Benchmarking Talent is not Dolly the Sheep

25 10 2010

I talk (tweet/blog/rant/bore) a fair amount about the value of benchmarking star performance in specific roles and then using the resulting profile in recruitment. I don’t recommend this for all recruitment, only where there is a significant number of people who all perform identical roles. Often this means customer facing roles such as customer service, account manager, etc, but it can also apply to backroom admin or technical jobs. If you have a statistically significant sample for us to work from, we should be able to tell if there are characteristics which discriminate consistently between your star performers and the merely averagely good; if there are, you can use those in recruitment.

It occurred to me the other day that this might sound as though I believe in human cloning, or at least that my ideal call centre would comprise entirely of balding thirty-year old men called Clarence and who all wear black-rimmed glasses and keep their pencil behind their right ear. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My experience of workgroups with unusually high numbers of high-performing people is that they look to the casual observer – and even to the workgroup members themselves – as very diverse. Ask them and they will say, “oh yes, Sue is our extrovert and Fred is the quiet one and Bill goes wave-boarding and Nancy is studying astrophysics in her spare time.” Even if we ask them, what do you think you all have in common, they may be unable to answer – simply because whatever the “magic ingredient” is, it is so much part of their whole world view that they have no idea it isn’t shared by everybody on the planet. Could be obsessive attention to detail, could be absolute determination to leave every customer feeling that their most pressing problem has been solved – whatever.  So in my experience, a truly star workgroup has usually been a very diverse group of people with just one or two very specific characteristics in common – not a flock of Dolly the Sheeps. For example, take the accounting firm where two thirds of the accounting partners and staff were most highly motivated not by a love of working with numbers but by a love of making a difference for other people. How proactive do you think they were in coming up with ideas to improve their clients’ businesses? (Answer: very). Or the local council call centre with very high scores on empathy for others and practical action. Do you think they were happy to send people off down a bureacratic rabbit hole? (Answer: no).

And all this is why we use the Birkman Method, rather than any other tool. Firstly, it allows direct comparison between individuals (which, you may be surprised to know, most profiling tools are not designed or calibrated for); and secondly it provides the most finegrained data we know of, with a wealth of individual and independent scales. This isn’t “are you one of these or one of those”; rather it allows us to ask intelligently of individuals, what makes you unique; and of clusters of individuals (e.g. star performers) what do you diverse people have in common that your colleagues don’t have?

So benchmarking, done right is powerful stuff. And no hint of “Hello Dolly!”

#FLAsia2010 Special 3: A few non-negotiables for franchisees

22 10 2010

If you are a Franchisor or, indeed, an intending Franchisee, there are a few things you need to know about franchisees. The promise of franchising is sometimes stated such that it sounds like “anyone can be a success as a [insert product or service here] franchisee!” It just ain’t so…

A particular franchise may have special requirements, but here are some pretty universal ones:

a) a funadamental belief that there is one right way of doing things and that is the way we do it. The person who is happy to be situational or to keep returning to the blank sheet of paper or run a different business on Wednesday from the one they ran on Monday may be all kinds of things – but a successful franchisee won’t be one of them. Business format franchising is a “one right way”  business model, and if your prospective franchisee can’t handle that, stay clear.

b) High energy levels. Real franchises don’t promise great returns for no work; they promise predictable returns for hard work. The franchisee who needs lots of down time for reflection and recovery will struggle to make a success of the business.

c) Attention to detail. Big picture players need not apply; the big picture has already been dealt with by the franchisor. What a franchisee needs is to execute the plan with fanatical attention to detail.

d) Attention to the numbers. Many people run their businesses by instinct. This doesn’t work for franchises: a proper franchise model includes clear financial performance indicators and the franchisee needs to pay constant attention to actual performance against these standards; only by reacting at the first sign of divergence in the numbers can the franchisee and their business succeed.

e) Attention to people. Franchisees mostly have to manage staff; they all have to delight and satisfy customers. Unless you have a franchise that services autonomous robots, you have better find franchisees who pay attention to people issues, and not just executing tasks.

That may seem a daunting list, but it shouldn’t. Franchising isn’t for everybody; it is for a sizeable part of the population, whom we have just described. And the good news is that this isn’t down to guesswork; all the factors I have described are objectively measurable. If you don’t know how, we do: contact John Ong on or tweet me @jonmkiwi

#FLAsia2010 Special 2: Ideas require Imagination; Execution requires Capacity

21 10 2010

Something I learnt very quickly when I first start working in the Franchise and Licensing Field was that ideas – even brilliant ideas – are essentially worth nothing. This was hard to communicate sometimes to inventors and innovators who thought they had the next world changing idea in their heads and who assumed that step two was to start collecting the royalties. But an idea with no execution is essentially dead air.

This doesn’t just affect inventors: any business can come up with a world-beating strategy; not every business can turn their world-beating strategy into a well-beaten world. For Franchisors (and many others), the fundamental issue which determines their ability to execute is not – and this may surprise you – management style or ability to focus, but rather organisational capacity. If you don’t have the right people in place to support the training and support of your growing network, your network will grow so far and then stall. If you don’t recruit the right kind of Franchisees – those who have the capacity to execute your Franchise System relentlessly – then however successful you are in growing your network numerically, your brand will eventually collapse under the weight of failure to deliver.

The answer I often hear to this is something like “Oh, we have a fantastic Franchise Manager, she/he is our secret weapon…” That is great as far as it goes; but if your Franchise Manager left you tomorrow (perhaps someone else has noticed how fantastic they are), would you know how to replace them? In other words, can you write on a sheet of A4 the specification that makes them so successful, so that you could replace them – or multiply them – at need? If not, then you are far from secure.

Ditto your Franchisees, although here you are more likely to have some sort of profile against which you recruit. (If your profile is purely financial, once again I think you are in danger). But if you got lucky the first three times you sold a franchise, that doesn’t mean your luck will hold.

Building organisational capacity should be a highly intentional activity. We know what we are looking for and why, and we know when we have found it. Intentional capacity building allows for intentional execution of strategies and ideas. If you don’t already have access to a toolset that allows you to do this, time to get one.

(And yes: equipping organisations with just such a toolset is precisely what we do. Contact John Ong at or tweet me @jonmkiwi )

#FLAsia2010 Special 1: Build Brand through People

20 10 2010

This is the first in a short series for FLAsia2010, where I will be over the next 2-3 days with my colleagues from Franchise and Licensing specialists FT Consulting.

What is the most powerful element of your Brand? The visual identity may be important, but it is the mental one – the place your Brand occupies in the mind of potential and actual customers – that really counts. Customer experience is core to developing this mental identity. Where does customer experience come from? If you are a manufacturer, it may come from the extreme usability and sheer brilliance of the product. If you run a franchise, or any other business with a service component, then around 95% of your customer’s experience comes from your people. (And even if you are a manufacturer, you might be surprised how much is to do with service staff – yours or your distributors’!)

Let me illustrate both sides of the story with a real example, a global F&B outlet. Their brand identity is pretty recognisable… but what does it mean?

Here’s what it means to me:

In Houston, it signifies that I will be greeted with a smile and great service. If I disclose my name there is a pretty good chance the server will address me by my name when I come in the next day. They remember me! How cool is that?

Here in Singapore, it signifies that I will be greeted with a smile and great service. If it is the outlet where my wife and I go for our weekly session to work on the business, they will already know what my order is. They know me! Pretty cool, huh?

What about in the UK? What does the brand mean there. Hmmm. How can I say this? I will be greeted… well I often won’t. Lack of attentiveness, lack of concern; actually, you can almost hear them say, “we are pretty much staffed by people whose conversation you are interrupting by coming into the store”. The often surprisingly filthy store. A few exceptions, but mostly in London where by employing foreign staff they get employees who already have some idea what this brand is meant to be about.

I am not imagining this. In fact, I just discovered that a close friend who commutes between UK and Singapore has been so puzzled by the difference that he has taken to asking staff at this chain in the UK what the brand means to them: average answer he gets is a grunt or “dunno”.

So what is this? A disease of the British culture? That Brits simply can’t do customer service? But then you would have to explain why, for example, the company-owned outlets of the UK coffee chains Costa and Coffee#1 have spectacularly good service staff.

And here is the point. 95% of your customers’ experience at any of these places is fundamentally about who you choose to employ in the role in the first place. So, to take the coffee example, Costa and Coffee#1 employ people who get a buzz out of serving people brilliantly, who love interacting with people, who love making a difference. A love of pulling expressos (or whatever the chain happens to be about) is a bonus – and of no value without the rest of it. The other 5% of customer experience is about having an adequate supply of good coffee beans / ribs / tacos /… and knowing how to prepare them. Yes, really.

Back to your business (and if the chain in question have recognised themselves, I would love to be of service: contact me). Do you want to add meaning and value to the name and the identity you spent so much on developing? Then get people who care about customers, who love serving and who are great at handling people and making them feel better about themselves and their situation. Alternatively, if you want to waste all of your other efforts and investments, don’t give employee selection another moment’s thought.

Employing the right people is not a dark art. Really. Start by looking at what you already have. If you are a franchisor, you should be benchmarking the very best of your customer service talent and including that in your Franchise Manual as a specification for recruitment selection. (And that doesn’t mean a list of desirable behaviours; I mean a list of objectively measurable personality characteristics which can be validated against actual behaviour.) You should also be benchmarking what kind of franchisee will “get” all this, and be willing to follow through relentlessly on it. You will then use that profile as part of your franchisee recruitment process. And if you are a franchisee and the franchisor hasn’t given you this specification for your employees, you should either push them to do so, or develop your own and then push them to adopt it.

Employ the right people, do everything to allow them to do what comes naturally and watch your brand accumulate value.

(If you don’t know how to go about this, we do; so get in touch. Contact my colleague John Ong at FT Consulting ( or tweet me @jonmkiwi)

Fragile China?

19 10 2010

Despite my reservations, an evening in the basement of the Asian Civilisations Museum with the Economist was fascinating. No relation whatsoever to Night at the Museum (1 or 2)…

My abiding impression is just how polarised positions and beliefs around the future of China are – and no one even mentioned the current spat with Japan and threat to the world supply of rare earths. In broadest terms it was: China has the healthiest, most unleveraged credit market in the world, and that always correlates to political stability; versus the Chinese economy is still only the size of France’s, the burgeoning middle class is actually only a thin layer of froth signifying nothing, and the Chinese property bubble – and the Chinese economy and political establishment – will implode within the next year or so (at which point the Australian economy will be found to consist entirely of digging things out of holes in the ground, for which there is no longer a market).

Fascinating stuff. I couldn’t help feeling that on both sides it was the mostly the unspoken assumptions that meant the most. I don’t think either side of the argument was working from the 1.4 Billion Chinese times 50 cents each equals a market just waiting to be plucked; but the naysayers did seem to have an underlying religious conviction about free markets as the universal good. If whole sectors of Western business have gone into the Chinese market and failed to secure market share or make a dollar, then ipso facto the Chinese economy is either broken or largely illusory.

One has to take serious note of the reservations, but I can’t help feeling the Chinese (not just their government) march to the beat of a different drummer – and I don’t mean the late Chairman. It seems to me that unlike western free-market democracies, for whom a week can be a very long time and 4 or 5 years the ultimate time horizon, China still runs on dynastic time.

The CCP has always known that the jury would be out for decades as to whether it signified the start of a new dynasty or was simply the latter-part of the Sun Yat Sen-inspired interregnum upon the fall of the Yuan (Manchu) dynasty. The last 30 plus years of consistent investment in moving China to the global manufacturing cutting edge has been premeditated and extremely well executed. Westerners – and there were one or two last night – still sometimes imagine it is all about cheap quality and cheap labour. Cheap China has passed – I think. All the high-tech kit I use professionally seems to have been built in China, not because it was cheaper but because only China had the capacity to execute.

But I may be wrong. The great thing about political economy is that it becomes converted into history at a steady and predictable rate: one day at a time!

25 yards of Team Building, please: changing how organisations buy assessments

18 10 2010

Talking to a friend and colleague from the US last week, he commented on the way large organisations buy assessments. Actually, the give away was the term “assessment buyers”… like “media buyer” or “office-supplies buyer”. Essentially the mindset seems to be almost along the lines of, “senior management expects us to use assessments, we buy x assessments per y personnel, check the box on the quarterly return, job done.”

Someone somewhere in the organisation is trying to accomplish something worthwhile with those assessments – better recruitment, better management of talent, building a team sorting out a workplace problem, whatever. They get to use whatever the assessment buyer buys (or specifies) for them. Fair enough, as far as it goes; that is how things work in a large organisation.

But here is the huge lost opportunity: a) why on earth is the assessment buyer treating the assessment of the company’s most valuable asset as it they were buying pencils and ignoring b) the opportunity to build over time a valuable map of the organisation’s talent and strengths? What do I mean?

Piecemeal assessment means that even if a great tool has been deployed to solve an important problem, that is the end of the story. A one-off purchase for a one-time return. Next time some or all of those people are involved in a situation where assessment needs to be used, either the same tool will be deployed again, or a new one; but either way, there will have been little if any value carried forward from the previous episode (except, usually, some increase in the employee cynicism triggered whenever there is a lack of joined up thinking: “here we go again”).

The positive alternative is to seek out and deploy a tool or suite of complementary tools which can be used across all situations (recruitment, appraisal, promotion, career development, coaching etc), and to keep coming back to the data collected already, both in the sense of “deploying once and using often per employee”; and in terms of watching trends over time, planning change programmes, post M&A integration, strategy, whatever. You won’t have a picture of your whole organisation the first time you deploy your selected tool or suite of tools for a 15-person team-building event; but you might be surprised how quickly you start seeing a map of your whole organisation come together, with key cultural or behavioural themes emerging. To senior management (remember them? we mentioned them in the first paragraph) that kind of data is solid gold. The mid-level manager achieves their immediate goal – but the whole organisation benefits as well.

Can you do this with every tool that is out there? Sadly not. Here is a short checklist of assessment properties you need to be looking for:

  • Stability of data over time for the individual (if the same person completing the assessment next week will come out significantly differently to how they did last week, forget it). 3-5 years plus should be a minimum if you intend to use this to build a picture of the organisation .
  • The tool needs to allow for accurate comparison between individuals. This may seem obvious, but very many of the well-known tools don’t do this.
  • Ideally, use a tool primarily designed for, and proven through, use in organisations. A tool developed for a PhD thesis, using a group of undergrad students as the survey sample, may not tell you something useful in an organisation setting.
  • Choose empirically-based assessments (i.e. based on research that establishes a relationship between actual behaviours and how people show up in the assessment) over theory-driven assessments (i.e. tools that categorise people according to a theoretical model) – unless you are prepared to stake your success on the particular theoretical construct involved.
  • Look for a report establishing reliability and validity for the instrument and check that it compares well to alternatives. And always ask yourself if you are seeing a great tool – or just great marketing.

Work must drain the life-force out of your body – mustn’t it?

11 10 2010

I sat in a room with a group of colleagues today, as we reviewed the results of a very simple online test. The test in question was out of a book and wasn’t even pretending to be psychometrically robust, but it did throw up some interesting results. The most significant of these was that 10 out of the 12 people in the room scored highest on preferring being outdoors to just about anything else.

Why this was so interesting was simply because any researcher studying how we actually all spent our working weeks would have required psychic powers to guess that so many of us had this powerful preference for being outdoors. Such a researcher would have been more likely to guess that sitting at a desk and putting in the hours was the highest good in our personal economies.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all people want to be outdoors – that just happened to be the strong preference for this group – nor that their job responsibilities could allow them to spend all their time away from their desks. But it is significant that very many of us, whatever our preferences, seem to take little or no account of them in designing our working week. As one of my colleagues said, “just getting outside and walking up this downtown street for 5 minutes is enough to clear my head”.

So why don’t we take more account of what keeps us clear-headed and motivated? Or do we believe the lie that work is meant to be demoralising and energy-sapping? Here are two questions to ask yourself – and then your colleagues:

1) to what extent do I design my work around what keeps me engaged and energised?

2) to what extent can I actually articulate my motivations and preferences clearly enough to make  1) a possibility?