Lessons from M.A.S.H: Make Good Hiring Decisions, Reduce Turnover

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Lessons from M.A.S.H: Make Good Hiring Decisions, Reduce Turnover

Corporal Radar O’Reilly from the incredibly successful television series M.A.S.H. could hear a chopper coming before anyone else. Radar also knew exactly what Col. Blake wanted even before the colonel knew himself.

Now I know what many of you thinking. Where can we find more employees like Radar?

If I wanted to be your Radar, what would I need to do? Anticipate your every next move? Would you really value me as the masterful servant or despise me for attempting to take over your life and being too submissive? Would I eventually get on your nerves answering questions before you asked?

Who are your best employees and how did they get there? Better yet, who do you consider to be a bad employee and what’s to stop you from hiring him or her again?

Hiring and promotion mistakes have resulted in big-bucks boo-boos by any standard. People mis-matched to their jobs not only result in sub-par performance but lead to the churn and turn of employees, both voluntary and involuntary.

So where do managers blow it? More than any other way, it’s the failure to put the right people in the right jobs–and the related failure to fix people problems in time. Hiring mistakes just don’t happen at the associate or manager level either.  The failure patterns of high profile CEOs was published in “Why CEOs Fail,” a Fortune article published nearly 15 years ago (1999). Countless articles and books have been published since then.  The key issue has been and will be the inability to pick the right people to do the job, relate to the team, and fit in the culture.  A significant related failure is to fix people problems in time.

Specifically, failed executives and managers are often unable to deal with a few key subordinates whose sustained poor performance deeply harms the company. What is striking is that they usually know there’s a problem but they ignore or suppress it. Those around the executive or manager in charge often recognize the problem first, but since he isn’t seeking information from multiple sources or really isn’t listening, it’s easier and often times safer to beat around the bush or say nothing.

When “the boys” talk
The excuses and rationalizations that executives concoct compiles an impressive list. Consistent throughout each of the excuses is that these executives continue to use traditional methods of hiring and succession but expect new and profitable results to magically appear. We’ve all heard these statements:

1. “He has to succeed.” The executive is a victim of “intellectual seduction,” installing a subordinate so talented that the executive persuades himself failure is impossible. If the protege then fails to deliver, the executive can’t come to terms with it, especially if the protege is a succession candidate.
2. “He’s my guy!” The problem of blind loyalty shows up more often than you may suspect. The boss and the subordinate may have worked together a long time; in some cases their families vacationed together or they played as part of the same golf foursome. Judgment becomes blurred.
3. “I can coach him.” Maybe yes, maybe no. First the protégé must be coach-able and secondly, the executive must have the skill to coach the protégé. Coaching is not the same as teaching an individual what you know but rather it’s about how to do the job. Too often, the hard working, driven, pull-it-up-by-the-bootstraps executive considers coaching a brain dump of knowledge or formula training. “If you follow me, you can’t fail.” It isn’t uncommon for a strong executive to be blind to this fatal flaw.
4. “The customers like him–I’d better keep him around.” When a failing subordinate forms strong links with your customers and co-workers, the executive faces a dilemma. Poor performance hurts the company’s results, but taking out the subordinate may hurt its image. Typically the executive doesn’t act until the problem is acute, and by then it’s sometimes too late.
5. “I’ve fired a lot of people lately.” Turnover -voluntary or involuntary – is never good for business. But if an employee is failing, delaying action just makes the problem worse. Is there ever a good time to hand out pink slips?
6. “He’s in the job, and I’ll take the devil I know over the devil I don’t.” This either indicates apathy, complacency, or insecurity in management’s ability to identify the right person. In any case tolerating poor performance is a no win situation.

For those frustrated enough with poor performance and enlightened enough to do something different, more executives and managers turn to the sciences and analytics for help in identifying the right employees. The sciences then do what they do best – turn to testing. Despite the testing naysayers, even the U.S. Department of Labor encourages the use of assessments and tests for the selection of employees. In its publication, “Testing and Assessment: An Employers’ Guide to Good Practices” (2000), it states that “the appropriate use of professionally developed assessment tools enables organizations to make more effective, employment-related decisions than use of simple observations or random decision making.” The DOL goes even further by encouraging the use of a variety of assessments to get the most complete picture of the individual. This practice of using a variety of tests and procedures is referred to as the “whole-person approach” to employee assessment.

Skill and Knowledge is rarely enough
The whole person approach extends selection for whatever purpose well beyond the interview. Interviews measure “know-how” or skills. Unfortunately the interview only assesses the applicant’s ability to interview well, not to do the job.  Traditional hiring practices focus the interviewer on demeanor, personal appearance, and what applicants have done, not who they actually are. Traditional methods of judging applicants on experience or how they present themselves in an interview can’t accurately measure a candidate’s true fit for the job. Though people are usually hired based on alleged skills and experience, most people are fired for non-performance and attitude.

To hire for performance, more information is required. Formal education often times is only tangentially related to the job skills. Past experience too is becoming dislocated from job requirements unless the screening and selection process focuses on past skills that can be applied to future roles and responsibilities. The whole person approach solves the increasing need to understand if an applicant’s knowledge, skills, and experience can and will be applied in the job going forward.

Employee assessments, when accurately implemented, are quintessential tools for managing and motivating individuals. Every job has its own set of ideal characteristics. The same jobs in different companies may have their own unique characteristics. Even the same job in different divisions within an organization may have different characteristics.  Whether an employer is bringing a new employee in from the outside or moving an existing employee laterally, the whole person approach is an employee selection strategy that all companies must consider.

Ira S. Wolfe is founder of Success Performance Solutions and president of Poised for the Future Company. He is the developer of CriteriaOne™, an innovative approach to aligning employees, managers and salespeople to the client’s strategies and culture.

Author’s Note:  It’s been 31 years since the final episode of “M*A*S*H” aired. While the show initially struggled, it quickly earned a position as one of the top 20 programs for the remainder of its run. The series finale was, at the time, the most watched American television episode with and astounding 125 million viewers.Thankfully for those too young to have enjoyed that helicopter descent the first time around “M*A*S*H” continues to
be broadcast in syndication. http://bit.ly/1o9bHO5 (Thanks to Peter Shankman for this bit of info.)

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