I’ve noticed an interesting trend with some companies I’ve been working with recently: wholesale groups of employees with similar title, roles and responsibilities who are falling way below job performance expectations. Some examples.
One manufacturing firm brought me in because their project management office (PMO) seemed to be ineffective. As part of my assessment, I quickly discovered that almost all of the twenty or so project managers and business analysts were indeed performing poorly. Great people. Smart people. Poor performance. This company had been operating without a PMO manager for some months; he had resigned and the firm wanted to take their time to make the right hire. Was this rudderless PMO suffering because of lack of management? Not really. They had performed just as poorly, perhaps worse, when he was in charge. I discovered that the PMO head had been moved into that new position from Marketing and really had no project management experience. Light bulb!
Another client was struggling with an underperforming training department. This was an IT startup with a fledgling group of about ten training specialists. The trainers had done just fine in the early years. But with sudden growth in the company and an almost doubling of employees, clients and partners in a two-year span, the training group found themselves over their collective noggins. Training was subpar and quality was sporadic. The manager of the group was at a loss and asked me for help. She had been a superstar in product development and had great customer skills so was moved to the training team a year prior to the company growth explosion. She knew the products and her clients inside and out but had experience and background in neither training nor instructional design. Hmmm.
The Uninformed Consumer
In both the case of the PMO and that of the training department, the underperforming employees were hired by managers who had little expertise in the roles of the people they were recruiting, interviewing and hiring. The managers were uninformed consumers so it is no mystery that they ended up with employees mismatched to their jobs.
Those who know me know one of my main tenets is that there are no bad people. So these stories are certainly not about underperforming project managers and trainers who are unmotivated, under-experienced or untalented. No, the issue here is their jobs are a poor match for their skills and experience. In many cases they never should have been in that job in the first place. Certainly every company has a few employees who somehow wend their way through the recruiting (external shifts) or promotion (internal shifts) process only to find themselves in the wrong job. Nothing is perfect. No, what I’m talking about is finding wholesale examples of entire departments or groups of individuals who share the same job role and who are by and large all underperforming because of a hiring manager who happens to be an uninformed consumer.
If you don’t quite know what you’re buying, you’re not quite going to get what you need. The hiring manager who is the uninformed consumer does not know what skills he needs in the people he brings aboard so gets exactly what you would expect: employees ill-suited for what the job should call for. Here’s the typical pathology:
- A senior exec sees a void in an area she knows little about.
- She appoints her most functional manager, her go-to person to head it up. He is also someone who knows little about that area.
- Over the weeks or months, employees leave this group or he sees a need to grow it. In either case, he has to hire new people.
- He works with HR (who are generalists) who ask him what he’s looking for. He does his best, but doesn’t put the right keywords in the job posting. (In my recent engagements, I saw ads for project managers that didn’t refer to “PMP,” “Gantt” or “MS Project.”)
- Résumés come and go, interviews happen on the phone or in person and people are hired by a manager who is not versed in what to look for. (I’ve seen trainers interviewed who hadn’t been asked about instructional design, ADDIE or levels of evaluation.)
This is how the uninformed consumer-manager builds a team comprised mostly of people who are mismatched to the jobs. They are a group of smart, willing people who were told they were right for the job (whether they came from outside the company or from another department). Things might have gone OK for a while, but when the stovetop heat was turned up, they couldn’t scale up and chaos ensued.
Front-Facing Vs. Expert Experience
In the steps above, we can see how the lack of informed decision-making compounds. In Steps 1, 2 and 3, there is an absence of domain expertise. Senior leaders like the rest of us are knowledgeable in most areas of business and expert in only a few. The hubris comes in thinking you are expert in an area in which you’ve only had front-facing experience. See a great project manager or classroom instructor in action and you don’t see the mechanics behind the curtain that led to that great performance.
In Steps 4 and 5 you don’t know what skills and experience to look for, so your hiring decisions are made based on CVs and interviews that impress you the most (again front-facing experience). If you think project management is mainly keeping up communications on statuses, then a résumé that highlights risk management or earned value calculations will go over your head. If you think good training is outstanding command in a stand-up classroom situation, then you’ll miss the interviewer who outlines her experience nailing down explicit behavioral objectives.
So how to avoid the pitfall of the uninformed consumer? First off, avoid the hubris. A good leader is self-aware enough to know the areas in which he is and is not expert. If you are not an expert and that expertise doesn’t lie in your organization, then consider “renting” that expertise for a few months. Personally, I’m not expert at everything, but I’ve been called in by small companies specifically to set up process, identify the profiles of key roles that are needed, help advertise open positions, filter out good résumés from bad, do the interviews and make the hiring recommendations. In the process, I educate the appropriate senior leaders on the role and set up the manager for future long-term success.
During all this, the uninformed consumer becomes informed. If I want to buy a laptop computer, I pretty much know what I want and go ahead and buy. I’m an informed consumer. If I’m remodeling my living room and want to install a once-in-a-lifetime hi def flat screen TV and wireless stereo system, I’m going to hire an expert to understand what I need and make the right equipment purchases and installation on my behalf.
When building a team, start with your own self-assessment of where you are expert and where you are not. If you are not expert, great. You have an opportunity to grow, to round out your portfolio of experience and become an informed consumer in one more area of business.
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© 2013 The Iago Group LLC