"First Who Then What" - Getting 'right people' in 'right seat'

In the above video Mr. Jim Collins (Author - Good to Great 2001) highlights the importance of "who" before "what".

If we think about this in line with strategic management perspective, we may have to amend the typical strategy development process. It usually begins with defining or re-defining Vision & Mission statement of an organization - precisely 'where to go' - the "what".

Now, in case we have to begin with "who", an organization may have to opt for Resource Based View (RBV) of available human capital for 'Internal Analysis'. And make sure that we have right people on the bus. Normally this process (RBV) involves defining various resources the organization possesses and examine them to gauge which resources truly have strategic value. It is important for two reasons, 1) to know whether we have right people on the bus & 2) to remove wrong people from the bus. However, make sure not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Dick Cooley and David Maxwell both exemplified a classic Level 5 style when they said, “I don’t know where we should take this company, but I do know that if I start with the right people, ask them the right questions, and engage them in vigorous debate, we will find a way to make this company great.” However, it’s not an easy task to get right people at the right time, very well said by Richard Florida, "Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steel-making."

(Image Source: Google Images)


Let’s see what Jim Collins say about right people.  He says, "In determining 'the right people', the Good to Great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on the specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge or work experience. Not that specific knowledge or skills are unimportant, but they viewed these traits as more teachable (or at least Learnable) Whereas they believed dimensions like character, work ethic, basic intelligence, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values are more ingrained".

Now the question for HR Professionals is how do we know we have right people on the bus? And which tools HR professionals can use to get such right people? I must mention an important quote from Robert Half, that "There is something that is much more scarce, something rarer than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability."

There has been a lot of research carried out so far on this, and now we are turning to Analytics, Big data & algorithms for it. (In Hiring, Algorithms Beat Instinct by Kuncel, Klieger, and Ones - HBR - May 2014) The history of talent spotting is very well narrated in four different eras by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz in the article 'The Big Idea: 21st-Century Talent Spotting' HBR June 2014.

Claudio says, "I am convinced that organizations and their leaders must transition to what I think of as a new era of talent spotting—one in which our evaluations of one another are based not on brawn, brains, experience, or competencies, but on potential."

These are very pragmatic views, however, we will see which options, tools, & methods can be used for employee assessment and finding “right people” and get rid of ‘wrong people’.

Tools available to HR Professionals:

Ability Tests: 
Many companies use cognitive ability tests for selecting employees. Using these tests we can match skills to job requirements in a way that is objective and fair to all candidates. These are paper and pencil tests, however, nowadays they are also available on a smartphone, tablet, and web-based format. We may use them to test Verbal ability, Numerical Ability, Inductive Reasoning, Critical Reasoning, Mechanical Reasoning, Problem Solving, Managerial Judgment, Idea Generation etc. Example: SHL - CEB Ability Tests, Talent Q (Element) - Hay group.

Personality Tests: 

Many companies use personality tests along with other options. Such tests normally require an applicant to answer 200 or more (yes/no) questions. These questions attempt to get to the core of the personality, values and the things that make one successful. Unlike a job interview, everyone gets the same questions since they are standardized. These tests assist HR professionals to accurately predict whether a candidate will be successful, instead of solely relying on a face-to-face interview. Usually, candidates can't charm a personality test. Examples: Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI); California Psychological Inventory.


An Interview is one of the most widely used methods for recruiting employees. Typically these interviews are ‘Unstructured’, however, experts suggest using ‘Structured’ interviews for better results.

Behavioral Event Interview:

It was developed by David McClelland and frequently used by many organizations to recruit employees based on specific competencies relevant to the organization. In such interviews, the candidates are questioned to think of various job-related experiences that turned out well or poorly and then describe these situations in extensive detail. (White paper "Competency-Based Pay" by Tucker and Cofsky – ACA Journal 1994 [pdf]) Hence, such information gathered from the candidate is more predictive of their behavior and performance for specific competencies. As a result we find out:

1. Whether candidate possess the required competency.
2. His / Her level on specific competency.    
3. Concrete basis for predicting future success for that competency.

The Assessment Center:

It facilitates gathering critical data on an individual's competencies and his / her potential match for the executive position. It measures the required attributes that enable the candidate to succeed in the specific position. The candidates are expected to complete a series of activities and instruments designed to elicit the demonstration of executive behaviors. The Assessment Center includes simulations such as In-basket Exercises, Group Discussions, Management Games, and Analysis Exercises. Since more than one assessment instrument used for measuring particular competency, it provides robust, consistent and more reliable results. Consultancies: DDI, Haygroup, Kornferry

360 - Degree Competency Feedback: 

Many organizations now use 360 - degree competency feedback surveys, primarily for providing development feedback to individuals, although there is still debate going on among professionals around using these tools for development only versus using them for selection decision making.  It provides potentially accurate and diverse information on where employees stand in relation to where they should be in terms of skills and behaviors.

Although many consulting firms have their own well - established frameworks,  the best approach for using 360 - feedback ratings for internal development  of high potentials is for organizations to develop their own customized  leadership competency model that is carefully developed and specific to the organization’s culture and strategies. These models should be built to incorporate the organization’s values, reflect the business strategy, and either reinforce the current culture or outline through behavioral examples what the new culture should look like. ("Strategy-driven Talent Management" by Silzer and Dowell - 2010) Consultancies: CCL, Haygroup ,Lominger

Workforce Intelligence: 

In the advent of Big-data & HR Analytics many organizations are now equipped with vast amount of data which they leverage for taking important people decisions. As claimed by the vendors; it gives organizations the ability to predict the success and tenure of potential candidates before they even walk through the door. Predict which high performers were at risk of leaving six months before they walked out of the door. Workforce Intelligence assists various HR processes such as: Workforce Planning & Optimization; Workforce Transitions; Recruitment Analytics; Retention Risk Analytics; and Leadership Development. Examples: Smarter Workforce (Kenexa) & Workforce Intelligence (Deloitte)

Assessment Trends for – 2014:

According to the - 2014 Global Assessment Trends Report (pdf) by Tracy M. Kantrowitz  (CEB) following image reflect the important trends.

 (Image Source: Taken from 2014 Global Assessment Trends Report)

These assessments are used for a variety of HR Functions, led by External Hiring (76%), Internal Hiring (65%), Leadership Development (56%) and Career Development (44%).  There are numerous options available to HR Professionals; hence selecting appropriate assessment is important. However, according to the report it’s essential to consider following factors before taking this decision.
  • How well the test measures critical competencies?
  • Duration of the assessment.
  • Legal issues surrounding the job relevance of the assessment.
  • Assessment delivery mode - onsite, remotely or via mobile devices.
  • We cannot assume that all assessments are equally effective.
  • Assessment that is well-designed.
  • Assessment proven to be valid.
  • And its direct link to job and organizational performance.
Other relevant findings in the report are as follows:
  • Identifying high-potential (HiPo) talent is a new global top priority and use of assessments.
  • Only half use talent metrics to prove ROI or to inform business decisions.
  • Integration of assessment data with HRIS seen as critical, but integration capabilities fall short.
  • 61% of respondents use HRIS for external hiring but only 34% report integrating assessments into that process.
  • Use assessments for hiring 73%, for development and promotion decisions 40%.
  • Pre-hire 62% & Post-hire 34%
  • Social media searches are top future hiring tool, despite only a quarter of respondents having formal policies on its use.
  • Companies allow recruiters to use social media information for hiring decision – 24%
  • Using information on professional networking sites – 42%
  • There is growing interest in mobile assessment for recruitment, with clear geographic differences.
The research carried out by Jim Collins was based on concrete data and hence cannot be ignored.  He outlined three practical disciplines:
  • When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking.
  • When you know you need to make people change, act.
  • Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.  
Hence selecting appropriate assessment tool is significantly important for hiring ‘Right People’. If we use these tools, which are validated and are reliable according to industry experts, it will certainly assist in developing robust hiring processes in the organization to get ‘Right People’. It will obviously increase the probability of success and our decisions are supported by proven methods. However retaining employees and subsequently developing them using appropriate T&D strategies would remain an important task for HR Professionals. Please provide your valuable suggestions and recommendations (including options not covered above) in the comments.

In conclusion Jim Collins says it’s possible to build a great company and also build a great life. He says, “Adherence to the idea of “first who” might be the closest link between a great company and a great life. …If we spend the vast majority of our time with the people we love and respect - people we really enjoy being on the bus with and who will never disappoint us – then we will almost certainly have a great life, no matter where the bus goes.”  


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