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Screening for High Performers

The shortage of skilled labor and seasoned construction managers is great. “Seventy percent of construction firms report they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions,” noted a report last summer by Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America.


Even so, I think you can minimize the effects of a tight labor market on your business. But how? One key is to develop a strategy to hire not just anyone with skills and experience, but high performers. Here are some things to think about.

Pareto’s Principle

The Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto, is commonly known as the 80/20 rule. The concept of 80 percent of the output comes from 20 percent of the input has helped organizations identify their mission critical tasks. But the principle can also motivate companies to identify people who have superior abilities.


Scientific studies of organizations “have long suggested that investing in the right people will maximize organizations’ returns,” says the Harvard Business Review. Talented workers function as “force multipliers.” A star performer can boost the effectiveness of the people he or she works with by 5 to 15 percent, HBR says. Northwestern University says a star employee can boost by 15 percent the performance of everyone working within a 25-foot radius. Even though the Northwestern researchers studied 2,000 workers at a technology firm, I think the results could apply to wall and ceiling crews.

Three Qualities to Look For

How do you screen for high performers? The key, HBR says, is to predict who is likely to be a person of influence. Influencers can be identified regardless of job or industry. Here is what to look for:


Ability. The single best predictor of job performance, HBR says, is to give candidates a work sample test. You observe the candidate performing a task that will be a regular part of his or her job. Beyond this, you should screen individuals for IQ or cognitive ability. This will give you an idea of an individual’s ability to process information and learn quickly. Of course, leadership at an executive level requires the ability to think strategically. Strategic thinking calls for vision, creativity and “an entrepreneurial mindset,” HBR says. Such people understand systems and are imaginative.


Social skills. High performers have good people skills. They do well at inspiring others. But social skills also require knowing how to manage oneself. That is, high performers know how to handle pressure and deal constructively with adversity. They always “act with dignity and integrity,” HBR says. But how do you screen for this? Psychometric tests. Psychometric testing can gauge job-relevant cognitive abilities, personality and emotional intelligence. You want individuals who can be both cooperative and persuasive. They need to be able to set goals and push people to attain them, but also know how to build teams.


Drive. Drive involves an individual’s will to work hard and accept nothing less than the best. Lots of people are motivated. You want to hire and keep those who can cross cultural boundaries—even if it comes with physical and psychological discomfort. High performers have that drive. HBR says standardized tests can identify such individuals.

Keeping High Performers

The key to keeping top performers involves giving them a challenge. Northwestern researchers suggest giving high performers extra projects, a company mentor, acknowledgment and genuine commendation. Tell them, “You’re someone who has great potential. I want to help you reach that potential.”


As far as compensation goes, here’s a thought: “[Toss] out the usual pattern of single-digit raises for all,” says Kellogg Insights from Northwestern University. “Instead, give top performers as much as a 20 percent raise, while giving low performers none.”


Of course, high performers aren’t born that way. They need ongoing training and development like anyone else. At your Monday leadership meetings, you could regularly ask this one simple question: “What did you see over the weekend that struck you?” They may mention clothing, food, technology, news subjects, advertisements, whatever. As a creativity exercise, ask them to explain how the company can act on these things. The teaches associative thinking. You might also get their thoughts about this column while you’re at it.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant. If you’d like a copy of the 2008 millennials column, email him at @markjohnsoncomm.

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