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Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Moveable “Truth”

I recall a client’s words from far enough back that I can only remember that this person was an executive at a utility company. The statement was as follows: “The people we hire are only “C” average students who cannot make strategic decisions on the whole…” This was in response to a recommendation that it would be most valuable if a cross section of the organization was included in the company’s upcoming strategy session. Our team was shocked having seen multitudes of so called “C” students produce brilliant solutions to very complex problems. In enterprise-wide solutions, more is better.

I have obviously not forgotten the statement I heard many years ago and the question that it posed for me: Is a “C” average student capable of only providing “C” average performance, solutions and results? Or is the measure of a person not dependent on the measure of most academic and business organizations?

Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent speech by this noted author of The Tipping Point and Blink, points out that measures are not always a true reflection of an individual’s capabilities. In fact they are a mismatch. He uses data collected from professional sports tryouts called the Scouting “Combine”. This is a process where athletes are put through a battery of tests considered to be the measures that will predict the success of an individual in a professional sport. You may or may not be surprised by his findings, however, his thought provoking conclusions are intriguing and question the very foundations that have supported our progress this far. Find out what the difference is between the seven smartest and seven dumbest quarterbacks in football. Listen to his talk and draw your own conclusions. It is rather lengthy, so you may want to reserve it for a time when you can listen:

This clip takes me back to my earlier experience: The client we had the opportunity to speak with was a leader in the organization. By all standards and measures he was qualified and expected to make decisions and shoulder responsibilities for the whole organization. Utilizing accepted measures and the resulting predictable performance of individuals and the group, he made a statement of objective truth. That this can be only one of many truths and may not be the best is not his fault. He like, many of us, relies on time-tested models, practices and actions. Unfortunately, while our tools for navigation are sound, our changing business and social environment is increasingly exposing our vulnerability to the shifting winds of change. The truth has moved.

In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

Our attempts to find time and cost saving solutions by identifying key characteristics of high performance people is wanting. Where process and technology can be predictably mapped and measured – the one being only a concept and the other a finite, layered mechanism, with people it is not that predictable. People are both concept and mechanism, and more. We are the author’s of the former two, endowed with additional capabilities who, up to today, have only scratched the surface of our potential. We are all much more capable than our academic grade point average and our professional status.

Given our changing world, how can we find new truths and measures to help us all to create success in our new and changing environment? I welcome your comments.


Jim Cermak said...

I believe a person's grades don't have a whole lot to do where they end up in life. In my book, common sense trumps "book" intelligence every day of the week. I have people with Masters' degrees in my own family who couldn't think their way out of a cardboard box with two sides opened up.

Give me the person who has a dream to achieve more in life...the person who has more to work for...the person who is willing to stick their neck out and contribute new ideas, or even say things that may shake up company big-wigs.

All that being said, I don't give a rip about grades. Henry Ford, way back in the early 1900's, used to take prospective managers out for dinner. If they salted their food before eating, Ford would NEVER hire them. He figured anyone who salted food before tasting to see if it actually needed salt would exhibit the same decision making abilities on the job.

I'm a big fan of his. Nuf said.

Dave said...

It seems to me your executive contact was equating grades (the "metric") with performance (the "outcome"). Further, he was assuming a direct correlation, allowing him to present this as an "objective truth".

First of all, it's obvious to anyone that has researched leadership at all that performance in educational institutions have little correlation to performance in leadership positions. In fact, one can find any number of statistics showing the opposite.

More interestingly is the presentation of an "objective" truth that obviously was based on a bias or assumption. This, I think, goes to the heart of what you are trying to get at. That even objective truths are often far from that.

A true leader needs conviction, even faith. However, I think a true leader also remains vigilant and flexible and is willing and able to not only recognize when assumptions have changed, but admit the "moveable truth" has occurred and change course.

Mark Pinto said...

Jim, I couldn't agree more. While there are many successful people who have book smarts, they are successful only if they can make it work. What intrigues me are the people who are equally successful without. Check out these self taught and very sensible people at
Ralph Dumain: The Autodidact Project

Mark Pinto said...

Dave, Thanks. I appreciate the added element of disclosure and the humility to admit the truth about the truth. You couldn't be more eloquent. You rest my case.

Chip Saltsman said...

Hi Mark! I read an article some time ago about Enterprise Rent-A-Car. They commented that when they make their campus hires, they consciously avoid "A" students. They find that they "C" students who did things like get elected fraternity president worked out far better.

I have the same reaction when I think about colleges. Every year parents encourage their kids to get into the very best schools. But ultimate success has far, far more to do with what is in the student and only a little bit with the alma mater.

If you expect people to be creative, come up with great ideas and think strategically, they often will and surprise you in the process. If you expect that they cannot, then they most certainly won't.

Mark Pinto said...

Thanks Chip,

I wonder sometimes how much we help when we try to help. Often times the best help may be just getting out of the way. That would make a heck of a performance measure for managers!

The privilege "C" average students may have over the "A" students is nobody cares - nobody cares when they do well or when they make mistakes. And in the process they become very adept at making, and correcting (and surviving and forgiving) mistakes, and GROWING and improving and innovating. The danger is when parents, supervisors, or managers CARE ENOUGH to limit people with labels, pigeon holes and predictions in an effort to manage and protect.

I agree with expecting people to be more creative and innovative. It sends the message of appreciation and trust - how many people intentionally make irreconcilable mistakes when trusted and appreciated? The tough thing is not to expect what or how they will create or innovate in answer to a group's issue. That is the surprise and it can produce surprisingly more value than expected.

I really appreciate your comments. Thanks.