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What Are You Doing for the Marvelous Middle?


Wed Nov 12 2014

What Are You Doing for the Marvelous Middle?

Every company I talk to, every article I read, and every talent manager I work with—essentially everyone everywhere—wants to hire the best and the brightest. This is a great goal. High-potential employees need less training and come up to speed quicker, and they seem to be more engaged and motivated. In other words, they have potential to assume team lead roles and eventually management positions. 

But there is a critical flaw in the hiring and courting of high potentials: there is a finite group of the best and the brightest. Guess what happens when everyone plans on hiring them? Not every organization will get its share. 


Indeed, lots of time, money, and effort go into designing recruiting, retention, and succession planning programs for this elite potential group. You can read about these programs in just about any talent management, human resources, or general business publication. They all seem to be scurrying around to coddle a small market segment that may not actually have all the potential that it is expected to have. 

Is there an alternative to high potentials? 

Perhaps it is time to do more for the “less than the best.” These are not the brightest stars in your sky, but they also aren’t the dregs either. They’re solid performers. They put in a good day’s work. They don’t gripe much. They try to get along with others. They’re thankful to have a job. They’ll stay late to help you get finished whatever is needed. They may not have an Ivy League degree or a compelling list of internships, but they did well in school and sports and they want a chance to shine. 

These are your folks in the middle. And this middle segment is your key competitive advantage. They’re willing and they’re able. They want to learn and grow and they don’t assume they know it all already. They are the largest segment of your employee population, so they hold the greatest potential for your organization. 

What are you doing to cultivate the marvelous middle? 


What are you doing to tap this latent potential and turn it to your advantage? What if you applied some of those high-potential program components to this group? Do you suppose engagement would increase? Turnover decrease? Collaboration and communication improve? Customer service achieve higher ratings? Sales skyrocket? Revenue double? Profits soar? You might be surprised. 

Here are three broad strategies for tapping into this marvelous middle. 

Hire carefully for every position. I’ve learned through more than 30 years in human resources that the right person hired into the right job is the key to success. The person gets off to a good start because they are excited about the opportunity and have the skills to do the job. The manager is excited because this person can be productive and quickly add a valuable resource to his/her team. 

I believe that every hire should have 75 to 80 percent of what is needed to do the job; and that 20 to 25 percent should be new or a stretch. This challenges and engages the person without overwhelming them and gives them an early sense of satisfaction and achievement that you can build on to see where else they can grow and contribute to the organization. In your learning role, you can help hiring managers evaluate applicants' skills and experience and determine transferable abilities. 

Every manager must be a coach; every organization must have a learning mentality. The most important factor in learning engagement and transfer is the person’s manager. Questions to consider: 

  • Does the manager set goals for each learning experience the employee attends?

  • Does the manager help the employee with their individual development planning?

  • Does the manager review what was learned from training opportunities and supervise the application of that learning on the job?

  • Does the manager discuss the employee’s future in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities they possess and they will need to acquire?

  • Does the manager look for development opportunities that give employees exposure and maturity?

  • Is there a recognition throughout the company that every interaction has the potential for learning and growth and should be approached with care and consideration? 

In your learning role, you can model these behaviors and instill them in the management team. 

Hold people accountable. I’m not talking about a once-a-year performance appraisal. I’m in the camp that thinks performance appraisals are a waste of time and should go down with the Titanic. Instead, I suggest employing an ongoing focus on the results that are to be achieved by the organization and what each and every person is doing to contribute. 

One of the most successful companies I worked for had not only quarterly and monthly reports, but daily stats on their financial results so everyone knew how far they had come and what they still had to achieve. And it wasn’t just the financial results of profit per $100,000, receivables growth, and bad debt percentage of the portfolio. It was also based on what they did to achieve the mission of the organization, which was by loaning money, they were helping the average person achieve their dreams and improve their life.

How can you hold people accountable on a daily basis to the nitty gritty details as well as the strategic vision? The learning function is especially core to the achievement of the organization’s goals since it is through your programs and initiatives that people acquire the competencies to deliver results. 

As a senior learning leader, strategies for maximizing the potential of all employees should be part of your role. As you plan for 2015, what will you be doing for your “marvelous middle?”

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