Selecting and Nurturing Your Best Employees

More and more organizations are using tests and other controversial methods to identify their highest potential employees and managers and put them on an advancement fast-track. Here’s why.

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Plant a handful of seeds in fer¬tile soil. Water well and cull the weeds. Soon sprouts break the soil. Few gardeners, looking at these tiny greens, could pick the bloomers from the stunted runts. Yet some buds will blossom with stunning beauty, some will struggle along in the bloomers’ shadows…and some will never grow at all.

Liken that garden to your organization, and yourself to the gardner. Can you pick the new employee who will grow faster and better than the rest? Can you isolate those who will never, germinate at all? Can anyone? And how can you help those most promising buds blossom best?

Organizations use many methods to help employees grow. Some use formal training programs, based on the re¬sults of rigorous observation and testing. Others use a natural selection process, with high-potential new hires proving their worth through performance and perseverance. But, whatever the technique used, more and more organizations are finding that some form of intensive cultivation is necessary so their management spots are filled by those that thrive rather than those that just hang on the longest.

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Walt Mahler, author of Executive Continuity and well-known expert in the field of management development, suggests that well-managed com¬panies now watch “people flow” as closely as they watch cash flow. “A company is an ongoing enterprise,” Mahler explains, “and top management must maintain interest and ac¬tion decade after decade in the training and development of future executives. Without such involvement and commitment, no company can sur¬vive.”

Learning for every employee
The prime method used for ensuring executive continuity, Mahler says, has been the replacement chart, where designated successors were listed for each job. But this method is far from the “developed executive” method Mahler advocates, where top management takes an active role in training replacement leaders.

Management’s main contribution to executive development, Mahler be¬lieves, should be through a continued emphasis on the importance of learning for every employee. “Intensive programs often benefit just the 27-to-37-year-old who is earmarked for advancement. At most, that’s just 5 or 10% of the work force,” he says. “But if all employees are given an opportu¬nity to continue their education through company-sponsored educa¬tion programs and training, then it elevates the level of everyone’s job.”

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Mahler’s plan for executive devel¬opment focuses on several factors in¬fluencing growth. It is the job of train¬ing and management to see that those considered for top-level positions have:
• Early opportunity to serve as a supervisor, plus the chance to take significant risks and full responsibil¬ity.
• A variety of competent executive models to emulate.
• Experience with adversity— the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.
• Experience in more than one specialization.
• Constructive coaching by a superior.
• Periodic educational experiences.

The training department should design a system that gives high-potential employees those oppor¬tunities. Also, the department should gather data through tests, appraisals and other analyses to give sound in¬formation to executives about all candidates available. In addition, the training department should institute a program of educational courses through colleges, management insti¬tutes and trade organizations.

Nothing formal at TI
Texas Instruments, a pioneering electronics firm, uses all these ap¬proaches and more to ensure that candidates are available for all posi¬tions opened through expansion or re¬tirement.

Although Texas Instruments does not have a “fast-track” program, up-and-comers have a wealth of educa¬tional opportunities and are encour¬aged to take advantage of these at company time and expense. “Based on the length of time an employee has served with us,” explains Erskine Hightower, manager of training and development, “they can be paid salary for every hour they attend college or graduate school.”

For example, TI’s Engineer Devel¬opment Plan operates on a sliding scale. An employee with five years’ experience, taking sophomore-level courses, would be paid full salary while attending college, yet work only four hours each day. And TI would pick up 90% of the tuition and books.

Graduate engineers can complete a master’s degree in one of four job-related disciplines without ever leav¬ing the plant. Through TAGER—, Texas Association of graduate Edu¬cation and Research—lessons are microwaved into rooms at TI and each student is linked to the classroom by telephone. A courier service picks up homework assignments and delivers materials to the student. “With TAGER,” Hightower explains, “a stu¬dent can complete all 43 credits of an M.S. without ever going on campus, except to register.”

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In many ways, Texas Instruments’ method of management development is a natural selection. “If you want to go to school and get ahead,” High tower says, “there’s no reason not to. And education really pays off. We’re a technologically-based company and need all that additional brainpower to stay competitive. We don’t give pref¬erential treatment to anyone, but we try to put high-fliers in the limelight and give them a chance to perform. If they do, there are plenty of ways for selection, where the fittest and most energetic flowers bloom the best, then AT&T’s assessment center is the program reserved for the dedicated horticulturist.

Assessment centers are not new selection devices. They’ve been used since WWI, when countries found that “command by nobility of birth” did not lead to the best fighting force. And they were refined by the Office of Strategic Services, who used centers to select WWII spies. In the business world, however, they did not become popular until the mid-1950’s.
One of those early pioneers, still ac¬tively working as AT&T’s director of management selection and develop¬ment research, is Dr. Douglas Bray. In 1956, Bray began a longitudinal study of the development of young managers for AT&T.

That study is still going on today, having filled five binders of in¬formation for each of the 274 partici¬pants. [For a more detailed description of the original AT&T study, read For¬mative Years in Business, by Bray, Campbell and Grant (1974: Wiley-Interscience, New York). This volume details the procedures and results obtained from the first decade of the study. And attend session #201 at TRAINING ’78. Titled “What We Have Learned About Management and Managers From 20 Years Applying the Assessment Center Method,” led by Bray and Bill Byham, president of Development Dimensions.

“Assessment centers are very be¬havioral in method,” Bray says. “Rather than test, we emphasize situations where the participant has to do something, to behave.” For instance, an AT&T assessment runs half a week. During that time, the participants are observed by a staff of assessors (typi¬cally chosen from among line managers, on temporary duty) as they run a small business, empty an overflowing in-basket with appropriate action taken on each item, or present ideas or concepts to groups of their peers.

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“We feel this is much better than a battery of tests,” Bray adds, “because it is a direct, not a derived, assessment. We actually watch people do some¬thing, not speculate on whether or not we think they could do it.”

AT&T’s assessment focuses on sev¬eral factors, including administrative skills, interpersonal communications, general mental ability, work and career involvement, ability to perform under stress and ability to work independent of others. Based on the partic¬ipant’s response, the assessor rates the employee according to a fairly rigid guideline— probability that the par¬ticipant will reach a certain level of management within a given time.

“Over 16 years for the pilot group,”Bray declares, “46% of those we pre¬dicted would do well, did; and 19% we predicted would do poorly, did do poorly.”

Although no one is stating that as¬sessment centers are infallible indi¬cators of business success or failure, the results of
AT&T’s experience show that early assessment can spot potential high achievers…and potential problem employees, as well as suggest remedial skills a candidate should develop to be of greater benefit to the organization. AT&T now operates scores of centers throughout the country, assessing more than 30,000 em¬ployees per year.

But AT&T is a giant organization, hiring thousands of employees each year. Would assessment centers work just as well for smaller businesses? “I believe so,” says Bray, “because when you only hire 20 or 30 employees per year, good assessment can have a rapid impact.” Several companies, in¬cluding Development Dimensions In¬ternational at Pittsburgh and As-sessment Designs of Winter Park, FL, offer courses in how to set up an as¬sessment center. And many com¬panies, both large and small, are find¬ing that these programs do help isolate and assist high potential employees.

For trainers, the isolation and as¬sistance of high potential personnel is a two-fold challenge. First, trainers must help the operating divisions develop efficient performance appraisal tools so that line managers can adequately assist all employees to reach top performance. And, second, trainers must develop or coordinate educational opportunities so that high po¬tential employees can receive the additional training and skills they need to truly have high potential performance.

As Mahler indicated, management continuity is the crucial factor in the long-term success of most companies. Just as a garden may blossom with flowers after an initial seeding, yet gradually produce fewer and fewer blooms as the soil loses richness, so can companies operate for a short term with little regard for depleting their resources. But the agricultural principles of crop rotation, culling the weeds and helping the high bloomers, feeding the soil and bringing high performers into, the sunlight have analogies in the world of business. Given the correct management cli¬mate, trainers can do much to ensure that every employee has a chance to grow…and that high performers can get the education, training and development they need to blossom beauti¬fully.

You can download excellent powerpoint slides on HR management, business strategy and personal development HERE.

Source : Training Magazine, September 1978

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