Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Hardest Workplace Challenge

Hiring the right people is the hardest part of management.

Many people who are disengaged or actively disengaged at work are great at crafting a resume and interviewing.  Many are even able to get past case studies and batteries of tests.

It is crucial to remember that 30% or less of the entire workforce is engaged.  So a hiring process must determine if a candidate is:

  • Among the 50-60% of the workforce overall that is not engaged.
  • Among the 18-20% of the workforce that is actively disengaged, or
  • A high performer that is “grow and go” or trying to escape an organization that has become a haven for disengaged workers.

Studies over more than 15 years now have shown that breakdowns of engagement in the workforce have varied very little, even among management.

Cities face this challenge as well when they seek to develop or attract “talent,” now well proven to be the best way to grow economically.

It is interesting that 150 years after the Civil War effectively ended here in Durham, and more than 60 years since officials from Durham began to lay the groundwork for its evolution as a center for the creative class, the state of North Carolina has only now closed the workforce gap created by that conflict.

But the talent that drives organizations of any size as well as entire local economies is entrepreneurial and studies by Gallup show that about 5 in every 1000 working age adults possess the talents that underlie entrepreneurship.

Of those Americans who do not already own a business, only 2.5% have very high-level entrepreneurial talent.

Gallup researchers estimate that among the 30 million U.S. students now in middle and high schools, there are 150,000 future “blue-chip” entrepreneurs.

Training, support such as hubs and venture capital funding, as well as educational development are important, but experts find that they won’t create talents such as these where it doesn’t exist, merely foster them where they exist.

Talents and skillsets shouldn’t be confused.

Key to attracting and retaining talent at any level or size of organization is also about understanding and managing turnover.

I finally learned during the last part of my career to break turnover down into preventable and unpreventable, voluntary and involuntary and by tenure and performance level.

Turnover alone is far too broad a metric.  Having a low turnover rate can be indicative of even greater problems than a high turnover rate.  It is important to zero in on positive turnover, e.g.

  • “Grow and go” policies for talented high performers when there aren’t positions to move up
  • “Firing Fast” when new hires turn out not to be as self-advertised
  • Making quick changes when any employee disengages or is found to be “actively disengaged” such as working to undermine others

That’s why it is important to hire slow and then fire fast.  Rarely is an employee going to become truly engaged if this hasn’t occurred in the first six months.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that failing to discharge low performers in a very timely manner is a sure fire way to dishearten, burn out and lose high performers, who on average are 400% more productive.

There are studies that show what high performers want from a workplace, but at the very nitty-gritty, they want to be rewarded, which includes with a workplace free of those who would undermine or hold them back.

This is the element most workplace consultants never plumb but something anyone who reads between the lines of in-depth exit interviews is bound to uncover.  Remediation attempts are fine but nothing works as well as hiring the right people.

This is also true of CEOs and governing board members.  I worked under some incredible boards of directors but it was always clear when individual members were engaged or just putting in the time.  And there was always one it seemed who was actively disengaged or trying to undermine the organization and me.

But one weakness of governing boards as it is for elected bodies is the reluctance to “fire,” discharge or call out unproductive and actively disengaged members.  Most governing boards are reluctant to internally self-govern.

This is also at the heart of why it is so hard to get good candidates to run and when they are elected to keep them.

Look at any elected body and I guarantee you will find the same breakdown of engaged, disengaged and actively disengaged - or worse -that is found in the American workforce.

Of course, just as smaller organizations have a higher level of engagement, so do elected bodies as they come down to the local level.

Unfortunately, the way we finance and conduct elections in America makes it almost impossible for voters to make decisions based on the performance and levels of engagement among candidates for office.

But when it comes to society at large, we have yet to come to grips with engagement in the population.  Officials and the news media seem eager to assign responsibility to school systems and workplaces but engagement begins at the personal level and with parenting.

Dating to records when settlers first immigrated to this continent, including legends and stories passed down by Native Americans; there has always been a concern over the part of society that seems disengaged, or worse, actively disengaged.

Our nature as human beings is to try to “breathe fire” into these individuals.  You can see a denial about this reality today among those who fear that safety nets are an excuse to land rather than bounce back leading some to try to to restore work requirements and volunteerism as a qualification.

A lot of what we call gridlock is a refusal to deal with the same realities in society that are found in the workplace and have inhabited our population from our first settlements.

There is simply a portion of society that is or chooses to be disengaged or worse, actively disengaged.

And believe me; they are certainly far from all being poor.

A business approach would be to carefully distinguish those who just need a hand up from those who refuse lifelines and those who are mentally or physically disabled.

Like businesses do with leakage of goods to theft, maybe for the sake of those who are engaged, we need as a society to come to grips with the fact that a portion of society never will be and simply incorporate it as the cost of doing business, as the cost of society.

If this sounds un-empathetic, those of us who believe they are empathetic need to be aware of research finding that the more empathetic managers are, the more egocentric they tend to become.

The problem with this is that instead of paying attention to scientific, generalizable data, they begin projecting their own values on those they are trying to help.  I stand guilty as charged.

As much as cities and states talk about attracting talent, they focus too much on granting incentives or “big game hunting” that would be better invested in fostering talent at home and becoming places talented people want to live and put down roots.

This begins with placing a premium on:

  • tree canopy, technology and other infrastructure,
  • scenic preservation and elimination of blight,
  • clean air and water,
  • distinctive communities with ample natural space,
  • well-resourced secondary schools,
  • continuous workforce training collaborations including competency-based learning as well as
  • universal day care.

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