Ever Screw Up and Hire a Good One?

I ask that question because it is a combination of two others that are much harder than they appear:

  • ever have an applicant who ticked every box but six months later, you are convinced someone switched that person out for the employee you have? You likely have a specific name in mind.
  • ever have an applicant who ticked every box and six months later, is even better than expected? You can probably name that person, too.

Those two questions lead to the obvious follow-up: what did you different in those two instances? In all likelihood, nothing. You followed a hiring script and took your chances. Next time, just put the resumes of the finalists on the wall and toss a dart; you have the same expectation of making a good choice. And until and unless you figure out how to tap into the occupational DNA of both applicants and existing employees, the preceding questions will dog you.

In a past professional life, during the technological Dark Ages (about 1998), I was interviewing the CEO and CMO of a locally-based web hosting company for a television program. The hosting company was on the cusp of a period of explosive growth – and I mean two-time Inc500 growth – as the web went from nebulous concept to business necessity. At one point, the CMO asked me: “what would be the product on your web site?” The instant answer was information since I was in the news business and planned to be stay in it for a while.

Fast forward nearly two decades and the world is a markedly differently place. There is virtually no end to the data that can be assembled, dissected, collated, and interpreted for any organizational function. This includes personnel. Everything you need to know about maximizing the odds of success for employees and/or applicants is within easy reach, but you have to make the effort. Too many companies don’t, and the results are not hard to figure out.

My newest poster child for this phenomenon is a young man I recently met at a networking event who works in the mortgage arm of a major financial institution. As we talked, I asked about his career path. “I want to be in marketing,” he said. Marketing. Is it possible to be any further removed from mortgages? Two questions came to mind: does his employer know and, given its size, would the company even care? My guess is no, probably to both questions, which means he is either looking for another job or he will be.

He’s what a colleague of mine would call an “at-leaster”, someone doing at least enough to meet whatever goals were set out for him in order to retain his job and, quite likely, not one scintilla more. He is the opposite of the current happy word “engagement.” It’s a term that works both ways. A lack of engagement is not just employees who are unhappy, unmotivated, or unproductive, it’s also employers putting people into positions for which they are poorly suited. Go back to the questions at the beginning of this piece. All that money spent to recruit, hire, and train someone when, in reality, all that has been done it to set that person up for failure.

Finding good people is difficult and some of this is due to factors you cannot control. It is also true that the workplace is radically different from the era of forty years and a gold watch. But human nature is relatively constant – even the happiest company in America would be a drag for someone who is in a job that is ill-suited to their interests. When you like doing something, you not only do more of it, you do it with greater focus, increased effort, and heightened intensity. It’s not rocket surgery. If it were, the question in the title would be one nobody asked.

Make Your Training Dollars Go Further

If you are going to invest in training and talent development, and there is a lot of that going on, then it should be with people who are worthy of the investment. In sales training alone, about $20-billion per year is spent. That’s more than the budgets of 22 states.  And yet:

Those turnover metrics can apply to any industry, obviously; I picked sales because a great deal of training focuses on that.  Leadership development is another area and the same questions linger:  have you or has your organization made someone a manager only to learn that the person could not manage?  Are organizational teams or departments hothouses of innovation and collaboration, or toxic environments in which simply getting through the day qualifies as an achievement?

Calculate all the training dollars spent on people who did not work out or who took the information from a coaching or training seminar/workshop that you paid for to another employer.  Add in one last bit of irony:  though the reasons why new hires fail is not a mystery, the outcome is often pre-ordained because organizations do not consider the occupational DNA of the people they hire – what motivates them, in what type of culture will they thrive, are they willing to do the job or will they be searching anew in six months? And then, they hand off those people to trainers and coaches with the implied demand of “make them better.”

Professional development is not magic, it’s work and it generally requires two things of those receiving the training in order to be successful: talent and desire. Even legendary basketball coach John Wooden knew that no one wins without talent, at least not consistently. Putting the wrong person into the wrong job is a fantastic recipe for failure. Every grain of sand cannot be a pearl and if that were possible, then pearls would be worthless.  Organizations know who their top people are; they should also know why top performers are who they are and be able to give that information to coaches and trainers to use as a road map for developing the employees who are toeing the line of excellence but need a slight nudge to cross it. We’re in a specialized world; consultants can customize programs to fit a variety of organizational situations, but they cannot engineer a fix if the company itself is not sure what the problem is.

The second variable is desire, which good coaches can tap into and help individuals to channel. Like dialogue, this is only effective if both sides participate. Not to get bogged down in a tyranny of clichés, but there is a reason sayings like “you can lead a horse to water,…” exist. Some people perceive coaching as an indictment of their performance. “Let me help you” is interpreted as “you’re doing it wrong.”  “Wax on, wax off” only made sense after Daniel understood how Mr. Miyagi integrated it into the bigger picture.

Accepting coaching shows a willingness to admit that you do not know everything and an openness to trying new things. Not everyone has the internal motor for that and not everyone is comfortable putting his/her ego to the side, which leads back to the original hiring questions: just how well do organizations really know the individuals whom they bring on board? If companies are going to spend money on improving organizational performance, they have a far greater likelihood of recouping that investment when the training they buy is used on talented people who have the desire to improve.