I recently spoke at a conference in Oslo and was enjoying some lively interaction with the audience. One attendee bemoaned the fact that his company couldn’t rise to the challenge to excellence that I had put to the audience. When I inquired about what the problem was, he told me that their engineers were “stupid” and not up to acceptable standards. Feigning that I had inside information, I apologized for having forgotten that his company had a policy of hiring idiots.
Few companies make it a point to hire idiots, yet I often hear senior employees complaining about the inexperience of their staff. There is a widespread belief that companies live and die by excellence in their hiring programs — programs with standards designed to weed out the slackers while hand-picking the cream of the crop.
It is difficult to cream-skim talent a tight market. When prosperous times push the job market demand over the supply, or when long-term pessimism about the business creates a delayed shortage of graduates in some area, companies often must take what they can get.
But first, talent is probably overrated. Richard Gabriel reflects that talent has little to do with the level of excellence that an individual can attain — only with the speed with which one can attain it. There are exceptions, of course. But a company that sets new employees on a career path, instead of just giving them jobs, will more deeply value your potential to learn than your college grades. It makes sense to scrutinize the track record of a mature market hire only if he or she will be expected to do exactly the same work in their new job as they did in the old one — and that is often not the case.
However, it might not matter that much. First, Deming tells us that quality owes more to the process than to individual performance. Second, schools rarely arm students with the skills they will need to thrive in the corporate world or even in any particular engineering discipline. Practice may follow academic theory or the tenets of basic training if you just land in a job, but they don’t prepare you for the employment opportunities that can launch a career. Industrial practice is always more particular, exacting and contextualized than either educational experience or previous employment can prepare one for.
That means that employers can’t help but bear the burden of educating new employees. Many corporations have a “mentoring” program to bring new employees on board. While these programs are well-intentioned, they are often superficial. Corporate value systems expect mentors still to complete all their assignments while brining a new colleague into the company, and expect mentees to be “self-directing” in their quest to climb the corporate ladder. Mentors may expend a few days giving the new hire a tour of the premises, tips on standard procedures, admonitions about exigencies and taboos, and an overview of upcoming work assignments. But mentors too often end being just a “safety hatch,” checking up on new employees now and then to ensure that they aren’t stuck, and to be sure that they aren’t doing any damage.
Good mentoring is a partnership, and while it is good to have a single “buddy” who can help bring a new employee on board, it’s a team responsibility. Expect each new employee to detract from the effectiveness of each team member by about 25% for 6 months. If that’s not the case, you’re probably not doing a good job of mentoring — and you’ll pay the price in the long term.