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Leadership Made in Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: The five C’s of a great employee – Competence

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Last week, I shared thoughts on the 5 C’s for a great employee (Competence, Character, Culture, Calling, and Chemistry). Over the next five weeks, I will be expanding on each one of the C’s, not only on what they mean, but on strategies for assessing whether the employee you are about to hire possesses this facet for your organization.


In my previous professional life, working as a management consultant and consulting for different companies in North America and Europe, I was surprised by how often I ran into employees who were clearly not competent in the roles that they occupied in their organizations. These were companies with large employee counts and each of them had Human Resources departments that had at least five people in them…enough people to create and oversee a hiring process that should screen properly for competence.

From large retail chains to food processing companies to logistics companies to manufacturing companies, these companies all struggled with successfully hiring people that were competent for the jobs for which they were hired. And firing them was difficult once they had been hired. Even in the USA, getting rid of non-competent employees is not as easy as it is made to appear on Television.

In Europe, the problem was just as prevalent. Companies that I interacted and/or consulted with were challenged with employees who were not competent at their jobs. This is not an assertion that all of the employees were not competent; it was still a minority of them, but in today’s competitive business climate many companies cannot afford to hire even one incompetent employee and bear the cost of the wasted resources that this hire represents.

I was pleasantly surprised when I ran into the African Leadership University’s staff and after interacting with them for years I could not find a single staff member that was not competent for the job that they were hired for. This record of successfully screening employees for competence is at the heart of the success and impact that ALU has had in its short period of existence.

I decided to investigate the process and found out why the company has such a great track record of hiring for competence. The secret to their hiring process is that they did not depend on interviews for hiring or deducing competence. ALU depended on assignments, rather than interviews. To screen for competence, the team would invest time in devising a set of assignments that could be done over the course of a day or a week that would provide a bellwether/indicator of the prospective employee’s competence at performing the role that the job required.

Creating this assignment took time and required careful analysis of the job description in order to create something that could be performed in a short amount of time and yet would provide an accurate indicator of competence relevant to the job.

The human resources staff and the hiring departments would confer about the assignment and have robust discussions about it before it was given to candidates. After the candidate performed the assignment, then a team of three people would review it and discuss the results of the assignment with the candidate; after this they would make a decision on whether or not to hire.

As I investigated this method of hiring, I realized (belatedly) that the same method was used to assess my competence for the role that I performed at ALU. Before being invited to be the Founding Dean of the ALU School of Business, I was invited to deliver a class on leadership to the undergraduate class of students at ALU. I was also invited to facilitate a strategy session for the leadership team as they needed to review their strategy and create a new plan for the next few years of the university’s evolution.

The leadership team at ALU devised the assignment for the person who would be entrusted to birth the pan-African MBA program and I had little idea that I was being “interviewed” as I was invited to support the university with these services.  After joining ALU, I learned that this process works very well, as long as companies are willing to invest the time up front to devise the assignments and use them. Since that time, I have not used interviews to screen candidates for roles.

This methodology of vetting candidates for competence was not invented by ALU; however, despite the overwhelming evidence that assessments are a more accurate indicator of competence than interviews, many companies still use interviews (and the review of CVs) to screen candidates for employment. Why does this happen?

  1. Laziness – For some companies and their hiring and HR managers, this process simply requires too much intellectual effort to execute. It is far easier to simply review a CV and conduct an interview. Very little advance preparation is required and a manager can simply show up to the interview having reviewed the CV five minutes before the interview and ask questions.

Some managers even make the mistake of talking more than listening during the interview, and talk themselves into a false sense of security about the capability of a candidate who may have done little more than agree with the interviewer and nodded sagely and laughed appropriately at the interviewer’s proclamations and jokes.

Creating an assignment that reflects the job description and competencies of the role requires thought, analysis, preparation, and intellectual rigor. Reviewing and grading that assignment also requires intellectual energy. Some company managers and leaders are not willing to invest that level of energy and choose the easy way out because they don’t want to think too hard.

  1. Impatience – When companies have a vacancy, the managers are typically in a hurry to get that vacancy filled. It makes sense; there is a vacancy because there is work to be done and nobody available to do it.

Typically in this situation, the company is having to make others work overtime or extra time to get the work done and it is probably not being done excellently because of this. Sometimes, the work simply does not get done and an opportunity to generate extra revenue or save cost is forfeited as a result.

So, there are logical and good reasons why a leader may be in a hurry to fill a vacant position. It is this rush or impatience that leads leaders to favor the interview process rather than the assessment process, because the interview process is faster. Even if the HR department requires three different people to interview, it can be all done in one day! However, the assessment process takes more time and may take several days.

However, it is important to remember that this action that can be done quickly will have repercussions that may last several years…both positive and negative outcomes. If the outcomes are positive, the company will rejoice. If they are negative, the company and its stakeholders will suffer and it may take months and years to repair the damage caused by an incompetent hire.

  1. Corruption – Let’s face it, we are Africans and when it comes to filling positions, we are familiar with the fact that we will receive phone calls from strange places informing us that it would be good for us to hire the caller’s cousin, friend, or political ally’s son/daughter. Even in our own extended families, we may have adults that we are financially responsible for and are seeking to do some ‘load-shedding’ by getting this adult a job.

The high unemployment rate in African countries creates a situation in which hiring decisions are often fraught with personal interests that may not be aligned with the interest of the company. The problem with conducting assessments is that they make the cream rise to the top, and that can be a challenge when the hiring manager or the HR officer already has decided who they want for reasons that may range from innocent emotion to nefarious.

Interviews are much easier to manipulate in terms of results; after all, the interviewer asks questions and then is free to make comments and rate one candidate higher than another and can state reasons for this that are totally subjective and biased. I once sat on the Board of Directors of a parastatal that had to hire a senior executive for the parastatal.

Knowing that there would be undue influences brought upon the Board members in favor of certain candidates, I convinced the Board to use an assessment method to “interview” the candidates. By the end of the two-day assessment process, the most competent candidate was clear to the Board members, some of whom immediately began to grumble about the process and attempted to dissolve the process.

Unfortunately for them it was too late. The Board was “forced” to hire the most competent candidate and he ended up doing a great job for the parastatal in his role (much to the annoyance of some Board members!)

  1. Ignorance – Some HR officers and some hiring managers in Africa are unfamiliar or unaware with the option of conducting assessments. Many of them, when they hear about an assessment process, even protest that this cannot be done for “senior” level people, because it would be demeaning or insulting. If you are one of those that has not heard about or is unfamiliar with the assessment process, I assure you that you are not alone and you do not have to stay in the dark.

It can be done, and it is a best practice for identifying competence in a candidate. When it comes to hiring, ignorance is not bliss. Be informed about methods that will save you and your company headaches later. For senior level hires (including CEOs), this process is even more critical to go through and it is viable and does not have to incur the wrath of a candidate.

The assessment process can and should be designed in such a way as to assess the skills and competencies that are required for the job. When you think about the disproportionate impact that a CEO can have on the fortunes of a company compared to a driver, you should invest more time in assessing a potential CEO than a driver.  If you are unsure about how to design an assessment for a position, consult an HR specialist. Don’t default to a process (interviewing) that is highly unreliable.

Dear African leader, like the tires under a vehicle, the people whom you hire will determine how far your company goes and whether it is able to reach its destination safely. A car, no matter how great the engine is or how beautiful the bodywork is, cannot successfully compete in a race without great tires; similarly, your organization will struggle to achieve its goals if you don’t have the right employees working for it.

Hiring good people is a leader’s primary responsibility. Do not allow impatience or laziness or corruption or ignorance to swindle you into bringing on board an employee who is not competent for the job and thus doom your organization to mediocrity and potential decline. Hiring decisions are long-term decisions and must be treated with the utmost seriousness that they deserve.

No matter who it is, any employee in a company can influence the fortunes of a company and the decision to bring on that person must be done only after using the best practices to vet the candidate for competence. Use assessments to do this; challenge yourself or your HR manager to create and use one for the next person that is being considered for a position in your company.

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