Mine Your Ranks to Find Gold: Finding Untapped Potential in Your Company with SST

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Judy Hobrough, BIOSS, on how Stratified Systems Theory helps CEOs
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While reviewing films for the GO Society, I came across this great statement from Judy Hobrough of BIOSS. She had gone into an organization and mapped the current capability of people with what their current roles were. She found something that surprised the CEO:

There was a huge amount of untapped potential in that organization. That’s not uncommon in the work that we do. There’s, in a lot of organizations, a huge amount of untapped potential

I say this all the time: if you are leading a large corporation and are worried about succession planning, I can go into your ranks and pull out mode 6-8 people within three months. Your subordinates fear their abilities, and not wanting to be shown up by someone younger or “less experienced”, they ensure that these high potentials are shoved down into bad work.

They know your business.

They know your industry.

They know where the bodies are buried. So to speak.

Why spend millions going after people who are still going to require years of training and learning to get there, and who are more likely to leave for somewhere else, when competent high potentials are sitting right under your nose?

Judy Hobrough of BIOSS on how Elliott Jaques’s Stratified Systems Theory can show CEOs the untapped potential in their corporations [free registration required to view]

Comments 10

  1. How do you know as an employee if you have untapped potential? If you think you are, how do you get management to recognize it?

    Your blog and others mention that employees with high potential will be frustrated and unfulfilled working in a particular position if they have the natural ability to work in a different (or higher) one. And that companies can lose their talent if they don’t allow for growth.

    But I don’t think it necessarily follows that a frustrated and unfulfilled individual is definitely a person of unrecognized high potential. That person might just have a negative attitude, right?

    I personally hesitate to jump to the conclusion that I am being wasted in my current employment. I know I have skills and that I am naturally inclined to analyze. But there are many others with similar abilities who also have better “people skills”. There are many possibilities:

    Perhaps I am not overlooked and want too much recognition, leading me to be permanently dissatisfied.
    Perhaps I am overlooked because my superiors have already taken a look and decided that I do not have potential.
    Perhaps my superiors feel I have potential but are turned off by things about my personality or conduct.
    Perhaps my superiors would be happy to utilize me in other ways, but do not know the direction of my ambitions.
    Perhaps promotions do not come to the most deserving, but rather to the suck-ups and bullies, and further time invested here would be wasted.

    If I could somehow objectively test myself for capability I would feel more comfortable making a determination.

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    Rhys, you’re right: it doesn’t follow that just because you are frustrated or feel unfulfilled that you are a hidden high potential. Some people are just fatheaded. Some really are lazy. They are rare.

    Still, many people want to be “smart”, which is stupid because people with high IQs or high potential have more problems than others. According to one longitudinal study, people with IQs above 150 have 2x the incidence of “some or serious maladjustment”. And it gets worse as IQ increases: there’s a reason why we equate “genius” with “geek”. In my own work I have seen similar numbers with people who are capable of larger work.

    So being a very high potential is not something you want. You want to be ten days ahead of everyone else, not ten years. At ten days, you are respected, wealthy and admired. At ten years, you are strange, a problem, bankrupt and feared. (Contempt is also common.)

    Any of the points that you make could be true. (Although I would say that promotions often come to psychopaths and other evil people, but often what we think is a suck-up is something else.) I’ll add another:

    You could be working in the wrong language of achievement. Warren Kinston argues that there are distinct domains of work, and these have their own languages. There’s a reason why people who are disciplinary (like many research scientists) chafe at company management and have to be put into a different facility to keep them. And be managed differently. They speak the language of Disciplines, while corporate managers succeed in the language and domain of Organizational Life.

    You can also be working at the wrong level of company. I mean this differently than I normally do when I say “level”. Instead of worklevel, I mean a company that works locally vs. regionally vs. nationally vs. internationally vs. multinationally. I remember having wild success at an international company but failing at another company that was national. Although comparable in size, they looked at work very differently, spoke different languages, achieved in different ways. I achieve internationally or multinationally, and will probably not find any success locally, regionally or nationally.

    You may even be considered a moron at the lower level but be considered an asset at the higher. One of the people I work with gets little respect as a professional in his region but has been shortlisted and flown out to The Hague for interviews with an international body. Different ways of achieving, different ways of seeing the world, totally different ways of speaking.

    On self-testing: well, people have certainly been trying. The best that I’ve seen is the MCPA which still has to be administered by a certified expert. I do two tests and include a discussion, started with my professional opinion on your natural work domain, to figure out where you will naturally succeed. It is more than simply discussion, because I rely on three different tools, but there is still both intuition on my part and introspection on the part of my Secret Rules of Career Success clients.

    Andrew Olivier, who has a self-testing or evaluation piece to his Working Journey book (Andrew, make this available as a PDF online!). But he says that 3/4 of people were awful at it. Mid-level people tend to overinflate. High potentials who are not working at the right level tend to underestimate themselves.

    I think that I just wrote a lot to say: “It can be complex for hidden high potentials.” Then again, if there were a simple answer, you’d already be living in it.

    I’ll also add this thought: work doesn’t have to fulfill you. You can pursue passions elsewhere and be happy, as long as work isn’t killing your soul. If you are working far afield from what is natural for you, telling you to find fulfillment somewhere else is a Rumsfield answer.

    I’ll try and clarify this in either the book or some posts.

  3. One of my Swedish colleagues did about 35 capability assessments in an organization last year. They were in the midst on a large reorganization and all managerial jobs were redefined and had to be applied for. They have about 350 employees and all applicants were assessed.

    The organization is in the museum sector and has a number of museums in a region, and is seen as being in the cultural sector. The assessments were seen as a way of extending the traditional appreciation of cultural merits.

    It was considered as a great success. A lot of untapped potential was uncovered. In particular quite a number of very qualified women were identified. The unions were delighted as what they considered as very subjective opinions about people were complemented with what they saw as an objective measure.

    Almost all individuals were delighted as they got a deeper understanding of themselves and their career history. One person with higher aspirations than capability was disappointed.

  4. It sounds like Rhys’ organization, like many others, is void of any systematic and requisite approach to career mentoring and succession planning. The MoR/ SoR relationship doesn’t exist there.

    My own view is rarely are behavioural problems intrinsic with the individual. They have an extrinsic relationship with dysfunctional managerial systems. Where people misbehave there is a systems problem. Where they are indifferent they likely do not value the work.

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    Great comments, Paul and Al. Al, you point out exactly the problem. Rhys wouldn’t have these questions, or at least he would feel comfortable working them out, if the company he worked for had the “Manager Once Removed” (or “boss’s boss”) / “Subordinate once Removed” relationship.

    It also takes a system that supports the manager-once-removed (MoR) in making the difficult call that a Subordinate-once-Removed (SoR) could work at the level or or above the manager, given training and mentoring.

  6. @Forrest
    Thank you very much for your answer. I think it deserves more alert attention than I have at the moment, so I’ll bookmark it for a more thorough reading and take some time to think about it. Rest assured I’ll also be coming back to read more. I like the way you write, it’s very clear and concise.

    I’m not entirely sure if I’m suited for discipline or organization. I do suspect instinctively that I’d do best with a local company over international. I have often joked that I think I would be an admirable executive assistant. But enough about me for now.

    You’re right.

    My company…I hesitate to malign the entire management structure (although rest assured I do from time to time when venting my frustrations at home). I think that all of our managers are decent people who as individuals have good intentions.

    But most of them don’t know anything about management and the focus on day-to-day operations prevents them from developing themselves as managers or following through effectively on most policies (unless they come down from the very top). For example, the highest customer service manager in the building spends far more time coordinating with marketing and IT on offers, projects, and software ideas than anything related to the long-term development of the customer service department. The manager below him spends most of her time creating excel spreadsheets (reports), testing new software or features, and dealing with bug reports. The supervisors below that are not only the primary point of contact for the customer service representatives, they are also the ones primarily responsible for training, generating ideas for new procedures, discipline, etc. Yet those supervisors are not given authority to implement any new procedures, write anyone up, etc. without approval from the manager who is busy bug-testing.

    Hilariously, I don’t think that the managers consciously realize that–if I were to walk into their office and ask about it, they’d say that “of course” the supervisors have that authority. But in practice, if a supervisor takes action without checking the action is often criticized and is generally reversed by the managers. And if the supervisor checks, the manager says he’ll take a look and nothing ever happens.

    In my section, the managers are also the primary systems and database admins. This means their technical skills aren’t rusty, but it also means that the only managerial work they have time for are assignments that come down from their managers (things like “look into whether we could implement system x” — more of a “is it technically feasible” report). And catch-up meetings.

    We also don’t have a single qualified project manager in the building, so our software development process is disorganized. Another major problem is probably our lack of a testing staff.

    The only kind of development that exists in either section are the yearly reviews, which are perfunctory and often late. My section will fund some off-job training, like certifications, but it’s an entirely self-motivated thing that comes from the employee. The customer service department does regular training sessions, but I know for a fact that the topics and materials for training are often put together in an hour the night before.

    There is also a decided air of repression–pointing out problems with software or processes tends to earn you a reputation as a negative, difficult, nay-sayer. I’ve seen it several times–employees with knowledge, ability, and analytical power are hired and briefly become a poster child. But after a year passes, their suggestions are met by frowns and sighs.

    And it’s not that big a company! We should be far more agile and dynamic than we are. That’s why I wonder “is it me? would it be like this anywhere?”

  7. As one of our colleagues says “Imagine the mess, everybody doing their best”. And how can one malign anybody seeming to have good intentions and doing as well as they can.

    No its not you!

    You ask if it woud be like this anywhere? Most small to mid-size companies seem to be muddling along and not doing a too bad job out of it. However, I am sure that most could be ignited had managers known a bit more about organization and management.

    Unfortunately most academics, writers and consultants are obsessed by the very large companies and love name-dropping. Usually the large corporations can afford management training and are in fairly good shape. The real challenge is finding how to reach the others.

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    I have spent most of my career in and out of IT and software dev, so I recognize Rhys’s situation. The system is broken, as Al observes. People are trying to do their best in it, as Paul observes.

    There’s a couple of things that are relevant that are worth a white paper or even a book. IT is SO poorly managed. I think because it takes so much technical expertise, but that expertise comes at so many levels.

    Part of the problem is the one of not understanding that some jobs do not start at Stratum / Level 1. And then there is the problem of Disciplinary Work vs. Organizational Work that Warren Kinston has described recently.

    All to say that you’re in a horrible situation but one that has clear solutions that could really take IT into being a real benefit rather than simply a cost center.

  9. I will suggest, based on the wide spread dysfunctional nature of this organization, that the source of the problem (and the potential solution) resides with the CEO. People do not appear to understand what their roles are. Tasks and authority are not clearly understood and assigned. There is far too much firefighting and a lack of forward planning.

    This sounds like a typical organization that has outgrown an owner operator approach with some very good technical ideas and marketable products and services and has failed to design organizational structures and systems that will allow it to sustain its increase in size effectively and grow further.

    The product is obviously good. The people are obviously good and the CEO does not yet understand the significance of structure and systems in meeting his or her growth objectives. The risk is there will be too many surprises, all being reacted to, customer satisfaction will decline at some point if it hasn’t already, and when one of these surprises blows up the conclusion will be someone let the organization down when in fact the organization absent requisite structure and systems is doomed to this inevitable outcome.

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