Square Pegs and Round Holes

The idea of redirecting recruiters toward internal movement and succession planning seems like a good one, but I’m afraid it is another dead-end recruiting street unless some basic principles are applied.

Wrong-Way Thinking

There is a common fallacy among a significant number of people that anyone can do anything: a good-looking applicant will make a high performing employee; a high performing employee will make a good manager; or, a highly skilled employee in Job A will also be a highly skilled employee in Job B.

Sorry, folks. We all know from experience this is general nonsense. Stories are legend about a top salesperson or technical whiz who failed as a manager; or, about a marketing whiz-kid who fast-tracked into the executive suite only to crash and burn on the job.

Let’s put this puppy to bed. The only time that past performance in Job A accurately predicts future performance in Job B is when both jobs are require virtually the same competencies. If Job B is different, requires more competencies or better quality ones, all bets are off. In fact, the only reliable way someone might even guess at future performance is to know the employee screwed up his or her last job.

Consider the Peter Principle. If you don’t know the term, either Google “Peter Principle” or look it up here. In short, Dr. Laurence Peter gave multiple examples of how employees tend to rise in the organization until they reach their natural level of incompetence. His message: every time that job requirements change — or an employee changes jobs — there is a strong probability that they will not be competent in the new role. Although Peter uses corporate ladder-climbing as his examples, his principles apply equally to all people holding jobs. The Peter Principle is a classic must-read for every recruiter or hiring manager.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll explain why the Peter-Principle is alive and well.

Little Observations = Big Assumptions

The world is a huge, complicated, and unpredictable place. If we had to investigate thoroughly every situation before making a decision, we would run out of hours in the day. So, evolution has blessed/cursed us with an unconscious tendency to make snap decisions based on something we learned earlier. For example, we consider taller people to be more skilled than shorter people (e.g., adults are always bigger than kids); we assume that best-dressed applicants will be better performers than other ones (e.g., we equate attractiveness with skill); or, we assume bad job experiences were the applicant’s fault (e.g., blame the victim).

We call this the halo/horns effect: or, use a snippet of data to form an overall opinion (i.e., a spelling mistake must mean incompetence; a charismatic employee is also a competent one; or, graduating from an Ivy League college is better than a public school).

Little observations often lead to big mistakes.

The Interview Hammer and the Applicant Nail

Ask any recruiter manager who relies on (unstructured) interviews and he or she is likely to swear by their accuracy. Look at any sales manager and he or she will say they are a good judge of character. However, when you look at the employees hired by the same person, you will wonder, “What was this guy/gal smokin’ when they hired the troglodites?

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There is a major disconnect between being asking get-to-know-you questions and evaluating job skills; industry-wide research shows it to be about 50%. That is, interviews may screen out blatantly unqualified applicants, but it’s a coin-toss whether survivors have sufficient job skills. Ask yourself, did the person who interviewed/hired you really know whether you could do the job or not?

Any recruiter or manager who is only familiar with interviews (or a silly training test), is doomed to believe to think one tool can measure every job skill.

Job Funnels

Jobs are more than titles. They are more like an upside-down funnel. As a general rule, higher-level jobs need more and better competencies. Take sales, for example. A true professional salesperson has exceptional rapport building skills, is skilled asking the right questions at the right time, only makes presentations that fit the prospect’s needs, and can assist buyers to overcome the fear of making a bad decision.

Now, move the salesperson into a management role. The job requirements change significantly. In addition to individual sales skills, the person must become a coach, a planner, and a sales diagnostician. Skills that came naturally as a salesperson must now be broken down into hundreds of teachable elements. In addition to having the right skills, the new manager must be as excited with the thrill of the coach as well as the thrill of the close.

The following job roles point-out a few of these differences:

  1. Individual contributors must have skills to do the job without assistance;
  2. In addition to their individual contributor skills, first line managers must also be skilled at coaching, planning, and diagnosing subordinate shortcomings;
  3. Mid-managers usually require skills in group influence, tactics, analysis, planning, and mentoring; and,
  4. Executive managers are usually required to be strategists, navigators, and motivators.

We can’t always rely on job titles to describe job functions. I have seen occasions where a fancy title disguises an individual contributor, as well as complicated jobs with simple titles. The key to successful performance is to know what exactly what skills are required; then, use a variety of structured interviews, pencil and paper tests, and simulations that accurately evaluate them.


16 Comments on “Square Pegs and Round Holes

  1. Another excellent column, Wendell! Succession planning is critical to any organization’s success but done incorrectly it will quickly spell that organization’s demise. Whether it is nepotism, cronyism, or the examples you describe so well it is very easy for an organization to shoot itself in the foot in the name of “best practices”.

    When embarking on any course of action it is critical for the organization to determine if it’s best for the organization in it’s current environment; if the practice is consistent with the organization’s culture; and if the organization has the right people to implement the plan or the ability to train these people to take on their new positions.

    It is so easy for organizations to roll out fancy succession plans that soon start to gather dust as promotions are handed out in the same unsupported, ill thought out way. This soon leads to a morale slump followed by an exodus of talented people. We’ve all seen this happen.

    Thanks for shining a light on this.
    Ron Katz

  2. I do agree that this is an excellent article. However, it addresses causes when what is needed is soultions.

    In the hiring process, if you rely on interviews alone (no matter what type or how experienced you are) you will, on a national average, have about a 14% success rate with your new hires.

    You are exactly right an square pegs in round holes. People are much better at some things than others. Job Matching and behavioral predicting take your hiring success rate up to nearly 75%.

    In addition, if you create Benchmarks for Top Performers in every job description in your organization, you can create a succession plan … for your entire organization (and this will be entirely objective instead of the old [and inaccurate] way of writing a succession pla based on wishes and opinions.

    What am I talking about? Assessments. And not DISC Model or Meyers-Briggs (which are not legal for hiring). Behavioral Assessments that predict employee behavior, create legal interview questions, create succession planning, write coaching and improvement plans for you, and even help you with internal promotions.

    This happens to be what I do (and maybe why I am so passionate about it) … I have seen it work time and time and time again.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, don’t toot your own horn, but if you are interested, here’ my info.

    By the way, if I wasn’t truly interested in what you are saying, believe in what you are saying, and care deeply, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you for the article and viewpoint.

    Rich Hayes
    TR Hayes and Associates
    Workforce Crisis Solution Experts
    206 Cooper Drive
    Cascade, Montana 59421
    Ph: 406-468-9882
    or 406-468-4069
    Cell: 406-218-9745
    Fax: 406-468-4069

    Getting You Better People
    for Better Business

  3. Thanks Wendell, another excellent contribution on this topic. Your message can never be heard too many times.

    As I say constantly in my recruitment workshops, “there’s no point hiring someone just because you like them. If you haven’t assessed their competence or motivation to do the job, and they turn out to be a poor performer, you won’t like them for very long”

  4. Just a note for the readers, assessment is just a fancy word for test. Tests include interviews, applications, simulations, profiles, and so forth.

  5. Hi, Wendall.

    I am an avid reader of this post and appreciate your comments and viewpoints.

    An update, though, in all fairness to the readers. You are correct, at least for the past, that assessments were a fancy name for test. They assigned labels (which disable a person essentially) and could be pass/fail. Just as the recent presidential results have shed light that “The Times They Are a Changin'” and that new generations and cultures are coming of age, so too have some assessments. And I emphatically say ‘some’ assessments. For those assessments that are tests, (i.e. Meyers-Briggs, DISC Model, etc) they are, indeed only tests and are illegal to use in the hiring process.

    There are a few assessments that predict employee behavior compared to Job Benchmarks, do not label, and are not pass/fail (for these assessments, you cannot fail who you are). The ProfileXT is such a tool. It is not pass/fail. Instead, it is informative.

    The assessment I refer to passes or exceeds the Department of Labor’s 13 Guidelines for use of assessments in the hiring process (I will forward them to anyone interested).

    The Department of Labor recognizes the importance of using
    assessments to put the right people in the right jobs and even says, ”The appropriate use of professionally developed assessment tools enables organizations to make more effective employment-related decisions than
    the use of observation or random decision making.”

    The Harvard Business Business Review sponsored a study of 360,000 people and followed them for nearly 20 years through their careers (Herbert M. Greenberg and Jeanne Greenberg Sept-Oct 1980 HBR … copies available upon request). Here is part of what they said, “How the assessment is done is not important, however; what is important is whether the technique employed does indeed measure the person’s key job attributes. If the candidate possesses the appropriate personality qualities motivating him or her to perform well, the employer can provide the needed product knowledge and functional skills. But when the individual lacks the essential dynamics, training cannot fill the gap.”

    Eighty percent of employee turnover is avoidable. Almost every employer will cut the costs of expensive
    employee turnover when they use Profiles assessments.

    In addition, employers can eliminate the costs of avoidable legal actions. This is a case where “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (or many pounds) of cure.”
    Hiring the wrong person can turn into an employment nightmare:
    1. One out of three businesses will be sued this year over an employment issue.
    2. Employers can be held liable for their employees’
    behavior on and off the job.
    3. Subjective hiring can lead to charges of illegal
    discrimination by rejected job candidates.

    When used properly the assessment I refer to can be used to coach, motivate, and manage employees throughout their careers.

    60% of a manager’s time is spent fixing people problems
    and 40% to reach companies’ goals. Reducing people problems give managers more time to work toward achieving the company’s goals.

    Lastly, training programs become more effective when tailored to the specific needs and characteristics of an individual. The idea that a cross-section of employees will respond positively when provided with the same type of training is passé. To be effective, training must be tailored to each individual. With most companies spending between 50/60% of their income on people costs, this means there is tremendous potential for increased dollar
    profits when efficiencies in Human capital investment are achieved through the use of assessments

    Again, I respect your viewpoint and opinion. However, to categorize all assessments as test is simply not fair to those assessments that are not tests.

  6. Hi Rich..Help me understand…If an instrument is designed to evaluate a job domain, if is has questions, and if the answers to those questions are scored and used to qualify or disqualify an applicant…Why is that not a “test”?

  7. Wendell and Rich,
    Whether or not a behavioral interview should be called a “test” doesn’t matter much to me. I wonder, though, can a behavioral assessment be created for job roles (versus job titles)? Can a behavioral assessment be used to identify if an employee is best suited for individual contributor, first-line manager, mid-manager, or executive roles?

    I’m not looking for an assessment vendor. I just want to dialogue about the use of assessments to support talent management.


  8. Wendall,

    Thanks for the response. That’s just it … no labels; no scores … no pass … no fail … only job match behavioral prediction. Have you had the opportunity to look at an assessment such as the ProfileXT and what it does for a job candidate and then new employee? Our assessment does not qualify or disqualify a candidate either. It helps an employer generate legal interview questions so they can better make an objective decision instead of a subjective one on their own. It also presents the training and skill set development that they will need to do to help that new employee become a top performer. Based on what they see and know from meeting the candidate, it helps them make a better informed hiring or promotion decision.

    Gretchen, in response to your comment, yes a ProfileXT creates results for a job role as opposed to a title. In fact, the employer creates job benchmarks through a process of determining their existing top performers, a Job Analysis, and Job Patterns. It also identifies where and how an individual is best suited to integrate and succeed within a company. It also can be used for existing employees in the promotion process.

    I also am involved here on ERE because I enjoy the dialogue and experiencing different points of view and opinions. I do not look for right or wrong and value the input. While any business is looking for networking possibilities, my intent here is only to gain input and interact with the fine people in these postings.

    Thank you for that opportunity.


  9. Hi Gretchen,

    Expert job analysts assign individual job titles into a smaller number of job familes. Each family has similar competencies. Regardless of the size of the company, after you strip-away the technical knowledge component, I have yet to see an organization with more than 15 families.

    Your intuition wisely led you to identify four of the most common families. I’m going to grossly simpilify this, but: individual contributors should be measured on their ability to perform the job; front-line managers should be evaluated on their ability to coach and develop others; mid-managers on their ability to analyze and solve resource problems; and executives on thier abstract intelligence as dark-side personality derailers. The bigger the job, the more things there are to be assessed.

    Of course, that all has to do with individual ability to perform the job…political BS issues are always ready to undermine your decisions. So, yes, you can assess a person’s ability to do a job…but, you can seldom anticipate the environmental effects that may either help or hinder performance.

    Since this is a public forum, I do have to put a few things staight. I am pretty sure the scientists at Profiles International would never advise a user to rely on the claim of a vendor..users ALWAYS have to do validity work themselves; the EEOC and DOL do not certify the validity of anyones’ selection tools (unless they have just completed an audit)…they only suggest what has to be done to follow and document best practices; furthermore, I don’t know about you, but I would have a hard time explaining why someone would use a test (by whatever name you call it) in pre-hire if they had no intention of using the scores.

    In conclusion, I don’t have all the facts; and, Rich may have considerably more education and job experience in the field than I do; but even the developers of the comprehensive ONet job profiles advise users to not take their job definitions at face value.

  10. Help me here! I don’t want a commercial, Rich. (grin) I do want to understand if anyone has used The TTI Success Insights® – report to help screen sales people. It has 4 components. Can they sell, Will they sell, How they sell, and Why they sell. So far we have had some great feedback and the assessment has really prepared us for managing the individuals, and point out their areas of strength and opportunity. Although it is pricey for a small/midsize company – we think it is a worthy investment. We use it as part of our screening – only one part. The interview and background checks are critical. I have used Profiles PI, but with less success. It seemed more ‘fluffy’ than the TTI. I’m wondering if any readers have experience with this assessment, and if there is an assessment out there any better for Sales. I did not find information that this test is valid, however our experience with it has been spot on. Any insight here would be much appreciated.

  11. OK..another self-report test.

    Here is the issue we have with self-reports: they only report what the subject says (or believes about himself or herself). If you have 100% trust in the person, know with 100% certainty hie or she will not distort responses, and know with 100% certainty their personal opinion directly translates into hard selling skills, then go for it! Otherwise…not so good.

    Think of sales as a two-sided coin. On side 1 we have all the necessary sales skills (e.g., ability to discover needs, abillity to engender trust, ability to learn and solve problems, and ability to stay organized). Please notice that I emphasized ABILITY…not motive. Side 1 ability usually accounts for about 90% of sales succcess.

    On side two, you have all the related attitudes, interests and motivations associated with selling. Depending on what study you read, Side 2 usually accounts for 0 to 10%. Based upon what I read, the TTI looks like a Side 2 kind of test.

    When I assess salespeople (or candidates for sales positions) they tend to fall into predictable groups. In the first screen, they separate into people who can “blow smoke” with the best of them, and people who crash and burn on the spot. I suspect the TTI is a first screen instrument.

    However, when I run the smoke-blowers through an actual job sample (i.e., where I expect them to demonstrate rapport-building, thorough questioning, and presentation skills) only about 1 in 6 pass. These are Side 1 abilities that cannot be faked. And, anyone who knows selling, knows that the secret of highly effective salespeople is based on their ability to build strong trusting relationships with customers, discovering and solving their problems.

    If you want the highest hit-rate for a sales role, you have to measure both sides of the coin. Otherwise, you have to take an applicant’s claims on face value.

  12. Dr. Williams; Appreciate very much your insight. The TTI does have a compentency portion – one reason we like it. True the other parts are self report, and show a validity predictor to try to screen the ‘smoke blowers’
    I’m interested in what you said below
    “However, when I run the smoke-blowers through an actual job sample (i.e., where I expect them to demonstrate rapport-building, thorough questioning, and presentation skills) only about 1 in 6 pass. These are Side 1 abilities that cannot be faked. And, anyone who knows selling, knows that the secret of highly effective salespeople is based on their ability to build strong trusting relationships with customers, discovering and solving their problems. ”
    Could you share anymore information about this process?
    Also, interested in anyone who has actually used the TTI. Would like to know if they have had success.
    Dr. Williams – is there a test on the market you have used (Other than PI, which I don’t like) that you have found successful for Sales?
    Thank you for your continued contributions to this site.

  13. Interesting…what kind of competency does it measure and how does it do it?

    In my experience the best, most accurate and most trustworthy test is one closest to the actual job. That is, a problem solving test when learning and intelligence is critical; a motivation test when hunter/farmer is critical; a detail test when organization is critical; and, a one-on-one simulation with a trained role player when rapport building and fact finding are important.

    Also, in my experience, no matter how well they do in the interview, only the best salespeople can perform on the simulation. This is not a sell-me-the-ash-tray exercise…it is a who-are-you-what-do-you-want-I-don’t-need-it exercise.

    To the best of my knowledge, no one vendor assesses all four areas…rather they try to cram too much into a generic one-size-fits-all test that can be mass-marketed or sold thru reps.

    Think of it as a flight simulator for sales….I either train my clients how to assess salespeople or I do it for them. Sorry…no short-cuts here. You either measure it pre-hire or accept being wrong at least half the time –more for sales and management positions.

  14. Wendell,

    I really respected you … until now. Your comment about not liking a product crosses the line.

    That, unfortunately, s not what these blogs are about.

    Exiting now and unsubscribing.

  15. Wow, taking your marbles and going home… In defense of Dr. Williams; He did not cross the line. I asked him a specific question, and he gave a fair answer. I have used the product I believe to which you are referring, and I’m the one who said in MY experience, I didn’t like it. As a practitioner, I have every right to share my experience. I don’t sell (like some try to do on these threads RICH) and I don’t author these articles.
    The threads here have been respectful, and informative.

  16. With all due respect to Rich, I wouldn’t be too hard on him. Psychometrics is a very deep field and no matter how enthusiatic someone is about the product they sell, it will still have a full share of pro’s and cons. Some more than others.

    As a general rule, tests that ask questions that cannot be verified (e.g., sales, preferences, styles, and so forth) may seem attractive on the face, but their predictability is almost always “iffy”. Whereas tests that cannot be faked (e.g., problem solving, case studies, role-plays, and so forth) are more narrow, but usually highly accurate.

    On the other hand people often get rewarded or promoted based on things that have more to do with their schmoozing ability than job skills…

    Go figure!

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