Some days you’re the shovel, some days you’re the hole

Have you ever driven past a utility crew in the middle of a project? You know the scene: one guy in a chest-deep hole working furiously while a half-dozen others mill around watching him. My favorite of the by-standers is the one in the (usually) white shirt holding a Styrofoam coffee cup, nodding his head and telling the others, “yup, that boy’s working.” I want his job.

That’s not reality, however. Many Americans are the fellow in the hole and that’s who I think about whenever some guru expounds on the need to rekindle your passion for work, to rediscover that inner drive, etc etc. The guru is the guy in the (usually) white shirt holding the coffee cup; easy for him to offer up advice to someone standing in the muck with sweat pouring down his face.

Still, the guru does make a good point. No one would argue with the premise that the more you enjoy doing something, the more motivated you will be to do it and the more likely you are to be successful. But, have you ever taken a personal inventory to discover the match among your interests, your skills, and the marketplace? Most people have not, which is why the typical American can expect to switch jobs – and by jobs, I mean doing roughly the same thing for different employers – anywhere from three to seven times depending on who is doing the study and what the parameters for it are. Switching careers is another matter.

The concept of 40 years and a gold watch has gone the way of the tube television; people are mobile and it seems that employers are noticing. Whether employer action accomplishes anything remains to be seen since the most common reason that people leave companies are people problems – they don’t like their bosses, they don’t like the internal politics, they don’t feel valued, and so forth.  It’s turning the workforce into a living U-2 video, and it’s worth asking if one reason people haven’t found what they’re looking for is that they are not sure what it is that they’re seeking?  

“Change” is a buzzword that politicians love but let’s be honest, most people don’t like it. Habits and routines don’t form themselves; they are the result of purposeful activity and we organize our lives around a relative degree of predictability. People tend to accept consistency, even with things they don’t necessarily like, because there is some comfort in knowing the outcome. And, when the thought of change forces its way into the conversation, it’s not just because there is a problem, it is because there is a problem the person is unwilling to tolerate any longer. Change is the necessary reaction to living the definition of doing the same thing and hoping for different results. Hope is neither a method nor a strategy, but again, change to what?

Businesspeople are often encouraged to describe their ideal client – with what type of person/organization will they have the most enjoyable and most successful relationship? There is no reason this same thought process cannot be brought down to the individual level – describe your ideal employer.  Begin with these three things:  what am I best suited for based on cognitive ability and skills; what type of corporate culture makes the best fit for my personality; and, what motivates me to do my best work?  The answer may be anything from being an entrepreneur to working for a large corporation to a small company to a non-profit.  But the answer will remain a mystery without some self-analysis.  Employee, define thyself. 

Alex Lekas

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You don’t have to live with mediocrity.

Do you spend more time trying to make average people good or making good people great? Which would you rather do?  Too many organizations bog down in the time drain of the former and, to make matters worse, their top notice.  Over time, one of two things (maybe both) will occur: those on the upper end will dial back their effort since excellence is apparently not expected, or more likely, they will leave.

Like most other things, mediocrity does not occur in a vacuum, nor is it a fatal condition. It can arise from several factors: 1) clashes with a supervisor, 2) a lack of adequate training, 3) a person being in the wrong job, or 4) an individual who should never have been hired. The good news is that each of these can be fixed; you just have to know how.

Let’s take the last case first, the person who is chronically underperforming. With that individual, one of the following statements is true:  the problem is the person or the problem is you. You cannot fix the unmotivated but you can improve your hiring procedures to weed out the possibility of people like this ever being hired. I’ll explain how shortly.

People in the wrong job are a different matter, partly because recognizing that requires patience and perception. Say you hired someone for a sales position; the person’s track record showed solid performance, references and other feedback (to the extent that can be gathered) were positive, and the interviews were great. But so far, it hasn’t worked. Why?

Maybe your sales model is unfamiliar, perhaps it’s channel- or distributor-driven rather than direct, or vice-versa. Maybe the department has a team system and this individual previously worked an individual territory. Or maybe it’s adjusting from inside sales to outside sales. The point is, something about this person gave you the impression of a good fit and maybe the fit is there, just not in this job.

The second item on our list above, a training issue, is self-explanatory. It is difficult to hold a person accountable for a sub-standard on-boarding process. Very few people walk in the door and immediately contribute. And finally, there is the management question.

Numbers 1, 3, and 4 can be addressed through assessments. Hiring the right people requires an understanding of what makes them right, knowing the cognitive skills that will be required, the behavioral traits that allow for a cultural fit, and understanding individual interests to determine if prospects will be motivated to actually do the work. No resume or interview or references can tell you that; only reliable and valid assessments can. And assessments can also map how a new hire should be managed, so that conflicts with a supervisor can be avoided.

The upside is, all of the information needed to properly assess a potential newcomer is already in-house. It’s in the collective skills and traits of your top performers. Have you ever assessed them to see what makes them tick? In doing so, you will have developed a model for subsequent hires; the assessment will allow to confidently predict which prospects are likely to succeed and which probably won’t. Assessments are not magic; they should never be the only consideration used in hiring, but they should be a part of it. Unless you enjoy paying the costs of frequent turnover, lost productivity, and wasted time.

Alex Lekas