Jürgen Bank, Senior Director, BTS Assessment Practice, composed this fictitious interview about a real case.
JURGEN BANK (JB): Why do you want to talk about your recent assessment experience?
SENIOR MANAGER (SM): Well, we’ve experienced significant growth for four consecutive years while beating the market. I think this is a great reason to talk about us. The most fascinating part of the story is how we have achieved these results. In the last four years we have kept a lot of things the same. We sold basically the same product, to the same market, following the same process as our competitors. The one significant change we introduced was doing all of this with more talented and better trained people. Sales volume grew to 42% over the industry benchmark within four years, just through organic growth – isn’t that astounding?
But let me provide some context. Five years ago we were not significantly different from our competitors, showing occasional small shifts in market share based on various initiatives and product improvements, but nothing as persistent or fundamental as demonstrated in the last four years. At that point, we decided to focus on talent development. Here’s the approach we took. We defined what great performance looks like, measured the gap between great and reality, and developed activities to close the gap. This approach is straightforward, but quite intense, and resulted in a huge uptick in performance.
JB: Wow. That’s pretty incredible. Can you elaborate on the ways in which this amazing performance impacted your thinking about HR?
SM: I have always been a “nuts and bolts” person, and as a manager and leader I am known to be a straight shooter. Throughout my career, I always felt that HR was all about red tape, full of silly rules and things that hinder rather than help the business. But the experience I am sharing here turns this old perspective on its head. When I was became part of this HR program, I really wasn’t a huge fan at first. But over time it started to make sense, and now I fully stand behind it. This program helped me better understand my team, including their strengths and needs from a talent perspective, and I now have a clear direction and focus on how I manage.
JB: How did it all start?
SM: I first learned about this program when HR asked me to nominate a couple of folks on my team who have been doing a fantastic job. The consultants that HR was working with wanted to interview these high performers. I said “sure” – the interview was less than an hour of my people’s time, and I didn’t think it was worth the fight with HR to corral just a couple of hours.
About two months later, I was invited to a stakeholder review. Now, you need to know, I am a senior manager, and the job we are discussing is two levels and about $200,000 below me. The session was very different from what I expected. It only took 90 minutes, and the consultants were highly knowledgeable about the field. They had content expertise and knew the details of the role, almost inside out. I know the job very well because I did it for twelve years, but the consultant gained a surprisingly strong grasp of what was actually going on in a short time. They called their deliverable a Great Profile, and after some hesitation I came to agree that it was pretty great. It was simple, featuring only eight capabilities. Instead of long-winded definitions and observation gradients, they simply listed observable behaviors under each capability that illustrate how this capability can be observed in the daily grind of the job.
JB: What impressed you most about this Profile?
SM: It was short, fitting on one page, applicable, as it was listing realistic behaviors, and the best thing was, it was current. I realized that a few things had changed since I was in the role, both in our strategy and technology. Stating the behaviors was a golden way to present it all.
JB: Great, so for the first time in your career you had an HR tool in hand that made sense to you – how did it actually add value?
SM: After the consultants defined Great, they wanted to profile all of the people in my area. As a skip-level manager with 34 indirect reports, I was allotted to participate in the assessment of 12 of these in-direct reports. The assessment was very comprehensive. It consisted of a seven minute strategic presentation with Q&A, and two job-specific role-plays. I engaged as an audience member during the post-presentation Q&A, and played two roles in the role-play – first as a customer, then as a colleague. The consultant trained me in my role and took notes, basically recording the extent to which my skip-level reports demonstrated the Great behaviors from the Great Profile. After three full days, conducting four assessments a day, I was done.
The assessments uncovered some shocking findings. In a few cases, the candidates nailed the exercises and even I learned some things new about their job. But in many more cases, the actual performance during the job simulation was sub-optimal. I could not believe that this was the performance level of the organization I was leading.
JB: So after establishing Great, you discovered that your organization was actually not so great. What did you do with that information?
SM: That’s right. I gathered my managers, and with the help of the consultants, I illustrated to my team how low the level of performance actually was. I lit a fire under their seats. We equipped them with an outline on how to give feedback to their team members individually. The report for each team member that we received from the consultants spelled out where exactly the gap was between reality and Great.
JB: So now the ball was rolling.
SM: It was more like a rolling avalanche. I was able to tell my team that we had a serious talent issue – the gaps were now obvious. All told, it was a rejuvenating process. One of my three managers saw how much he was unwilling to actually manage, and went on to look for another position. Additionally, many of my indirect reports finally admitted to themselves and to their managers that they did not know how to perform. Thanks to the Great Profile and the associated assessment, this became obvious to all. A surprising number of people decided that the job was just not right for them and retired or moved on to different roles.
JB: Is that how the story ends?
SM: Not at all. Everybody who decided to stay in role was put on a development program and their managers watched their progress towards closing the gap to the Great Profile. We also used our understanding of the roles to hire new talent into the company, and created an engaging and informative onboarding program. Both the behaviorally focused interview guide (based on this job’s Great Profile) and the onboarding kit ensured that we added only great performers into my department.
JB: So what is your suggestion for improvement in this great Great Profile process?
SM: I am a busy guy – if I did not have to spend three days of my time to realize where we were as an organization that would improve the process. But maybe the time investment was necessary to fully engage me.
I really do not regret this assessment adventure. It helped me understand the reality of my department and was the foundation for my department’s phenomenal success.