Can an Average Worker Become an Elite One?

It seems as if every tech firm attempts to find and hire the “10x developer,” a mythical creature who is capable of designing a complex system in the same amount of time it would take twelve average developers to decide on a pizza order.

And it’s not just developers: across the tech industry, companies drool at the prospect of snatching up star performers in any given discipline, from artificial intelligence to mobile-app development.

There’s just one little problem: real genius is rare.

In their pursuit of legendary brains, companies forget there’s a mass of “pretty good” people out there. Should those hiring managers abandon trying to find an elusive genius, and instead stock teams full of average tech pros? The answer to that question depends on whom you ask.

First, Hire Right

The price of talent is justified by the return it produces. Just ask Dr. John Sullivan, a speaker, blogger and consultant on HR issues. “Firms don’t just want stellar performers, they need them. But they don’t need them in every job,” he said. “Stellar performers only have a high ROI when they are managed well and when they are in a job where the data proves that top performers make a difference.”

Those areas where stellar performers can make a big difference include sales and product development, Sullivan pointed out. But they probably won’t have the same impact on tasks where the data tells you what to do, or in more routine job roles. “Average people are in less demand so they are less likely to be poached away or quit,” he said. “Top performers are more expensive, they are harder to find, and in many cases, they are harder to manage. And since recruiters focus on top performers, they are more likely to be poached away.”

Finding a stellar performer is much like searching for a golden needle in a haystack. Instead of wasting a lot of time searching through all that hay, can a company turn “average” workers into superstars? Sure, but that takes work.

Bret Morgan serves as a senior associate at gothamCulture, a consulting firm specializing in improving corporate culture. “Let’s talk about the dirty little secret nobody discusses regarding stellar and average employees. That secret is that an average employee for one manager is a stellar employee for another,” he said. “If you’re a good manager and have an employee who is the right fit for that type of job, you can turn an average employee into a stellar one. I see it all the time.”

It begins with “finding someone who is passionate about the work. I will hire someone who is passionate about the job and has the basic knowledge, skills, and abilities over someone who can do the job in their sleep almost every time,” Morgan continued. “In the short term, it is more work. However, in the long term it pays off in spades… Doing it right often takes more time in the short-term, but frees up time long-term.”

But “hiring right” requires the company to clearly define the parameters of the job, then match a candidate with that opening, said Cheryl Roubian, director of talent acquisition and management at Greenhouse.io, which makes application tracking software for HR. The right hire is engaged and thinking through their tasks; a mismatch will often exit the day tired and demoralized.

Management Requires Measurement

“If you want to manage something, put a number on it.” This old business saying has become a cliché, yet rests upon a kernel of truth. Managers must measure what their employees do, and that data is often used to improve worker performance.

At Greenhouse, the firm found inspiration in consulting firm Deloitte’s decision to abandon forced employee ranking for a more holistic measure, as chronicled in the Harvard Business Review.

“We decided to take a similar approach, asking managers about how people do their jobs and facilitate a conversation (about people),” Roubian said. That prompts the manager to pause and think about employee performance, set the right expectations, and do whatever necessary to make the worker successful: “We help the company do better by helping the people do better.”

But for Sullivan, performance management is more straightforward. “You start by measuring performance directly with numbers and dollars. You give employees goals that can be measured objectively and then you see what percentage of those goals are met,” he said. “Salespeople are always measured on their sales, so the numbers do the ranking. It is this more objective approach that eliminates most assessment issues. “

The key to performance assessment is to do it frequently, Sullivan added: “And next [is] to provide feedback on how to improve.” He prefers more direct, numbers-based measurement: workers should know how their work rates against a baseline. Managers need to stay in contact with their reports, recognizing positive performance and identifying problems to solve.

GothamCulture’s Morgan is a little more skeptical about measurement. “The first thing to understand about performance reviews is that they are often misused and misunderstood by the vast majority of companies and people that employ them,” he said. “They are incredibly complex and there is no real ‘right way’ to do them.”

Morgan pointed out that forced rankings are great for ordering people within a particular group—but not every group is the same. The stellar performer in one group may only be average in another. “So, how then do you fairly compensate across groups? With forced rankings, you can’t.”

Every Manager is a Constant Gardener

Turning an average worker into a better one is much like gardening. A good word is like fertilizer. Criticism is like pruning to get a stronger plant. And there is also weeding to get rid of the deadbeats. Now that Millennials make up an increasing share of new hires, companies will need to change how they hire and review.

“With the Millennial population on the rise, we must look at our performance management differently.” Morgan said. “ A new trend in performance evaluation is more frequent and causal review sessions. Here’s the widely known and rarely followed rule for performance evaluation: You should be doing it every time you have a formal meeting with your ‘supervisees’ and you should meet with them no less than once every other week.”

In other words, some sort of evaluation every two weeks, even if it’s as simple as taking five minutes to thank an employee for a job well done. And there are certain activities that are always off the table. “Don’t yell at or threaten your employees. It’s not motivating. It builds resentment.” Morgan stressed. “They will likely become maliciously compliant.”

Sullivan’s outlook is more business-like. “Companies have learned to deal with increased rates of turnover. Because of the fast-moving business world and the introduction of new technologies, the jobs themselves are constantly changing,” he said. “So whether a new employee or an old employee learns a new job, doesn’t matter as much as it did when jobs remained unchanged for long periods of time.”

“I think the debate about Millennials is a red herring,” Roubian said. All such issues fall away if companies stay focused on hiring the right person and talking about developing and growing skills. “People want to care about what they are doing every day. They do not like throwing eight hours a day down a toilet.”

Cash Does Not Guarantee Motivation

Rewards can fuel (or refuel) motivation and engagement. They need not be monetary, but they do need to be meaningful.

Roubian recounts one instance at Greenhouse in which a top salesperson crossed the bonus threshold. Co-workers noted the long hours he put in, and that he was spending less time with his family. The reward was a couple of unscheduled days off to spend at home with his wife and kids while co-workers covered his duties in the office.

“The reward was specific to the individual,” Roubian explained. “That is the approach we try to take with people.”

Promotion, once a traditional motivator in the corporate world, may be less important now. “In today’s world, most organizations—especially in high-tech—have a flat organizational structure. So promotions are less common because there are fewer management jobs to move up into,” Sullivan said. “There are many motivators, including flexible work hours, working at home, whom you work with, additional training.” The key is a personalized plan that maximizes individual performance.

And even the most motivated employee—average or stellar—will leave a company if their job turns stale. “If you do post-exit interviews, where you delay the interview until three to six months after the employee left, you can get a much better idea of why people are leaving,” Sullivan noted. “And although money does play a part, it is usually in addition to other factors like having a bad manager, not growing, insufficient challenge and unexciting work.”

The performance of an employee is often a reflection of the manager. “There are the few self-motivated employees who will flourish in any environment,” Morgan added. “Those employees are usually highly compensated and get offers to move from company to company quite often. This makes them expensive and hard to retain.”

The better bet “is to develop yourself into a better manager and your average employees into stellar ones. This pays dividends with all your employees and not just the one you are looking to hire, “ Morgan concluded. “The time you spend developing your people instead of looking for the needle in a haystack will pay off in the long run.”

Image Credit: Sunny studio/Shutterstock.com

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