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January 2011 Newsletter

The Care and Feeding of an Organization's Stars, Mules and Trash

Early in my career I had the opportunity to work for a seasoned human resources professional.  The combination of his intelligence, perceptivity and crassness made for some memorable experiences and pearls of wisdom. 

One day we were discussing the issue of rewards and he told me that he believed in the philosophy of “reward the Stars, feed the Mules and burn the Trash.”  While this is indeed, a crude way of expressing a way to categorize employees, as the years go by I have come to see this in operation in a variety of ways. 

Most organizations either explicitly or implicitly lump employees into these categories.  That is not necessarily a bad thing (except for using these non politically correct labels) because it helps the leadership decide where to invest in its human resources.  Most companies have moved away from one-size-fits all treatment, having realized that spreading limited resources across the entire employee spectrum does not accomplish much.

Stars and Superstars

Leading edge companies are now putting considerable focus on the vital few that will take the organization into its next generation of leaders.  GE, P&G, Intel, Unilever are exemplars of this. They focus on not just the Stars, but the Superstars. 

With shrinking HR budgets more companies are now focusing on these Superstars at the expense of all others. Consider that maybe one-fourth of one percent of all management fall into this group.  While it is extremely important to make sure that the next generation of C-suite leaders are the right ones and that they have been well prepared for the challenges ahead of them, development cannot stop with here.  

As organizations tend to emulate these benchmark companies, careful consideration needs to happen before reallocating funds to the vital few in lieu of the larger group of stars. Doing so, turns many of these high potentials for leadership into high potentials for voluntary turnover.

Developing the Mules

The Mules are the most populous part of the organization. They are its backbone. These are the people, whether they be front line employees or multifunction managers, who keep the organization running.  They are usually evaluated as solid performers with limited potential for movement much higher in the organization.  

Organizations need to continue to invest in this cohort. It requires creating a talent management strategy for the majority of employees.  This includes keeping the workforce fully competent in doing there jobs now and in the near future. It also requires  continued development of employees to keep them motivated to perform and stay with the organization. 

Managing the Mules requires a clear understanding of where the business is going and what competencies will be needed by people to meet this demand. It also requires for considerable one-on-one communication with people to merge the organizations needs with those of each employee.  This usually results in individual development action plans, which are nice documents to have, but they must be acted upon.

Today, effective organization and people development is providing customized development opportunities. Through the use of learning management system technologies, cost-effective learning solutions are available, which allow for the delivery of scalable and diverse learning and development content to this population.

Investing in an organization’s people infrastructure may not create headlines, or put it in state-of-the-art case studies, but it will create a solid and sustainable employee base which will continue to contribute to its future.

Taking Out The Trash

While many organizations talk tough about dealing with low performers, such policies rarely get operationalized fully. At the end of the day, it boils down to each supervisor being able to implement such policies.  Oftentimes they are either ignored or manipulated so that ultimate action is not taken.

The easiest way to circumvent the problem is to provide overly lenient performance evaluations.  This may be countered with the organization forcing performance rating distributions, such as requiring 10% of the workforce be rated in the lowest category.

Being in this category does not necessarily mean people are terminated, but at a minimum they are put on performance improvement plans.  Frequently, the blame for poor performance is quickly attributed to lack of motivation or desire to perform and that employees are warned to “do better”.

Supervisors need to own this poor performance and become a coach in working to turn the employee around.  This may mean remedial training and closer supervision, along with continuous honest feedback, with the ultimate goal of turning the employee into a productive one.