Recruiting talented people31-May-2006
I have recently taken a not-random-enough-for-my-liking walk through management self-help text books, management consulting residue and organizational change activities. I was reading my usual suspect blogs looking for contrarian refreshment when a comment referred me to a site that half the universe probably knows about already and has been hiding from me.
He writes pretty well.
The article I stumbled upon was “The Talent Myth” from July 2002. “The Talent Myth” is a fascinating examination of one aspect of the pathology of Enron’s downfall — emphasizing talent without effectively rewarding performance.
Gladwell begins by noting that McKinsey consultants convinced Enron that they should pursue a policy of employing only the most talented and intelligent people and letting them find their own way of contributing. “They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems.”
“The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent,” Lay, Enron’s former chairman and C.E.O., told the McKinsey consultants when they came to the company’s headquarters, in Houston. Or, as another senior Enron executive put it to Richard Foster, a McKinsey partner who celebrated Enron in his 2001 book, “Creative Destruction,” “We hire very smart people and we pay them more than they think they are worth.”
There are many organizations that pride themselves on hiring the “top X%” of available talent. I have worked for a couple who claim different top percentages. Joel Spolsky has an interesting short essay explaining why he thinks this is a commonly held delusion:
It’s pretty clear to me that just because you’re hiring the top 0.5% of all applicants for a job, doesn’t mean you’re hiring the top 0.5% of all software developers. You could be hiring from the top 10% or the top 50% or the top 99% and it would still look, to you, like you’re rejecting 199 for every 1 that you hire.
While Joel cautions against deluding yourself that you’re employing the top X% of developers, Gladwell sets out to explore a different thesis:
But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?
What if McKinsey consultants were wrong? What if hiring smart people and letting the best performing and most talented people pursue their own interests didn’t provide the right outcome for the business?
The article contains uncomfortably familiar scenarios and observations for anyone who has experienced a gamut of management styles:
Wagner and Robert Sternberg, a psychologist at Yale University, have developed tests of this practical component, which they call “tacit knowledge.” Tacit knowledge involves things like knowing how to manage yourself and others, and how to navigate complicated social situations. Here is a question from one of their tests:
“You have just been promoted to head of an important department in your organization. The previous head has been transferred to an equivalent position in a less important department. Your understanding of the reason for the move is that the performance of the department as a whole has been mediocre. There have not been any glaring deficiencies, just a perception of the department as so-so rather than very good. Your charge is to shape up the department. Results are expected quickly. Rate the quality of the following strategies for succeeding at your new position.
a) Always delegate to the most junior person who can be trusted with the task.
b) Give your superiors frequent progress reports.
c) Announce a major reorganization of the department that includes getting rid of whomever you believe to be “dead wood.”
d) Concentrate more on your people than on the tasks to be done.
e) Make people feel completely responsible for their work.
Wagner finds that how well people do on a test like this predicts how well they will do in the workplace: good managers pick (b) and (e); bad managers tend to pick (c). Yet there’s no clear connection between such tacit knowledge and other forms of knowledge and experience. The process of assessing ability in the workplace is a lot messier than it appears.”
The article also notes a potential consequence of emphasising intelligence over performance that I was surprised by:
[...]Dweck gave a class of preadolescent students a test filled with challenging problems. After they were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer. Then Dweck asked the children to write a letter to students at another school, describing their experience in the study. She discovered something remarkable: forty per cent of those students who were praised for their intelligence lied about how they had scored on the test, adjusting their grade upward. They weren’t naturally deceptive people, and they weren’t any less intelligent or self-confident than anyone else. They simply did what people do when they are immersed in an environment that celebrates them solely for their innate “talent.” They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened they have difficulty with the consequences.
I think I learned more from reading this article than two weeks cringing at tortured metaphors in best-seller management texts.
I think I’ll spend a while longer at Malcolm Gladwell’s site.