Jan 21, 2014

I had a reason to exchange emails recently with one of my HR heroes — Dave Ulrich.

The issue was the strategy for identifying, defining and using competencies. I was glad to learn we agree.

Competencies were actually peripheral to the main point we discussed. A client project over a decade ago was an important learning opportunity and the lesson has been reinforced with numerous clients since then.

The lesson is this: in planning new HR practices and systems it is highly advantageous to involve the managers and employees who will use and be impacted by the system.

Wisdom from Dave Ulrich

I am well aware – and guilty – of thinking that HR “experts” know the answers. There have been numerous articles, written often by consultants or academics, claiming they know how to solve a problem. I’ve published several, although not in recent years.

The issue? It’s “buy-in” or a sense of ownership.

HR practitioners traditionally have made a lot of decisions behind closed doors. We have also purchased “off-the-shelf” answers.

That has been particularly true with anything that involves software. It can be a successful strategy for new systems or resources used by the HR staff but the many articles on the problems with performance management confirm it is a failed approach for systems that will be used by others.

Dave Ulrich apparently has his own heroes. In this case he cited Steve Kerr (And no, not the basketball player. This Steve combined years as CLO at GE and Goldman Sachs with a distinguished academic career. He authored the classic 1975 article, On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.)

Here is the kernel of wisdom in Dave’s message –

Steve Kerr taught me a simple, but profound formula:

Effectiveness (e.g., of competencies or other things) = Quality * Acceptance

Many focus (over focus) on Quality with validity and reliability of methods, but lose on Acceptance because leaders don’t buy in. I like leaders having “high A” because they buy into the competencies by creating them and “owning” their use.”

Getting the scoop from subject matter experts

My lesson came in a project involving an occupation that I fortunately had never had a reason to study – Parole and Probation Officers. It was the District of Columbia and the creation of a new federal agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA).

The agency was formed by merging two failed offices of the District government. One of the tasks was to develop a new performance system for these specialists. Performance appraisals previously had been almost a waste of time.

It was a new approach to me at the time but I went along with the idea of forming a couple of small groups of high performers and one of supervisors to help me understand the job and performance requirements. The focus of our discussions was this: What competencies are important to job success? What makes a star performer?

Their enthusiasm for the discussion was obvious. They were able to identify and define a profile of nine key competencies in two meetings. The groups had no trouble agreeing.

In that role, the POs and their supervisors were knowledgeable “Subject Matter Experts”(SMEs) and their answers were more readily accepted and valid than anything in the literature. No one understands what is important to performance better than experienced incumbents.

We defined rating scales anchored with three levels of performance – outstanding, expected and unacceptable — which were used to evaluate incumbents. I’d like to think my guidance was important but the job knowledge was strictly theirs.

Experienced employees know what is required

As an example, I learned Parole/Probation Officers (POs) serve two roles – law enforcement and social worker. The best performers need to be able to switch between roles instantaneously in meetings with “clients.” That level of flexibility is a key to success.

Similarly, I learned trainee POs need to demonstrate their writing and oral presentation skills since they appear regularly in court. But once they learn the job and are ready for promotion, those skills are taken for granted. At the full performance career stage, higher-level competencies, like Investigative Skills, are used to evaluate performance.

About that same time, I met with “nurse execs” at the National Institutes of Health to discuss pay and performance management. There has been solid hospital-centered research on the competencies associated with outstanding nurse performance. The competencies are intuitively related to success as a nurse and readily accepted.

The thread that runs through this experience is that employees with direct job experience know what’s required better than anyone. They and their managers are far more likely to accept management policies and systems that are intuitively job relevant.

Another valuable lesson is that it when competencies are job specific, it facilitates feedback and coaching. Informal job discussions are essential to effective performance management. It also insures more accurate and readily accepted ratings.

For reasons that go back decades, our performance systems commonly mandate the use of supposedly universal competencies – problem solving, good judgment, etc. The problem is that each manager interprets and applies them differently. It’s not working.

How performance management can be successful

The analogy of a football team helps to explain the problem. Success in each position rides on a different set of competencies. Coaching and player evaluation focuses on job specific skills.

That reality exists in HR. Compensation management requires different skills than recruiting. Benefits management requires another unique skill set; training involves another set of skills. The same competency profile would not be valid for all HR jobs.

The overriding issue is that HR has virtually no involvement in the day-to-day management of performance; it’s a management problem.

For performance management to be successful, the system has to meet the needs of managers and be viewed as fair by job incumbents. They need to accept the system and involving their co-workers in its planning and implementation makes that happen. They can also play an important role in assessing its effectiveness.

Then it’s their system and much more likely to be effective.