"Lessons From the playground"

Robert A. Loffreda

Remember when you had to choose up sides for a game of basketball or baseball?  A couple of the guys would be made captains and then they'd put in fingers to see who'd get the first pick. Maybe you used odds-evens (the classical choice) or maybe it was one potato, two potato. However you did it, someone got to choose first. And who did he choose? You've got it.  He chose the best player in the bunch.  But he got a lot of help. There were always cries of, "don"t pick him, he can't hit the ball out of the infield" Sometimes the choice was an emotional one; the captain chose the most popular guy or his best friend. Most often it was an objective choice. You went for the guy with the big bat, the wicked curve or the deadly set shot. Even back then you went for the top talent. And then they would alternate until one guy was left. Then you often heard," Oh, OK, we'll take Joey. And who was Joey? Right again!!  He was the absolute worst player in the bunch, the guy who couldn't hit it out of the infield. Even nine and ten year olds knew that if you wanted the best team you had to choose the best players. No two ways about it.
Fast-forward several years. Now you are all grown up, you're a business executive and you're still trying to pick the most talented players. Fortunately you don't have to be good at odds-evens to do so. You've got better tools now. But the two most commonly used tools for selecting people are interviews and reference checks. With respect to references, I'm biased. I think they are generally useless. Worse, they can be absolutely misleading. When's the last time you got a bad reference from a former employer? When's the last time you gave someone a bad reference?  Perhaps the best you can do is to build a list of references other than the one offered by the candidate. Obviously, they were hand picked. Not only that, they and the candidate probably worked out a reference statement ahead of time. 

Interviews are complex social judgments Not everyone can do them well. Interviewers have to process a lot of qualitative information. You have to be expert at getting the real lowdown on The Artful Dodger or the person with the perfect alibi. Beware the overly complete answer or the Ubiquitous Halo. Also beware the glib, ready-made response. Remember, insight is born in the space between thoughts and words. While some business executives are absolute top-notch interviewers (from whom I've learned a lot), most are experts in their own fields. Not psychology. A poorly conducted interview can also be useless or misleading. Job candidates are not there to help you; they are there to help themselves. They need/want a job. So here comes Joey, all grown up, college educated and more mature. But now we're talking a whole different ballgame, a ballgame with much higher stakes than the one you played on the sandlot. Metaphorically, he still can't hit it out of the infield. Nevertheless, here he is, sitting at your desk incognito and wearing camouflage. To varying degrees, he is going to dissemble, distort and disguise who he really is.

The hell of it is, every time you have an opening to fill you have a shot at going for excellence. And not just because you're lucky at odds-evens. You can get the best available player every time. Two recent articles on selection, "What You See Ain't Always What You Get" and, "Costing Human Resources" (both available on request) address the issues of selecting the right people and the advantages of doing so. For a fraction of the total cost of attracting and selecting someone you can purchase as close to an insurance policy as you're ever going to get.  It is even less costly when you stop to consider what you pay for a non-performer whom you stick with for a year, hoping he/she will come around. But deep down, you know you're one day going to have to pull the plug. But, you go on, hoping and praying, because you are a feeling person who prefers to give people every benefit of the doubt. Either that or you are guilty of *escalation of commitment, *another malignant malady. For example, someone has put you on hold for twenty minutes. You start to think about hanging up. But you don't. Why? Because you've already invested so much time you're reluctant to give up now. That's escalation of commitment. But you know what? You're not doing the person any favors. Actually you are hurting him/her. You are robbing them of the opportunity to move on and find a job they are good at and can prosper in.

Consider the effect of the wrong hiring decision. Suppose you hire a V.P. of Sales at $100K. To this you add the approximate cost of the benefits package, which is roughly 20% of salary. At an absolute minimum, over the course of one year, you actually lay out of your pocket $120,000 dollars. Then you terminate the person. Now you are not only right back where you started from, you're also out $120,000. And this money comes right off the bottom line. You've just paid some pretty big bucks for non-performance. But wait, maybe it's even worse! Maybe he/she has squandered another $50K to $75K in direct marketing/advertising costs. The sales leads these dollars bought represent intangible organizational assets that he/she substantially failed to convert to tangible results. Maybe he/she has brought in some unprofitable business. And just suppose you got this business by cutting your price. And what if you offer some sort of severance package to ease the blow?  And so it goes. You can fill in the blanks.

By building the best team you turn intangible assets (your people) into tangible results. But you won't do it by hiring a lot of Joeys. Valid selection technology can be the "conversion kit" you need to leverage your hiring decisions. It can also provide a strategy map for managing and developing the individual after the hire. We all know that teams with the best talent have the highest winning percentage.  There are no bargains in the human capital market. You get what you pay for. Non-performers are expensive as hell.
Take Away Idea:  Be choosy on purpose. Field the most talented team.  And remember, when new players show up at the playground they want to play on the best team. They also want to win. This is one element of being an employer of choice.