given the chance to lead?

This study suggests that being promoted into a leadership position does change the conscientiousness factor of personality. Conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of overall manager effectiveness. It’s an interesting idea in that it suggests that, for some people, we do not know if they have a sufficient amount of a trait that contribute to leadership success until after they become leaders.

As with all good research, it poses as many new questions as answers. For instance, were there increases in conscientiousness across the spectrum or only among certain groups (e.g., were there gains for those who already showed relatively high levels of conscientiousness, so the rich got richer)? Or, does it take a leadership experience to bring out conscientiousness in people who typically do not show it? Or, is leadership a tide that raises everyone’s conscientiousness?

Practically speaking, this is where the study has me thinking about assessing leadership:

1)  Putting a re-emphasis on using performance on temporary assignments that involve leadership as part of the selection process in promoting people into supervisory positions. 

2)  Validating responses on personality tests that are taken after a person goes through a leadership role-play exercise or situational judgment test.

3)  Re-thinking what aspects of personality indicate leadership potential (e.g., willingness to direct others and resilience) and broaden our list of things that are leadership skills to include some other aspects of personality (e.g., conscientiousness). We can then focus on selecting based on the former and training on the latter.

Some people have the right mix of attributes that allow leadership to come easily to them. As it turns out, some of those things become more apparent after a person has a chance to lead. This should encourage us to think about how we choose to evaluate leadership potential.

Tips For Bringing People Back After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected businesses large and small.  While as of this writing it is unclear we (in the US) are closer to the beginning or the end of business restrictions, we can safely assume that some businesses will not be bringing back all of their staff when the restrictions are lifted.  This will lead to some tough decisions that have legal and performance implications.  Since I’m not a lawyer, I’ll focus more on the latter.

In an idea world, companies have processes for measuring performance.  Where objective measures are used, they are relatively free of environmental conditions.  Where managers rate performance, they are relatively free of bias.  If these represent your company, then you have an easy way to bring people back—top down based on their performance.  Note that collective bargaining agreements may render any other process moot as they may have last in, first out provisions.

Let’s say for a moment that your evaluation processes don’t live in the land described above.  Then what?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Think about how the business is going to look as things recover. What parts will stay and which ones may go (or be dormant for longer)?  This will help you think about the skills and abilities you’ll need in your staff.
  2. Have managers rate employees on the skills and abilities described above NOW.  The longer you put it off, the less reliable the ratings.
  3. Be explicit about how the ratings match up with the work to be done. It is always important to document these kinds of decisions.
  4. Use the data from the managers to develop a recall list.  That way you are bringing back the people who will help the business most first.  This will help in retaining your best people if you begin rehiring before others.

You should also be thinking now about how you are going to communicate the re-opening process to your employees.  There may not be enough data now for you to craft a message now, but HR should be considering different options so that when decisions are made they can be communicated quickly and effectively.

Skills of the Future

The nature of work has always changed and will continue to do so.  This report from the World Economic Forum outlining trends and predictions came out a year ago.  I find its conclusions as true today as they were when it was first published.  It is a bit of a long read, but does break things out by country which shortens the time required a bit.

The net of the study is in the table below.

The Declining skills are instructive.  Not surprising, the list contains skills which are being automated (management of resources, quality control, manual dexterity, etc.).  Others are in response to a change in workplace culture which places higher value autonomy (management of personnel).  We can have a separate conversation as to what it means that active listening is on the Declining list.  What that leaves us with (see the Trending column) are the skills that are becoming more important in the near future.  Innovation and learning top the list with plenty of problem solving skills.  Seeing emotional intelligence on the list made me throw up in my mouth a bit, but there is no surprise about social influence.

The practical aspect of the report is to get us thinking about the skills that we really need for jobs in the 2020’s.  As we automate more, how does that change our expectations of employees?  At McDonald’s, automation means more interaction between staff and guests.  With managers being freed from coordination and time management, what is it that we will want them to do?

Here’s how to keep up:

  1. You probably need to review your job descriptions more often than you think.  And you should definitely do so after introducing new technology.

  2. Updated job descriptions should feed into your recruitment process.  Be sure that you are not advertising for yesterday’s jobs.

  3. The Trending list throws down the gauntlet as to how we select candidates.  Whether it be updating tests, interviews, or what we look for on resumes, knowing that we need more creativity and leadership, and less management, from those who direct the activities of others is a BIG difference.  If our selection tools are to be valid, they need to keep up with changing jobs.

By making these updates, we can drive the recruitment and selection of employees with the right skill sets.  It also provides us with a framework of being ahead of futures skill changes.

Who’s Next?

My process improvement friends like to say, “Improving the work is the work.”  There is some truth to that in HR as well.  But, I think that it is also fair to say that “Keeping the talent pipeline full is the work.”  I’ll admit that it’s less catchy.

Succession planning is a topic as old as business, so I will cut to the chase:  This may be an area where companies are getting better.  The data is interesting as well in that it shows (at least in this sample) that public companies are better at it than private ones.  I would be curious as to whether there is an additional split between family owned and other types of ownership among the private companies.

I think that transparency (welcomed or not) has a lot to do with boards (and, hopefully, HR) being more concerned about high level succession planning.  Part of what big investors are buying is the leadership team and the more focus there is on CEOs and their impact, the more concern investors will have in the less-than-famous leaders.

Good succession planning does not stop at the C-Suite.  It should be considered part of talent development for every position in the company.  Whether it is at the entry (where are we going to find new employees?) or management (how can we identify leadership potential?) levels, the work is ensuring that there is a strategy for identifying talent.

This process involves both valid assessment (who is interested and capable of doing what we need?) and development (what are the experiences that a person needs to be prepared for the next move?).  Keeping the pipeline full means focusing on both so that when a position comes open the question, “Who’s next?” can be answered quickly and reliably.

Are we Biased AGAINST Top Talent?

We all want to believe that we are looking to recruit, select, and develop top talent.  We spend lots of time reading and writing articles on the topic.  But, what if hiring managers are not interested?

This article throws a bit of cold water on the topic.  It documents a study where hiring managers were shown to doubt the organizational commitment of those deemed the most capable.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Why would someone really good want to work for us?”

There are several issues at work here.  But, what they boil down to is a bias among hiring mangers that negatively affects their selection processes.  Sure, I can imagine anecdotal evidence (“Yeah, we hired that one really bright person, but she jumped ship as soon as she got a better offer.”), but I don’t think that this is a data driven decision.

What this also underlines is the importance of developing a culture that encourages top talent to stay.  There’s no question that selecting the right people will drive business performance.  And having a culture that acknowledges and rewards high performance will do so as well.  When hiring managers feel that top talent will not stay, it is really an indictment of the culture rather than an accurate prediction of management’s view.  How can you fight this?

  1. If managers do not think top talent would be committed to your organization, they should NOT be involved in hiring. 
  2. Those who are doing the hiring should be able to provide a realistic preview of the organization, but should also be able to succinctly describe why people stay.  And I’m not just talking about a good cafeteria.  They should be able to provide examples of people who have found challenging work over time in the organization.
  3. If you are speaking with hiring managers who show an anti-talent bias, ask them what needs to be changed so they would believe that top talent would want to stay.
  4. The best way to fight bias is with data.  You should be able to study turnover rates by talent bands (contact me for tips on this).  This way you can either show people that top talent does not leave any faster than other employee groups or demonstrate to executives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Organizations should strive for selection processes that identify top talent and cultures that nurture them.  Do not let bias against hiring top talent work against these two initiatives.

Shaping Skills to Your Work

It is important to use valid selection tools to hire people for the work you have for them.  But, what happens when technology changes the tasks or the jobs get replaced by automation?  You can let people go as their work becomes obsolete and hire new staff.  However, in times with low unemployment, this strategy will be difficult to execute.  Or, you can train people to acquire the new skills.  This has big implications in industries where tech is changing the nature of work, such as mining and warehousing, just to name two.  However, trying to train lots of people in new skills assumes that they have the interest and aptitude for learning them.  Remember, people chose to pursue their given job/career for a reason.

Amazon and Walmart provide an example of this type of investment.  Their programs include technical and college training.  What is telling about their plans is that neither company considers it a “nice to have.”  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the skills it takes to run their businesses are changing and they don’t think they can find enough talent to meet future needs in the labor pool.  This may be because so many young people want a career that requires as little work as possible.

The situation also makes one think about selecting people for industries where the skills required change rapidly.  Instead of using tests or interviews that focus on specific abilities, perhaps addressing broader ones, such as openness to new experiences and general aptitude, will serve companies better.

Trying to Stop the Tides

It seems very old-school, but sea ports are still very big business.  The twin ports in southern California (LA and Long Beach) are a huge economic driver (they are the primary sender/receiver of goods between North America and Asia) and employer.  But, they are also one of the biggest polluters in the region.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been a balancing act to keep the ports humming and making the area healthier.

A bit more under the radar has been the creep of automation. While car companies fought this battle with their unions a generation ago, the idea that automation can be stopped is still alive and well among the longshoremen.  This article gets into some of the specifics regarding the plan and it potential impacts.

From an HR perspective, the bigger story here is not the automation (it is going to happen as it makes the port more eco-friendly and efficient), but the lack of planning regarding the retraining of workers.  It is somewhat surprising that this is occurring at the ports because most of the labor disputes over the last 20 or so years have not been over wages but over the number of jobs.  The port and the union are now in negotiations about retraining and head count for different positions, but this is time and goodwill being spent now on solutions that could have been anticipated.

A better approach would be:

  1. Analyze the skills required for current jobs and for those created by the automation. Yes, new equipment needs to be programmed, maintained, etc.  Metrics of productivity and cost need up to updated, tracked, etc.
  2. Where the skills map directly, there no problem and this should be communicated to those employees.
  3. Where the skills don’t completely map, determine how the skills can be acquired.
  4. Communicate the path to skill acquisition clearly to those whose positions are going to be eliminated or changed. It should be presented as an opportunity rather than a threat.
  5. Provide adequate resources (tuition reimbursement, time away from work, etc.) to allow for the retraining.
  6. Develop and/or promote an internal posting system for those who cannot be placed in the new positions.

Automation has always been a part of business and that is not changing any time soon.  Trying to prevent is as useless a stopping the tides.  However, planning for it allows companies to keep valuable employees and for employees who are willing to upgrade their skills to stay employed.

Finding Talent in Nooks and Crannies

Low unemployment is great for the economy (rising wages!), but challenging for employers (higher quit rates and a smaller available talent pool).  This can lead to many creative recruiting strategies and looking at (relatively) untapped sources.  I came across two not-so-new ideas around this recently.

 

One is the idea of returnship—these are programs designed for people (primarily women) with white collar education and skills to transition them back into the workforce after raising their families.  These are initially short term job tryouts (like an internship).  I do find the idea somewhat patronizing in that it seems like companies that use it are saying, “We’ll let you take baby-steps (pun intended) back into the workforce and we’ll see if you’re ready.”  It seems exploitative of returning workers’ self-confidence and makes them compete (again) to get jobs that they have already shown they can do.  Having said that, companies that use the program are providing opportunities for a very talented pool of candidates.  The programs are VERY selective, so it is not surprising that more than half (but not always 100%)  of those who are chosen to participate transition to full time positions.

The other is providing job training for older workers.  I’ve written about ageism in recruitment and selection before and the problem is not getting any better.  This article outlines the pros and cons around re-training older workers.  Of course, part of the issue is that companies will force out older (more expensive) workers while they are still productive, and then the employer finds that they are missing important skills. Where the article misses the point is that if given a choice between hiring skilled people or retraining employees (of any age), hiring good talent is less expensive.  With so many skilled older workers available, companies with talent shortages (and not just McDonalds) would be wise to recruit from this talent pool.

Creativity often comes when we are faced with a dwindling resource, no matter how temporary.  Creating paths for working parents to come back to the workplace and retaining skilled older workers should always be part of HR’s recruitment and retention strategies.  Now is as good of a time as any to implement them.

Can We Prevent Top Talent From Walking Out the Door?

Biographical information (biodata) has been used to predict turnover and performance for a long time.  The idea is that certain verifiable aspects of a person’s life are indicators of future behavior.  To use an adage from an earlier time, if a person has changed jobs frequently in the past, s/he is not likely to stay with you very long.

We can now fast forward this idea to employee retention.  Or, put another way, can we predict which people are going to leave a company?  This article seems to indicate yes and it should not come as a surprise.

Putting aside privacy concerns for a moment, this approach goes beyond determining if a person is the right fit for a job due to their personality or values.  Rather, it potentially blends ideas that we would always think of creating turnover (bad boss, less pay compared to peers, length of commute, etc.) as well as those (number of startups in area, change in housing costs, etc.) that perhaps we had not thought of.    The added layer to the analysis is that it allows HR to say, “Wow, this is a person we don’t want to lose (or could not replace), let’s make some adjustments” or “Eh, that person is an underperformer anyway, so good riddance.”

More importantly, it treats retention as a dynamic, rather than static, state.  Previous biodata models would say, “This person has a 70% chance of staying 2 years or more.”  This data model might say, “Right now, this person has a 90% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  But, 6 months from now, if things change in the organization or in the person’s role, the model may say, “Right now, this person has a 60% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  This puts the onus on HR to work with managers to address the potential issues of valuable employees on a proactive basis.

From an employee’s perspective, I think there is opportunity here as well.  Imagine if they could pull up his/her “propensity to leave” score at any time.  Think of it as part of an employee engagement indicator.  This person could then see those things that may be causing them anxiety at work that might lead them to leave.  If it’s something minor that s/he feels could be easily addressed s/he could take it to a manager.  If it looks insurmountable, s/he would know that a new job search is a good idea.

The privacy issue here is real and, as with all concerns, depends how you feel about others using your data.  If I’m Amazon, Google, etc, there is a great temptation to link a person’s customer data with their employment application/employment status data to refine algorithms.  I have no idea if I’ve signed off on this when accepting their terms and conditions.  Do you?

Regardless of the “hotness” of the job market, this approach to dynamically tracking retention probabilities can be a very useful tool.  It can lead HR to being ahead of the game when trying to retain talent rather than offering the promises of a jilted lover as someone valuable walks out the door.

The Article Fallacy

Most popular press about industrial psychology topics makes me twinge.  It usually creates a train wreck between human behavior and management and makes over generalizations that fit into neat boxes which do not exist in practice.

 

At the same time, academic journals can often lag behind effective practice.  That’s not meant as a criticism.  Careful scientific study of anything takes time and if that means that a particular technique achieves acceptance before researchers give it the thumbs up, so be it.  This process is also how we debunk most of what makes it into airport books.

I bring this up because a friend of mine referred this article to me.  It was in a respectable publication and brings up a challenging idea—that feedback from other people is not all it is cracked up to be and that we gain more improvement by focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses.  It is a provocative idea which challenges a lot of notions in performance management, 360 processes, and coaching.

But, alas, there is very little data cited in their article, or that shows up in a search of research, that supports the ideas.  Well, except for other articles written on the topic by one of the authors which also lack data.  This does not mean that they are wrong.  Only that we have no objective way to know if they are right.  That really bothers me.  Especially when designing and executing a good study would not be difficult.

We should all be more evidenced-based in what we do.  That should also include the authors of articles and books.  But, I guess that hurts airport sales.

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