By Jeff Akens, Experienced College President and Operations Director
The 1998 New York Yankees finished with a regular season record of 114-48, finishing 22 games ahead of the next closest team. In the playoffs, the Yankees lost only two games, winning 11, and sweeping the San Diego Padres to capture the World Series title. Including the playoffs, the ‘98 Yankees won a total of 125 games and had only 50 losses, a Major League Baseball record. They are widely considered to be one of the greatest teams in baseball history – The Perfect Team.
And yet, in the winter of early 1999, the New York Yankees traded three players from their perfect team, including one of their best starting pitchers, to the Toronto Blue Jays for Roger Clemens.
The Yankees won the World Series again in 1999 … and then again in 2000. They are the last team to have won three World Series championships in a row.
About 10 years later, one of my promising young employees assumed his first campus director role, succeeding one of the best campus directors our college system had at that time. The campus had been named the system’s Campus of the Quarter numerous times. The star outgoing campus director had been selected to the system’s annual star performer recognition program, and she had been promoted to a larger campus.
By all accounts, this brand-new campus director was assuming oversight of the best performing campus in our college system at that time – The Perfect Team. Most people going into this situation would have gone into “maintain” mode, keeping everything the same. So, what did this rookie campus director do in his first few months? He proceeded to replace one of his most important, but under-performing campus managers – the program director of his largest program. Even though he had inherited what was probably the best team in our system, he took the opportunity, just as the Yankees had done, to upgrade it and make it even better.
Tough times require top talent
I know what you are thinking … these are NOT ideal times right now. This past decade has seemed to many of us in the career college sector like the most challenging we have faced in our careers. From having to adapt to new regulations, to dealing with the ups and downs in enrollment demand, to the need for quick operational changes to limit the spread of COVID-19, the sector has indeed experienced its challenges. Organizations that have been successful in the past 10 years, and the past few months, have transformed their organizations to address these challenges.
Jim Collins says in his book, “Good to Great,” that executives who ignited transformation “did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus.
But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’”
Maintaining top talent is critical during challenging times for organizations to succeed and thrive. As Mr. Collins says, “If you begin with who, rather than what, you can more easily adapt to a changing world.”
Jack Welch’s differentiation
Jack Welch says in his book, “Winning,” “Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self-confidence.” He discusses in this book his strong belief in differentiating talent to guide a development focus and build a strong team. Jack was devoted to this concept and was strict with his managers about its practice. General Electric (GE) leaders were required at every leadership meeting to update him on what was done to move the bottom 10% up or out, and what was done to support, recognize, and promote the top 20%. Mr. Welch went on to say, “Companies win when their managers make a clear and meaningful distinction between top- and bottom-performing business and people, when they cultivate the strong and cull the weak.”
This may sound harsh and indeed some people believe that Welch’s philosophies are a bit harsh. Some feel that the heavy focus on the bottom 10% and the top 20% ignores the middle 70% of employees who are there every day getting the job done. This may be true and failing to recognize and reward the middle 70% will be detrimental to your organization. However, we can’t ignore how Mr. Welch’s philosophies worked for GE and I can vouch for the fact that they have worked for me as well.
Talent review process
We have all probably experienced many different philosophies about talent review by different leaders. Many leaders look at this process as something they are forced to do, often at a very busy time. These leaders rush through it just to get the process over with and it ends up having very little value. Other leaders are very focused on assessing their talent and using this assessment to help develop improvement strategies. However, they make the mistake of thinking that talent development is simply an annual review process, not something to be focused on throughout the year. Again, this tends to have very little value.
Developing the perfect team requires a strong talent review process focused on differentiation and leaders who believe in the value of this process. But it also requires a focus on this process not as an annual event, but as something that is ongoing. Ensuring that your own talent review process includes a strong focus on differentiation, and an ongoing focus on continuous improvement, are both critical to ensuring that you develop your own perfect team.
In addition to experiencing different leadership philosophies, many of us have been exposed to different types of talent review processes in our careers as well, both as employees and as leaders. What has worked best for me in developing the most talented teams is a system where differentiation is forced on managers, but not at the expense of ignoring the critical middle 70% discussed above. In this type of process, managers are required at least annually to evaluate their talent and put them into the following performance rating groups:
- 20% – Exceeds Expectations
- 50-55% – Fully Effective
- 20% – Still Developing
- 5-10% – Does Not Meet Expectations
Requiring managers to place their talent into these groups will bring awareness to team members that need attention. The top 20% need praise, recognition, and aggressive compensation increases. The middle 50-55% need recognition, thanks, and potentially moderate compensation adjustments. The 20% who are developing but not yet performing at an acceptable level need a heavy focus on improvement, with clear plans to support this development. The bottom 5-10% need to immediately improve or be separated.
Keep in mind that while the allocation of compensation according to how employees are differentiated is a critical part of this process, it does not mean that you must keep increasing salaries every year. Absolutely not! In fact, differentiation will help you control your labor costs by allocating reduced resources to your most critical talent.
The goal of this process is to improve performance, encourage the star performers to continue with the organization, and encourage the low performers to self-select out of the organization.
It forces managers to allocate compensation increases primarily to those who are star performers – the most important employees in your organization.
Focus on performance
It is important when you differentiate, that you do so based on actual performance – not loyalty, hard work, nor personality. A former manager of mine used to say that you must focus on the back of the baseball card, not the front. Those of you who collected baseball cards know that the front of the card features a picture of the player, the back features their statistics. A true assessment of performance means that you measure actual outcomes and compare them to the outcomes of others in the same role. The assessment must be heavily quantitative but should include qualitative assessment as well. It should not, though, focus on how much we like the employee – the front of the baseball card.
At one time in my career, a campus that I became responsible for had just such a culture of rewarding employees for loyalty and hard work, but not performance. Employees who performed well at this campus were constantly having to cover for other loyal, hard-working, but under-performing employees. The campus had very low employee engagement. It was at the time a very unhappy team. The star performers became bitter and frustrated. Many left.
In comparison, the first campus at which I worked in my career had the opposite type of culture. It had an extremely positive culture that engaged people into its mission and a focus on service to the student. Leadership focused on using differentiation to build a strong team of star performers plus solid role players. Well-performing employees were recognized and rewarded, and as a result were highly engaged. Twenty years later, many of the employees who started at that campus during that time were still with the organization.
A quantitative measure of performance requires that we have data to measure. Most of us have access to at least organization or location level data for at least the primary key performance areas – recruitment, retention, satisfaction, certification and licensure exam pass rates, employment rates, etc. But, to really be able to make differentiation work, we need to be able to bring this data down to the individual performer level. When most successfully implementing this type of system, I had access to over 50 different campus performance data points. Most of them were available at the individual level as well. We attempted as much as possible to adjust for situational differences that can skew data comparisons. We then ranked individuals and campuses by each one of the data points and graded them based on their performance. This made the qualitative portion of differentiation very easy.
Differentiating only by the numbers, though, may not be totally accurate. A solid qualitative analysis of everyone’s performance is necessary to have a complete picture. Accurate qualitative assessments can be difficult, however. A tool that I have found to be very helpful in performing strong qualitative assessments is the Lominger book, “FYI – For Your Improvement, A Guide for Development and Coaching,” by Michael M. Lombardo & Robert W. Eichinger. This reference book includes descriptions of 167 different competencies that can be assessed. I found it very helpful in identifying areas of strength and weakness. I’ve even used this book to identify core competencies for critical positions. I’ve then used that list of core competencies as a hiring tool to assess how well candidates match up.
Commitment to action
Developing the perfect team requires an investment in a strong talent review system that includes accurate and honest differentiation. It requires a commitment to acting on what is learned through this process. This includes putting development plans together for team members based on where they land in the performance rating groups. Employees in the Still Developing category need plans to help them improve. Employees in the Fully Effective category need plans that help them continue to develop their already adequate skill set. We also must make a commitment to act on those whose performance lands in the Does Not Meet Expectations category. These employees must immediately improve or must be moved out.
Most important, though, in developing the perfect team is the focus on the star performers. These critical members of our team who land in the Exceeds Expectations category need plans that help them leverage their already strong skill set and help them develop to the next level. These are our current and future leaders, but talent alone will not make them effective leaders.
They are the most valuable assets we have in our organization, but they need to be developed for us to get the most out of their talent.
A great resource that I’ve used in my career is the book, “The Leadership Pipeline” by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel. This book has been a great tool in not only helping me develop my own skills, but also in helping create development plans for my future leaders. The book describes six different passages that leaders go through as they rise within each level of the organization. It talks about the skill sets necessary to succeed at each level and provides suggestions on how to develop these skill sets. I found it to be an invaluable tool in developing my star performers and ultimately creating my perfect teams.
An ongoing process
One final thought on the talent review process – This is not a once a year process! To be effective, there must be a constant focus on continued improvement. We all want to know the same thing – What is expected of me and how am I doing against those expectations? Employees need regular feedback on how they are performing. When this system has worked best for me, I required every one of my managers to meet with each one of their direct reports every month. They were expected to provide direct feedback to each employee in these monthly meetings about how they are performing. Additionally, they were required to review each employee’s development plan on a quarterly basis to ensure progress.
Differentiation must be a consistent process. When implemented effectively, it will result in the overall talent of the organization constantly improving with the bottom 10% moving up or out, and the top 20% continuing to improve. As Jack Welch says, “A company has only so much money and managerial time. Winning leaders invest where the payback is the highest. They cut their losses everywhere else.”
Collins, Jim, Good to Great. HarperBusiness, 2001.
Welch, Jack with Welch, Suzy. Winning. HarperCollins, 2005.
Lombardo, Michael M. & Eichinger, Robert W. FYI – For Your Improvement, A Guide for Development and Coaching. Lominger International, 2011.
Charan, Ram; Drotter, Stephen & Noel, James. The Leadership Pipeling – How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. Jossey-Bass, 2011.
JEFF AKENS served as the Divisional Director of Operations for Success Education Colleges since January 2017 where he helped support and improve the operations of five campus locations.
Prior to joining SEC, Akens spent 23 years with Carrington College, during periods of private, private-equity, and publicly traded ownership. He served as President of Carrington College where he was responsible for 20 multi-state locations, 20 on-site and online programs, 1000 employees, and 8000 students. In addition to President, Akens held a variety of leadership positions with Carrington including Director of Career Services, campus Executive Director, Regional Director of Operations, and President of Carrington College California.
Akens has been responsible for starting many new programs and campus locations, campus relocations, and many successful campus turnarounds. He has been fundamental to the strengthening of academic programming; student satisfaction, retention, and placement; and employee engagement and development.
Akens is a former board member of the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, a former member of the California Community College CEO Board’s Accreditation Workgroup II, and past president of the International Association of Business Communicator’s Sacramento chapter.
Akens holds a Master of Business Administration from DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School of Management and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from California State University, Sacramento. He currently splits his time between his two California homes in Sacramento and Chino Hills.
Contact Information: Jeff Akens // Experienced College President & Operations Director // 916-367-3745 // email@example.com // https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeff-akens-b5607a7/