Don't fear hiring the 'wrong' person; fear not making good people great

By Neil Patrick

Fear is the new greed. And catching a dose of it is more life threatening to more people than any terrorist or viral epidemic.

Tomorrow’s UK referendum about staying in or leaving the EU has been dominating the media now for what seems like forever. Watching media interviews with the public on this topic reminded me of an old truth - many people fear change and the unknown more than anything else. Most people will stick with a terrible spouse, a toxic employer and a collapsing career rather than face up to the unknown. Their default is to stick with what they know, even to the point of it harming them.

Banks know this human failing well and even have a name for it and make a great deal of money from it. They call it customer inertia. It's what stops customers switching to another bank even when they are really unhappy about their current one.

And this fear is becoming the norm for organisational behaviours too. Risk management has become a profession which has expanded its death grip from sensible steps to mitigate calamity to an all-pervasive mind set which hampers any organisation seeking to do the sorts of things they aspire to yet often fail to successfully implement. Risk avoidance has become a surrogate for good practice.

Things like becoming agile. Being flexible and responsive. Being customer centric. The reason these management buzzwords cause me to retch every time I hear them, isn’t because they are unworthy aspirations, it’s because so few people who espouse them actually practice them, or have even figured out a way to make them a reality instead of a pipedream.

And nowhere is this commitment to mediocrity more prevalent than in the decisions around hiring people. The whole sorry process has (not unlike the EU) taken on a life of its own. It has grown from a sensible desire to avoid hiring totally unsuitable people for jobs, into an over-rigid and over-specified set of requirements which mean hardly anyone can meet such demanding criteria.

This is why so many vacancies remain unfilled. It's why employers claim they cannot find the people they seek. HR and hiring managers are so terrified that they might make a bad decision that they make no decision. So the post remains unfilled often for months, because no-one suitable can be found (allegedly). In the meantime, the organisation limps on, other employees carry extra burdens, and the whole environment becomes more toxic, more pressured and less productive.

Yet these thousands of person shaped holes are not because no-one can be found. It’s because the specifications and requirements are so extensive that almost no-one could meet them. In my career I have interviewed and hired hundreds of people and watched their careers develop. The thing I learned from this was that an average person can outperform a superstar every time if they are provided with a good environment. Put a superstar in a poor environment and the reverse happens.

And the responsibility for creating a good environment is down to employers not employees. Some employers know this and work hard at it. Too many abdicate responsibility and pass the buck for their failures to their employees.

Employers want good people. But good people are made not bought. And if your organisation is capable of turning good people onto superstars, you’ll not only have a more loyal and productive workforce, you’ll enjoy the benefits of people staying with you longer and critically, acquire the capability of attracting more good people more easily.

It’s time for organisations to stop talking about talent acquisition and start practicing talent manufacturing.

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