Building a Top 20 Workforce: The Importance of Managing Employee Skills

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 and build a Top 20 workforce.

At one time,  I held a silly belief. I thought low performance could be fixed by sending people to workshop — and, I purchased only the best workshops.

This belief was supported by theories such as Donald Kirkpatrick’s learning/evaluation levels (i.e., participant reaction, learning, behavior change, tangible results); Mager and Pipe’s system for analyzing poor performance (i.e., determine if the person knew what to do, knew how to do it, and was willing to do it); the Pygmalion effect (i.e., treat someone as if they have the skills and they will rise to the occasion); Hersey-Blanchard’s Situational Leadership (i.e., change leadership style depending on employee job-maturity); and, Hammer’s book on reengineering, to name a few.

The one thing these authors and I mistakenly took for granted, was that under the right conditions, people can become almost anything. We seemed to forget that one cannot make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, cannot train a chicken to tap-dance, or expect workshop attendance to turn an incompetent person into a competent one.

Although a trainer is ecstatic when people rave about attending their workshop, they are among the first to admit they sweat bullets when asked to produce tangible ROI.

Training can improve a skill the candidate already has, but it cannot graft a skill where none existed earlier. Think of it this way: suppose a specific skill ranges from 1 to 10, and the job requires a 7. Attending training might bring a person with a 6 skill-level up to a 7, but a person with a skill-level of 5 might forever be hopelessly underpowered.

Cruise Control

When we are honest with ourselves, we know every organization has a built-in human capital speed control. That is, no matter what senior management wants to achieve or what direction it wants to go, it will be limited by the skills of the people on the payroll.

Like a racehorse wearing hobbles, organizations with a disconnection between what they expect on the job and what they screen pre-hire will always be limited by the current workforce.

Tellers, for example, who are not selected for persuasion, can attend cross-selling workshops until the end of time, but they will always be less productive than tellers who are selected for natural persuasiveness. Managers, who are not selected for their ability to coach and develop subordinates, will always be less effective coaches than managers who are.

Salespeople who think they can “sell anything to anyone” will always be less effective than salespeople who are selected for their ability to discover needs and recommend solutions. And, unless they select for intelligence and organizational ability, organizations that try to grow their own leaders will always be hobbled with a shallow talent pool.

Symptoms of poor pre-hire selection practices include:

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  • Shallow promotion pool;
  • Unnecessarily high turnover;
  • Excessive training or sending broken employees to workshops;
  • A sales staff where 80 percent of the people produce only 20 percent of the sales;
  • Promoting people to management based on performance as individual contributors;
  • Misunderstanding that interviews are only another form of test/assessment, and a very inaccurate one at that; and,
  • Failure of HR to understand its critical role as skills gate-keeper.

The importance of managing employee skills

I wrote earlier that critical human factors include raw learning and problem solving ability; organizational and planning ability; job-specific interpersonal skills; and, attitudes, interests, and motivations. If they are not inherent in your current workforce, changing direction or improving your productivity will be like expecting Grandma to compete in the pentathlon.

So, unless you want to prove to yourself that human skills are exceptionally hard to develop and often stay at the same level throughout a person’s working life, stop stuffing your payroll with marginal performers. They will inhibit your reorganization efforts, be unable to fill roles requiring new skills, and drain your profitability.

Managing employee skills bench strength is as important as managing capital equipment, physical resources, or finances. If you think your current workforce is capable of making any significant skills-shift or go in any direction management chooses, then get ready for a life lesson you won’t forget.

It could be useful in your new job.

Next week, we’ll discuss managers’ impact.