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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Where to find "the right stuff"

June 1, 2006
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A well-known organizational theorist at Harvard is reported to have once said, “Give me the very best people to work with, and watch what a great manager I become.”

But how do we know we are getting “the right stuff” when we hire or promote someone to a new level of responsibility? We all want the “very best” on our team. So how do we find it? Here are five strategies:

Determine critical skills

1) Let’s begin with the so-called “competency study.” It’s essentially how you determine the skills deemed to be critical to a role. Competency data can be gathered various ways. One extraordinary resource is the O*NET — an up-to-date online resource that lists jobs and job families, and for each entry gives detailed information about the knowledge, skills, and abilities research has determined to be important to the role.

When I conduct a competency study (and I have done many) I also interview a sample of subject matter experts, which will include incumbents in the role, some of their managers and employees, and peers in their department and other departments. I use a structured-interview process to get their thoughts about the competencies critical to success in the job, and the typical work situations in which those competencies are used.

In my April column, I suggested that competency studies usually uncover some strong common denominator competencies. First and foremost, people skills — interpersonal effectiveness, relationship building, teamwork, communication with respect, conflict management — are a critical foundation of the right stuff.

Also, some personal cognitive/self-management skills — problem-solving, planning and prioritizing — are part of the puzzle. And, especially in leadership roles, a third skill set comprising vision, strategic thinking, flexibility and adaptability become extremely important.

Risky business

OK, let’s say you know what you need for a certain position — “the right stuff.” How does that understanding translate into hiring and promoting the right folks?

Let’s face it, a lot of folks have been hired, put “on the bus,” based on: 1) their resumé (“x years of experience in similar roles in the industry, the right educational credentials, etc.); and 2) the job interview (in which they are typically asked to talk about their work experience in similar roles, their educational background, etc.).

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose with this traditional approach. So what other options do you have?

New approaches

2) A step in the right direction is the increasingly popular “behavioral” or “behavior-based” interviewing approach. Interviewers use a structured set of “Tell me about a time when you…” kinds of questions. The blank might be filled in with “… and your team performed extremely well” or “…had to handle a tough conflict with a co-worker,” etc.

Bottom line: you want to avoid a re-hash of the resumé. Supplement action-oriented questions with something like, “What are your top three strengths as a manager and what are your top three weaknesses?” You want to get personal stories that might reveal more of the individual’s thought process, values and priorities, and so on.

3) The “situational interview” is a step beyond the behavioral interview, which I strongly endorse. Here you can explore the thought process of the interviewee even if the interviewee has never personally been in the behavioral scenario described. Also, “good” answers are not so transparently obvious, reducing what psychologists call “social desirability bias” — the tendency to give a nice-sounding answer that the interviewee thinks the interviewer wants to hear.

You might create a situational interview question something like this one I have used with supervisor candidates:

“You look out in the shipping/loading area of your plant, which is not the area you supervise, and notice a couple of contractors who are doing some repair/rebuilding work in the area. Employees working their jobs in the area are wearing required PPE. The contractors, in plain view, are not. What would you do?”

Subject matter experts can quickly develop a scoring protocol for such questions, differentiating “excellent” from “satisfactory” from “poor” answers, in terms of the key competencies being sampled. They can also suggest follow-up probing questions interviewers can use to get at even more of the interviewee’s thought process.

Scoring protocol might focus on relationship management, prioritizing, communicating, etc. Probing questions might include: “Would you say anything to the company employees? How about to the shipping/loading supervisor? The plant manager? The safety pro? What other actions would you take? Why?” And so on….

4) A grander approach to ferret out the right stuff, is the venerable “assessment center.” Here scenarios might be realistically role-played in a high fidelity job simulation spread over several days. Indeed, for some purposes, the lengthier and costlier assessment center process is the fine-edged tool of choice. I have developed and helped to run many of them, with good results.

5) While it’s still a bit experimental, some elements of the right stuff can be predicted moderately well by personality variables. Several personality profiling instruments have been validated for a variety of work roles. They are not, in and of themselves, perfect predictors, but they can help improve the hit rate of a selection process.

Putting it all together

Pound for pound, a well-designed situational interview, based on a carefully done competency study, can be a highly effective way for you to increase your success rate in finding that all-important right stuff. It is a tool worth looking at. How about an interview question like this one:

“The top leaders in your organization have asked you to make specific recommendations to them as to how to create an effective and sustainable positive safety culture in the company. What would your advice be?”

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