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The Risk of Average People

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

How many organizations, small or large, expect to succeed if they have a large number of “average” people – and by that I mean truly average, neither poor nor exceptional?

None. Yet, do we always do everything we can and should to hire, retain, reward, and develop exceptional people?

Does our human resources function help us find and hire exceptional people, or does it limit us to people who are paid average or, if we are lucky, just above average salary, benefits, and other compensation?

Do you really expect to hire exceptional people with just-above-average compensation?

Are we encouraged to recognize our people – all our people – as exceptional, or are we required to grade their performance on a curve?

At one of the companies where I was head of internal audit (CAE), I inherited an existing team. I would rate only two of the staff (one in US and one in Singapore) as stars; a few had the potential of being very good; a couple were struggling; and the rest were “average”. They were competent, but had little potential for growth and were tolerated rather than welcomed by our customers.

I demanded more, in part because I was changing the style of the audit department so that instead of working in large teams, people were working in pairs or individually. This required more initiative, leadership, and exercise of common sense and business judgment.

The couple that were struggling recognized they were not going to be able to meet the new standard and left of their own volition. A few others saw the opportunity to growth and seized it. But the rest of the “average” performers remained average.

I was able, over time, to find positions for a couple of these people but the rest seemed to have glue on their feet. They enjoyed the new work and challenges, but were setting nobody on fire.

Our human resources function (HR) was no help. Since their work performance was “adequate”, I had no ethical way to move their sticky feet.

I wished I could have rolled back the clock and persuaded my predecessor to hire better people, people with greater intellect, curiosity, and imagination.

I have made a habit, now, of fighting hard to create an environment that lets me hire exceptional people. For that I need pay ranges agreed with HR that let me pay attractive salaries and offer excellent benefits, bonuses, etc. I need job titles that give the people pride in their position and responsibilities. Finally, I need the ability to rate all my people where they truly deserve to be rated – as exceptional performers.

Does your HR function let you hire the best possible person – and that is not the best you can find at the permitted rate, but the best you can find for the job you need done? Or are they a drag on performance?

How many of your sales team are “average”?

How many of your engineers are “average”?

What are you doing about it?

I welcome your comments and stories.

  1. Tom
    November 3, 2013 at 4:22 PM


    Brilliantly articulated commentary.

    I would also respectfully suggest that in the internal audit space we have not spent near enough time as a profession defining what is exceptional performance.

    It is as if sometimes we determine the quality of our performance on its quantity and our impact in a perverse inverse ratio to not upsetting management.

    Ideally I would like to see us collectively to determine what is brilliance.

    And then seek to achieve it.


  2. Alan Proctor
    November 3, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    Fantastic commentary Norman–even if I had not been one of your direct hires! 😉

    Must public school systems water down expectations and colleges seen to churn out entitlement psyches lately.

    Excellence *should* be the baseline expectation for performance and the directives that encourage it.

  3. Andrea Sjovall
    November 4, 2013 at 5:34 AM

    It is interesting to read your commentary from my perspective…one who is seeking their next opportunity and would not be characterized as “average” but can’t seem to move past the application point in the recruitment process.

  4. fakhrul azmi
    November 4, 2013 at 5:57 AM

    exceptional persons are solutions to the problems all of us have. .

  5. November 4, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    “… do we always do everything we can and should to hire, retain, reward, and develop exceptional people?”

    Within every organization, decision making drives performance. Every employee comes to work every day and makes decisions that impact performance. These decisions, at every level of the organization, define the corporate culture and drive performance.

    In 2008, Harvard Business School Professor Robert S. Kaplan and his Palladium Group colleague David P. Norton wrote The Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to Operations for Competitive Advantage. Kaplan and Norton identify ten process (10) steps to strategy execution:

    Step 1: Visualize the strategy.
    Step 2: Communicate strategy.
    Step 3: Identify strategic projects.
    Step 4: Align projects with strategy.
    Step 5: Align individual roles and provide incentives.
    Step 6: Manage projects.
    Step 7: Make decisions aligned with strategy.
    Step 8: Measure the strategy.
    Step 9: Report progress.
    Step 10: Reward performance.

    “Does our human resources function help us find and hire exceptional people, or does it limit us to people who are paid average or, if we are lucky, just above average salary, benefits, and other compensation?”

    Is an essential role of human resources to acquire data on how well individual roles align with corporate goals and strategy? Is an essential role of that human resources to design incentives that encourage and reward performance, while enforcing compliance will applicable laws, rules and regulations?

    With the right tools and the right data, can human resources better understand its workforce to align the culture (decision making) with corporate goals and drive performance? With the right tools and the right data, can human resources better understand its corporate culture to improve the hiring process?

  6. Ihab
    November 4, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    The way judging on someone he/she is exceptional totally varies depending on the manager. Example if someone is working fast and achieving his targets quickly while maintaining perfect relation & communication with the customer or auditee might be an exceptional performer for a manager who want smooth work environment and quick information collection, but might be average for a workaholic manager who sees the important aspect is how many hours the employee spend at the office. Hence, it is vital to align the Audit Function strategy & objectives to the organization Strategy & objectives, then evaluate if the employee is exceptional or not.

  7. J Westley
    November 5, 2013 at 6:43 AM

    An interesting discussion point. However may I suggest it is the Executive team and the Board that need to determine if it wishes to go for exceptional performance or is it happy to accept average? After all it is they who hire the human resource team is it not.
    There needs to be a balance for exceptional performance and achieving the desired goals (average or competent). in both personal and organisational terms.
    You need to define exceptional performance. If it is achieving the optimum or potential in alignment with the strategy then all could be exceptional, if it is going beyond what is expected and entrepreneurial that may be a selected few. If it is to have an entrepreneurial spirit and strive for improvement then we may not all have that ability but then that could lead to an uneven team which burns out quickly and leaves an unstable ship. Sometimes average brings stability whilst those who are exceptional seek to test out its new ideas. Careful not to throw baby out with bathwater.
    It would be more worrying to have in competence than average performance. If someone is average i would suggest they are competent in their role and competence in itself should be rewarded. A person can move between competent (average) and exceptional throughout a life cycle and there is no concern it allows stretch without over stretch and burn out.
    Please define your terms and we can open this debate further.

  8. November 5, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    Ordinary or average people can do extraordinary things when they have inspired leadership. Average leadership results in average results.

  1. November 3, 2013 at 8:38 PM
  2. November 10, 2013 at 8:41 AM

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