Building a Top 20 Workforce: Why You Must Develop a Different Way of Thinking

Editor’s note: Each Tuesday here at TLNT, Dr. Wendell Williams will detail the seven different obstacles that need to be addressed by management before any organization can achieve a Top 20 workforce.

As I said before, using data from a past job to predict performance in a future job is “chancy.”

Past performance usually consists of a string of results, a few snapshots of behavior, and a boatload of personal opinion. What is usually missing is a common skills vocabulary that allows decision-makers to accurately compare skills from one job to another, and, from one candidate to the next.

It took years of experience as a manager, individual contributor, trainer, and assessor before I reluctantly concluded that Human Resources is a black-hole of misinformation and confusion. Why?

Training companies tell us everyone can be trained, management programs tell us everyone needs performance management, and hiring programs tell us past job-performance can always predict future job performance. Anyone with a keen eye for observing performance knows this is all theoretical nonsense.

So, what is associated with job performance (or failure)? Although there are hundreds of individual reasons, we can get substantially better employees by focusing on just four main factors.

Cognitive factors

Thinking and learning are considered cognitive abilities. Aside from the obvious technical qualifications (prior experience, technical degrees, and so forth), some jobs require continuous learning while others move at turtle speed. If the new job is slower than the old, then a very smart employee is likely to become bored; likewise, if it is faster, a less-smart employee will be overwhelmed.

Furthermore, almost every job requires decision making. Simple jobs have clear-cut alternatives. Complex jobs have fuzzy boundaries and require considerable abstract ability.

You might think of these as problem solving depth and breadth. “Depth” means having deep and profound knowledge of the subject, and “breadth” means knowing about more things.

A depth and breadth example of cognitive ability includes a chemical company I worked with — you know, one of those smelly places filled with pipes, tanks, and windowless corrugated metal buildings. New engineers were expected to master a single step in the manufacturing process such as a specific pump or cooker. As they gained experience, they gradually learned what happens immediately prior to, and after, their equipment.

When they mastered all the pieces-parts, they gradually began to understand the interactive dynamic nature of the whole system, beginning with raw materials and ending with finished product. Depth in this example refers to mastering each single process; breadth refers to mastering the whole chemical enchilada.

Cognitive factors are probably the biggest contributor to job success or failure; especially, when hiring or promoting into jobs where technology changes rapidly, wrong decisions lead to expensive consequences, analysis is more complicated, or alternatives unclear. Common examples include promoting individual contributors to managers, first-line manager to staff manager, or staff manager to C-level executive. In each case the cognitive requirements for the new job are often deeper and broader than the old one.

If you do not know the cognitive requirements for the new job, the cognitive requirements of the old job, or are unable to compare them with the candidate, chances of making a good decision significantly drop. As the gatekeeper to employment, when HR does not have the cognitive skills to quantify and understand cognitive differences between jobs, the whole organization suffers.

Planning/organizing factors

Organization factors are similar to cognitive factors because they have both depth and breadth. In the simplest case an employee is expected to show up on time and get work done. In the most complex case, an employee is expected to manage complex processes using tools such as benchmarking, critical path analysis, project management, and so forth.

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When a salesperson, for example, is promoted to manager, the job changes from managing ones’ own activities to managing the activities of others. Other changes include formulating sales penetration strategies, cross-marketing, developing strategic competitive plans, and so forth.

Is it any wonder why newly-promoted sales managers continue to think and act like salespeople? The job requirements changed, but their skills to accomplish them fell short. Sales managers must not only know and understand the sales process, they must also have the cognitive ability to diagnose selling deficiencies, the planning skills to implement strategies, and, as noted below, be able to coach for individual improvement.

Interpersonal factors

While cognitive and organizational factors are invisible and hard to see, interpersonal skills are different. Specific interpersonal job skills, for example, include effective persuasion, team-work, coaching, and customer service.

Mangers often fail because they cannot coach. Team members fail because they cannot work closely with others. Salespeople characteristically fail because they talk too much. And, customer service people fail because they get worn-down by verbal abuse.

Attitudes, interests, and motivations (AIMS)

Finally, we have AIMS. Individual attitudes, interests, and motivations are virtually impossible to change. In fact, people are willing to kill each other because they have different opinions.

Let be said that although someone might have the right cognitive, organizational and interpersonal skills, if they don’t choose to use them, performance will suffer. You often see this among sales people who avoid cold calling and managers who continue to act like individual contributors.

Gaining control of your human resources requires dividing every job into its critical components, then using that data to select, coach, and promote employees. But this requires a different way of thinking.

Part 1 of this series (7 Obstacles Management Must Address to Achieve a Top 20 Workforce) can be found here. Part 2 (Past Performance Doesn’t Predict Future Results) is available here.


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