Startup guru Ben Horowitz has a theory: The Law of Crappy People. His theory states:
“For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”
In other words, at medium – large-sized companies, it’s common to have many people who hold the same title. The Law of Crappy People says that one of those people will be the worst at their level — let’s say, the worst Sales Manager. Everyone who works below your Sales Managers will use the performance of the worst Sales Manager to benchmark against. They’ll use that level of performance to angle for their own promotions as well.
Then there’s the Peter Principle, the long-held management theory that competent workers continue to get promoted until eventually they reach a position where they’re no longer competent. The challenge then becomes predicting the level at which that happens. As Horowitz mentions, management books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management suggest that there isn’t any way to predict this.
Either way, we’re talking about people winning promotions or jobs even though their skill set isn’t a match.
How can managers and executives avoid this? How can you instead make sure you’re aligning your top talent to your most important roles?
Roles and skills first – then people
First you must take an organized approach to understanding which roles are your most important. A recent McKinsey-published study highlighted how critical this step is.
Hierarchical organizations often assume that their most valuable talent is in positions close to the top. They may also over-rely on inexact arts like intuition and relationships. Real-life examples show us that this is a critical disconnect.
As McKinsey points out, very often your most valuable positions and people are found throughout your organization — not just at the very top. Do you know where those people are though? There’s a clear correlation between businesses that understand this and the ability to hit and exceed strategic goals.
When this report’s authors surveyed more than 600 respondents, they found that “the talent-related practice most predictive of winning against competitors was frequent reallocation of high performers to the most critical strategic priorities.”
We wouldn’t dream of failing to understand critical, strategic objectives. Why do so many companies underestimate the value of matching the right people to these critical positions?
The key is to create a job model for each position, whether someone currently fills it or not. When you understand the areas and initiatives that most impact your strategic objectives and growth, you can then examine in detail the next level: the positions that guide that growth.
Define each position goals, the jobs that must be done, and the skills necessary. Then get specific with how you’ll measure job performance with detailed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Taking this step not only forces you to clarify what you need, it also helps the person in that role understand the job.
Analyze and match talent
The first question to ask now is, do the people I have in these critical roles have the behaviors and skills I need to drive growth? This isn’t something you want to leave to chance or to intuition.
Instead, use testing to quantify your team members’ behaviors and skills. Cognitive and personality tests give you an unbiased look at their strengths and weaknesses. Especially if you haven’t been using KPIs, these tests are evidence- and science-based indicators of how and where someone will excel.
You’ll also gain a better understanding of how to influence, inspire, and lead your people. When you know what motivates your teams, you know how best to lead and communicate with them.
This kind of synchronicity is what leads to innovation and breakthroughs, as McKinsey points out. For example, Apple’s extreme focus on user-experience led them to focus on filling strategic roles with talent that thrives in them.
Identify needs for improved leadership development
When you know the talent and skill needed for your most important roles, and you know exactly where the talent is in your organization, it becomes far easier to identify future leaders. Not only that, but you also gain a clear idea of what leadership development should look like for those specific people.
This is not a process that can be done once. After all, goals, markets, and needs evolve and shift constantly. Make this kind of analysis a regular process – as regular as performance check ins. As soon as you lose insight into this kind of talent evaluation and management, you lose much of your ability to influence your strategic goals.