Building a Top 20 Workforce: The Key Is Measuring “How” Instead of “What”

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.

Job performance is often discussed as something tangible, but experience shows otherwise.

For example, what’s “leadership,”  “budgeting,” or a “successful response to market forces?” They are all commonly referred to as competencies, but closer examination shows they are highly complicated, fraught with outside influences, virtually useless hiring and promotion indicators, and do not actually describe specific human skills necessary to accomplish them.

In other words, they don’t adequately explain steps required to achieve them.

Of course, every job includes a set of expectations measured at the end of the month or quarter, but the real key to successfully achieving expectations is by understanding hour-by-hour individual skills necessary to achieve them.

Think of individual skills as stepping stones. Athletes, for example, are expected to win, but not by cheating or showing unsportsmanlike conduct. The same goes for business. We expect employees to achieve goals, but not at the expense of destructive behavior, cutting corners, or making poor decisions. Assuring results are aligned with stepping stones requires working backward from results to identify critical skill areas that can be measured and coached.

Ready, Go, Stop!

It pains senior managers, but they have to abandon the idea of “WHAT was achieved” and focus instead on “HOW it was achieved.” You see, results, alone, do not tell much.

For example, I once knew a sales manager who consistently exceeded his quota by encouraging customers to over-order, then allowed them to return the excess merchandise 45 days later. Senior executives only saw his shipped-sales record so they promoted him to CEO — a position he held until he was canned for non-performance. My point is any organization that does not understand the skills necessary to achieve results, cannot effectively manage or select employees who will be in the top 20 percent.

In my career experience, you don’t need to get fancy with stepping-stone competencies. I once worked for a large consulting organization whose president went to the mountain every few years and came back with his great big book of (over 100) competencies.

Did human behavior change? Not hardly. Did the “how’s” leading to “results” change? Nope! This fellow just changed his mind from time to time. Trust me, if you know enough about statistics to do a basic factor analysis of competencies, you will find the same four performance factors at work for almost all jobs: cognitive, organizational, interpersonal, and AIMS (attitudes, interests, and motivations) that vary with the job.


Competency confusion

A good stepping-stone competency system is simple, clear, how-oriented, and can be measured in a short period of time.

The reasons for being simple and clear are self-evident. Complex competency descriptions usually lead to confusion about what was actually measured. Short-time frames are necessary both for efficiency and to minimize the effects of outside influence. Cognitive ability, for example, can be measured using abstract and verbal ability tests, analyzing a job-related case, in-baskets, solving problems, and so forth.

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Selecting candidates whose scores match job requirements will always deliver better results than selecting people who score too high or too low. Let’s look at few sample (and oversimplified) positions using our four factors.

  • Managers will almost always fail if they don’t have the cognitive ability to make good decisions;
  • Salespeople will almost always fail if they do not have interpersonal skills to discover client problems;
  • Sales managers will almost always fail if they are not skilled coaches; and ,
  • Customer service people will almost always fail if they do not have the right AIMS to withstand abuse and serve people.

If you only look at results, you will almost always miss information about critical candidate skills.

Having the right stepping stones

Think about competencies as the link between a specific candidate and a specific job. Consider effective leadership, anticipating and reacting to market forces to ensure a competitive position, managing a budget effectively, inspiring and motivating the team, appreciate diversity. You have heard them all.

These are NOT stepping-stone competencies. They are expectations and objectives. They assume  – and this a BIG assumption — the candidate has the right stepping-stones to make them happen. Good luck with that!

Effective leadership, for example, requires a candidate to be able to analyze a situation, choose among alternative courses of action, plan an effective course of action, work with subordinates to coach and develop productive behavior, and follow-up appropriately. If a candidate has these core abilities, it makes no difference if he or she is leading a platoon of soldiers or a project team charged with managing a product launch. In other words, leadership is effective when like a puzzle all the pieces fit together.

The important thing to take away from this is that the key to effective selection or promotion is NOT focusing on the “what” — but, focusing on the “how.” That is the only way to identify and measure whether candidates have job skills.

Next week, we’ll learn people are not plastic.