Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International
This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
Supervisors drive much of employee perceptions of agencies. They make or recommend training approvals, selections, leave approval and more.
I have heard many people say (and I agree) that people go to work for organizations, but they leave a supervisor. We know great supervisors can make even the most trying agency a better place to work, while lousy supervisors can make even the best organization a horrible workplace.
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With that perception being so widespread, most people would conclude supervisory selection processes are carefully designed, intended to select the best leaders and receive a tremendous amount of attention from senior leaders and agency heads. And most people would be wrong. In fact, the recruiting and selection process most agencies use for supervisors is no different from what they use for other jobs. It is typically a questionnaire that is mostly copied from other similar jobs they have filled. The questions are, at best, the result of a basic job analysis that is not particularly rigorous. Most focus less on the supervisory aspects of the job than the technical aspects.
There are currently more than 1,800 supervisory jobs advertised on OPM’s USAjobs.gov. I sampled dozens of the current listings and found only a few that focused intensely on supervisory/leadership skills. For most, the majority of questions are purely technical.
For a basket weaver supervisor, the questions are intended first and foremost to determine how adept the applicant is at basket weaving. The so-called “soft skills” of leadership are covered in a few questions that clearly do not drive who is on the final referral list. The problem is compounded by the quality of the leadership-related questions that agencies are using.
Here is a sample of the type of questions we see far too often:
Do you provide leadership in setting the workforce`s expected performance levels commensurate with organizational strategic objectives?
What is wrong with this question? It is vague, focuses on activity rather than results, and does not address at all how well the applicant might have done the work. The first four answers address education and the level of supervision under which the work is performed. The last answer finally gets to expertise, but only as the applicant believes other people perceive him/her.
Most of us have worked with people who believe they are exceptionally good when they are actually just average on a good day. Which answer do we think that type of applicant will select?
Here is another example:
Select all of the statements from below that best describe your supervisory responsibilities and experience:
This question lists tasks, but does not address frequency of performing them, recency of the experience or how well they were done.
The question was one of 13 total questions and one of four that addressed supervisory skills. That means the majority of the score is most likely coming from the technical questions, and the part that is based upon supervisory skills does nothing to address how well the applicant performed.
The technical skills focus is the single largest problem in the hiring and promotion process for supervisory jobs. That flawed screening process is not typically followed by any kind of formal assessment to ensure the best candidate is selected. With so much focus on technical skills, the agency identifies the person who has the best technical skills and misses the candidates who might have great leadership skills but be only average in technical ability.
Supervisors are not required to be the technical expert — they are required to be the best supervisor. Those are completely different skill sets, but agencies select people based on the technical skill set and place them in jobs that require an almost completely different skill set.
When people are selected for a job (supervisor) based upon their ability to do a very different job (individual contributor), there is a lack of connection between the new role, the competencies it requires for success and the screening process that is so obvious that it should be high on the list of hiring processes that will be fixed.
My review of job announcements and discussions with human resources professionals and agency managers found that the problem is generally acknowledged to be real and in need of a fix, but few resources are being devoted to the fix. Here are a few reasons why:
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Seeing the true effects of the supervisor selection problem is essential to overcome inertia and safety in numbers. When agencies fully understand what happens as a result of the flawed selection process, they should devote the necessary resources to fix it. So what are those effects?
One solution to this problem is to have thorough leader development programs that help strong technical folks become better leaders. I have written about that subject before and still believe such programs are essential for any agency.
But there is another solution that also needs to happen. Agencies need to fix the supervisory selection process. The good news is that everything that needs to be done is within the control of agencies.
Here are the key characteristics of a better process:
All of these process fixes can be implemented quickly and without spending hundreds of millions of dollars. They would significantly improve the likelihood of the best leaders being selected for supervisory jobs. That in turn should allow agencies to improve morale, productivity and overall performance. The cost is so low and the benefit so great that there is no reason not to get started now.
MORE COMMENTARY FROM JEFF NEAL:
“Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.”