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Star Search: Five steps to skilling up your employees

How to liberate employees from dead-end jobs, and why you’ll regret it if you don’t

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at

Jun 2, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

illustration Dushan Milic

Meet Chris. Chris is utterly awesome. If he worked for you, he would be the perfect employee. He does all the things, you know? Not just punctual, but always a bit early so he has time to prepare. Not just competent and efficient, but really on top of things, always looking for that little tweak or improvement that will make what he does better. Self-motivated, self-accountable. And his people skills: to repeat myself, utterly awesome. Everyone likes him, respects him. Even Gruesome Greg, who hates everyone (and is hated by all of them in turn – how is it that he’s your foreman?), admits Chris is OK.

You want Chris’s contact details so you can poach him, right? Perfect. He’s ready for the taking, actually, because here’s the problem: Chris is stuck in a dead-end role at his organization. There are a few reasons for this. First, there’s the nature of the role he’s filling. Most organizations have obvious ladders and upward-and-onward pathways: team lead, section manager, senior operational manager, VP – insert your label of choice here. Then, there are the less obvious ones that require some creative lateral moves and hops. And then there are the thoroughly unglamorous-but-necessary roles, like the one Chris is filling, that are effectively silos. Dead ends. They might even be mission-critical dead ends – without someone in that room 12-hours a day to push that button, your whole enterprise would fall apart – but they’re just not on the track.

Second, Chris is really, really good at this role. Utterly awesome, as I’ve already mentioned twice. It’s a thoroughly unglamorous task that he fulfills, and he rocks it. The temptation to keep Chris where he is right now is huge. His manager would do just about anything to keep Chris in his box.

HR isn’t about counting vacation days. It’s about maximizing the potential of human capital.

Unfortunately, to keep Chris, the manager has to set him free from that dead-end job. Otherwise Chris will leave, either literally, when you recognize his promise and poach him into an upward-and-onward role, or metaphorically, when he gives up on being awesome and starts dialing it in (like Gruesome Greg. Speaking of which, we really need to do something about that guy … ).

What’s that? Oh. You don’t want me to tell Chris’s manager to set him free? You’ve already made the call, done the interview, you’re bringing Chris over? But you’re thinking about his future potential, and you’re thinking about Hugh, Jane and Pat. They’ve all been with you for a couple of years now, and they’re also awesome, but they’re in unglamorous, repetitive, not-gonna-be-a-future roles, too. You haven’t been thinking about their future at all – just how competent they are in the present. You’re thinking … hmmm. Maybe one of them could have been skilled up to fill the role you’ve just brought Chris over for. How do you do that?

Here’s the recipe, in five steps.

First, don’t assume. Instead, assess, and not once, and not once a year. Constantly. “On a regular basis, do an evaluation of the role the person is in and look at their skill set and their capacity to ensure they are the right fit,” says Jeff Cullen, co-founder and expedition leader of BaseCamp4, a leadership and management development program for owners and senior managers. Not only will this practice ensure that you identify Chris’s potential early and be aware of how it could be developed, but it will also mean that if you’ve made a mistake promoting Gruesome Greg (and seriously, what were you thinking?), you have the opportunity to rectify it. “Whether with a new hire, a promotion or an internal transfer, if time is invested from the beginning in understanding the person’s desire and capacity to do the job, you will benefit in the long run,” Cullen says.

Maria Berntzen, leadership performance and efficiency coach at Awesome Journey, agrees – and then urges you to keep on assessing. “It is vitally important that organizations do performance assessments,” she says. “It still amazes me how often that doesn’t happen. That’s the number one tool in making sure you know what your people are doing well, the things they’d like to improve on, where they’ve succeeded, where they would like to get additional help.”

Berntzen suggests you identify a couple of people that you check in with – once a week, once a month – to see where they’re at. And, if those people are in leadership roles, get them to do the same thing with their people. Make that a practice throughout your organization: develop a culture where “Hey, how are you doing? What’s going well? Where do you need more support? Are you content? Are you frustrated?” is part of the regular workplace experience.

Second, divorce performance evaluations from compensation. For Cullen, this is perhaps the most critical piece of the process: separating the assessment/evaluation/“hey, how are you doing?” conversation from compensation. “Evaluations are usually tied to the compensation discussion, and that’s a terrible thing to do,” he says. “There is no good way to discuss compensation and anything else at the same time. If you discuss compensation at the end of the assessment, the person is tense, unfocused and waiting to hear the ‘how much’ – they don’t really take in anything you say until they hear the number. And if you have the compensation discussion first, they don’t hear anything you say after, because they’re either too busy celebrating and spending their raise or they’re angry because they don’t think it’s enough.”

If you’re implementing step one, then this one’s a breeze: those assessment discussions are happening every few weeks or months. It really is that simple, Berntzen says. “If you sit down with your people and ask them great questions, and genuinely listen to what they say, they will tell you what they want and what they need,” she says. “And you will know what they are capable of, and have a better sense of what they need to become more qualified to take on larger roles in your company.”

Third, give HR a seat at the boardroom table. I realize I lost you halfway through step two. Come back. I know you’re busy, and your plate is full. I know that while you understand the importance of talking with Chris, Hugh and Jane, what you’re thinking right now is, “Seriously? When do I have time to sit down and do more performance assessments?” Don’t. Delegate. If your company is of a size that warrants a human resources department, well, it should have one. HR isn’t about counting vacation days. It’s about maximizing the potential of human capital. “A company in which HR has a strategic role, is a company in which high potentials do not get stuck in dead-end roles,” says Cullen. “If HR is valued and practised in a strategic way, talent gets identified, developed and moved up.”

If you’re too small to have a dedicated HR team, you will have to do the communication-assessment part of the puzzle yourself. But don’t fret. It’s not all on you.

Fourth, empower and delegate. Phil Uglow, president and CEO at Renshi Consulting, wants you to know that as a leader, it is not your job to come up with every solution. It’s your job to delegate to the people most affected whenever possible. Now, Uglow’s not absolving you from responsibility for Chris being stuck in a dead-end job. “A leader needs to know where those positions are, for example, and a leader needs to be aware that this is an issue something needs to be done about or they will lose people,” he says. “But it’s not the leader’s job to come up with the answer – it’s the leader’s job to ask the question.” Then, he says, get the team to discuss the situation. We all know position X kind of sucks. What can we do to make that situation better? What can we do to make sure that person feels part of the team?

So you get all this, but it pleases you not because, let’s face it, someone’s got to do those crap jobs that lead nowhere, right? Not everyone gets to be a VP or team lead. Your organization needs grunts and peons! Absolutely. Here’s the last lesson:

Embrace the dead-end role. No, seriously. Someone’s got to work the night shift, clean the puke off the floor and push the red button every seven minutes. To paraphrase both Berntzen and Uglow, frame those roles as true entry-level roles in the organization, roles where you know you will have high attrition because those jobs suck. But not all your attrition should be people leaving. If you are assessing people’s potential, you will find Chris and move him into something better. Then fill it again with someone who may revolve-door himself out, or be identified as a potential successor to the role Chris is filling now. Because Chris, he’s on his way to replacing you. So long as you give him the support along the way.

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