Properly measuring employees’ work takes the right technology—and the right questions.
By Roger Edwards
During the last year, one of the major challenges for HR professionals has been to identify and retain high-caliber individuals to support organizational survival and growth. For those companies financially inhibited from sourcing and hiring additional talent, the focus has been looking at the internal infrastructure—pinpointing those individuals with that something special. Organizations continue to struggle with assessing the potential in an individual’s ability to succeed when faced with future challenges. In fact, the way organizations are actually identifying and assessing potential is, in many cases, depressing.
In many businesses, the process of reviewing current talent has been trivialized to the point where it becomes worthless, at best, and misleading or indefensible, at worst. Many organizations openly admit that management is not able to produce valid and reliable assessments of on-job performance that they frequently observe. Many use forced ranking, calibration meetings, and capped compensation models to counteract the adverse effects. Yet those same organizations happily ask those same managers to “assess” potential, promotability, and/or readiness on simple Likert-type scales. If a manager cannot assess performance that they see frequently, how can they assess, using a similar process and scale, what performance will look like down the road? It makes no sense.
These flawed processes are derivatives from times of yore—when management structures, communications methods, and manual processes did not support any better process. Unfortunately, many technology providers have seized on the pain that organizations are feeling to simply automate the flawed processes. This has created the illusion of solving the problem.
Fortunately, organizations looking externally typically follow more robust procedures. Usually, they are looking for potential to fulfil a particular role (anywhere from graduate entrant to senior executive) using a job description and person specification. This, at least, provides a set of criteria that can bring greater objectivity to the assessment. Technology in this space has progressed dramatically and now supports these assessment processes: web-based ability and intelligence tests, psychometric personality profiles, and preference and value profiles.
All the above brings us back to the fundamental question, “When assessing potential, what is it you are trying to measure?”
There is an ever-widening range of opinions about what to measure when assessing potential. Employees with potential may:
• Exhibit behaviors or competencies in current performance quartiles;
• Exhibit behaviors or competencies above hierarchical level; and
• Exhibit an elusive single ingredient (self-awareness, emotional intelligence, or learning agility)
In the business world, it is important to ensure the contextual fit of an individual with the organization’s needs. For example, if the organization is driving a long-term cultural transformation, having leaders who can quickly flex, adapt, and execute the required new culture may be what is required i.e., a definition of “potential.”
When reflecting on the many different models of potential, keep four key factors in mind, even if they are applied in different ways:
1. General Intelligence or GI. The ability of an individual to quickly assimilate new and complex data, make sense of it, spot themes and trends, balance hard and soft data, and make contextually significant decisions.
2. Emotional Drivers or EQ. The core drive and resilience to face the competitive world, balanced with self-awareness, humility, and an ability to adapt and flex style, learn continuously, and engage others to achieve beyond their own expectations.
3. Business Acumen. In today’s world, this is not only about understanding business and financial models but also understanding business politics, and creating and navigating networks to achieve results.
4. Historic Performance Record. Last year’s annual performance rating is not enough. Is there a sufficient record of the person facing new challenges and bringing to bear those capabilities and behaviors that enable them to succeed time after time?
In summary, we need to create a framework, relevant to our business, but bear in mind that in an ever-changing competitive world, the skills required for tomorrow may keep changing. This gives real credence to models containing self-awareness and learning agility as key elements in assessments of potential.
Having identified what potential looks like, the analyst must determine how it can be assessed. Some effective tools are available:
• Ability and intelligence tests to measure the “raw horsepower under the hood” have been around for some time. Good research and validation suggest that general intelligence is a reasonable predictor for success;
• Psychometric personality profiles and competency assessment tools;
• Assessment centers for assessing emotional intelligence and aspects of IQ; and
• Developmental tools such as 360-degree feedback to provide additional views on potential (although this approach is fundamentally flawed.)
Two of the key challenges: The methods above produce multiple assessments, which need to be interpreted and combined, and they don’t help to measure some of the newly identified critical criteria such as learning agility.
In recent years, technology has been both helpful and a hindrance when measuring potential. Some vendors have over-simplified processes so much that they have trivialized the assessment process.
On a positive note, some technology vendors ensure that their process collects quality data (comprehensive, valid, reliable, differentiating, useful, and defensible). This is where technology truly comes into its own, collecting data on multiple dimensions from multiple sources and maximizing the quality of that data at source. For example, it can:
1. Administer ability tests and other psychometrics directly to participants, reminding them as appropriate and ensuring that data is compiled into a useful format for assessment purposes. By its very nature, it ensures everyone has a similar experience, thereby eliminating extraneous interferences and reducing administration and costly assessment centers.
One of the exciting developments in the area of assessing potential is seeing the creation of online simulations, which combine a variety of measures into a single event. This is not just observable behavior that might relate to a competence, but a measure of a person’s ability to learn from new data and see how they adapt and use it in their execution of work. This has the advantage of testing a whole range of abilities and skills, while reducing costs and speeding up the processes of assessment.
2. Obtain feedback against specific indicators that together give a stronger predictor of potential. This should not be confused with anonymous, developmental-focused 360-degree feedback.
3. Provide real-time data validation: checking data at entry using rules and cross checks to ensure validity.
4. Provide real-time rater feedback. Providing assessors with real-time rhetorical questions triggers greater thought and challenges the assessor at the time of assessment. Example questions include: “Your assessments place this person in the top 10 percent, is he/she really this good?” And: “Your assessments of this individual are relatively bland—are you sure that you have clearly identified their relative strengths and limitations?”
5. Integrate data effectively. It is frequently likely that data from multiple individuals and systems may need to be integrated to fully consider potential. It is now not uncommon to integrate assessments of such criteria as:
a. Ratings of general intelligence;
b. Ratings of competence (behavioral and technical);
c. Past performance ratings;
d. Job history and time in current position;
e. Development plan;
f. Career aspirations;
g. Risk information (risk and impact of loss); and
6. Highlight risks and opportunities: who are the individuals with high potential (based on GI, Acumen, EQ), who have demonstrated high performance, who have not moved jobs in two years, who, if they left, would have a major negative impact on business operations, and who would be hard to replace?
7. Present data in such a way as to make moderation of individuals and pools of people more helpful and less time consuming to manage.
Roger Edwards, SVP of Strategic Consulting, Pilat HR Solutions