The Conspiracy of Average

Updated: Aug 30



We live in an age of conspiracies.

The questions surrounding the JFK assassination, the moon landing and supposed government secrecy around harboring captured space aliens have long been in the ether. But the Internet and social media have strapped these types of stories onto booster rockets.

But in the business world, there’s a conspiracy that’s actually very real but seldom talked about. I like to call it the ‘conspiracy of average.’

Like many conspiracies, this one is hides mostly in the shadows. And yet it exercises a deeply malign influence on those organizations that practice it. I’m talking about a conspiracy to maintain a standard of status-quo mediocrity across an organization, across all elements. This specter of mediocrity eventually creeps its way into the culture, infecting an organization’s processes, people, goals and entire infrastructure.

Naturally, hiring policies are key to maintaining such a culture; they are also key in changing it. In far too many companies the default is still to hire people with whom hiring managers and top management are most comfortable. These successful candidates have similar backgrounds or are from ‘safe’ companies and/or schools and allow people to remain comfortable with their decision. But, of course, that doesn’t mean they’re the best fits for the job, nor the most talented possible hires. For the most part these hires don’t rock the boat. They’re just the safest and easiest choice.

The major players in this conspiracy are much like the legs in a three-legged stool, and they are: top leadership, human resources and staffing, either through internal or external resources.

However, these main players are supported by an entire ecosystem of enablers including business schools (which rarely distinguish human resources as a strategic let alone transformational function in their curriculum), industrial psychologists and organizational development consultants (who pay more attention to psychometric testing to a norm than looking at how people both “fit” with and challenge each other), and of course, a company’s internal interviewing team responsible for reviewing and assessing various candidates.

Together, these players are a part of this conspiracy of average and help create organizations that continue to turn out average leaders who manage average employees within average environments. Is it any wonder that they produce average, or worse, outcomes for their stakeholders?

Of course, there are exceptions.

I had the privilege of interviewing several top chief human resource officers across multiple industry sectors for a search I was conducting several years ago. One of my candidates had been the CHRO for Starbucks as the company grew by leaps and bounds, went international and became the global brand it is today. At the heart of this growth was a deep partnership between business leadership, human resources and recruiting, each of whom was looked at as a function critical to strategically growing the company.

I still recall my candidate describing the various meetings between country leaders, HR business partners and their recruiters. At the heart of Starbuck’s strategy was a concerted plan driven by a commitment to provide a qualitative experience for customers and to create the culture within every store that would deliver this experience, country-by-country.

This commitment was instilled starting at the very top with the CEO and the CHRO, and in turn cascaded down to their direct reports, the business leaders, HR business partners and recruiters.

In successful companies, those that deliver more than mediocrity, there is always a deep strategic partnership between the CEO and the CHRO. HR is not treated merely as a functional role to manage the basic blocking and tackling around hiring, retaining and compensating employees. Instead, they’re embraced as key architects and drivers of business success, invited into the strategic conversation of how best to shape the company and its operational initiatives and how best to leverage talent throughout the organization. Furthermore, staffing, whether as a key component of HR or as an outsourced service, is looked at as an essential function to bring this strategic vision into reality.

In distinguishing these three legs of the stool of the conspiracy of average, we are just scratching the surface. Unfortunately, business leadership, human resources and staffing, all too often work in an unwitting partnership with the other to ensure that the perpetuation of the average persists. While this is a complex set of intertwining issues spanning strategic planning, operations, recruiting and interviewing, breaking the grips of this conspiracy starts with acknowledging its existence and impact.

This blog is the first in a series that will continue to explore the conditions at the heart of this conspiracy which keeps it in place, and to offer up potential actions that allow for a different outcome than the perpetuation of the average.

I invite your participation in this dialogue and ongoing exploration.

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