American View: The Great Brain Robbery

New workers have to get up to speed in their roles and environments before they become fully productive. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that it’s arrogant and condescending when senior leaders demand that new workers be somehow instantly proficient the day that they’re hired.

The road to bankruptcy and business failure is more often paved with blind arrogance than good intentions. Leaders often mean well, but their lack of personal experience operating at the ‘tip of the spear’ in the various arms of their business cripples their ability to make rational decisions about how to solve problems in underperforming units. Put less charitably, leaders make assumptions rather than accept that they may be out of their depth concerning a subject that they themselves have never experienced… and experience is often more important than skill or intent in accomplishing business objectives.

My oldest son is currently learning this lesson at a major retail chain. He works in the company’s logistics arm (which is a polite term for the freight team). Lately, the team’s senior members have either resigned or gotten themselves fired, taking most of the department’s tribal knowledge with them. Management responded by hiring new employees on a one-for-one basis for each lost worker. Things went to crap when upper management decreed that the reconstituted freight team needed to immediately resume hitting their nightly production targets. After all, they now have the same number of workers as they used to. Therefore, their work output should be exactly the same as it had been the month prior.

I think I know how the conversation went when the ‘bad’ numbers hit the boss’s desk:

‘How can this be? We replaced all of the lost workers, yet their output is less than half of what it was!’

‘Maybe it’s because the new workers are just that: new workers. They’ve never worked in our company or in this field. They still have to learn how to do their job properly.’

‘Bah! Humbug! It’s just freight work, Smithers. What is there to learn? Just carry the thing to the place and repeat until there are no more items to stock. Anyone can do it.’

‘Have you ever worked in freight, sir?’

‘No, but how hard could it be? Anyone can perform the work perfectly immediately upon being hired.’

By that inane logic, an eight year old who’s played his first game of football should be able to immediately suit up for Liverpool FC.
By that inane logic, an eight year-old who’s played his first game of football should be able to immediately suit up for Liverpool FC.

I’m not suggesting that I have hidden microphones in my son’s company’s boardroom – it’s just conjecture. I’ve participated in much the same discussion with upper management types dozens of times throughout my time in IT. At high echelons, leaders can manifest some amazingly arrogant assumptions about their workers and work processes.

I suspect that there are two factors in play in the situation that my son is going through at work. First, his upper managers have become blinded by what’s called ‘McNamara’s Fallacy’ – the process of making a decision based solely on quantitative observations, while ignoring all other factors. That is, ten men did X amount of work, therefore any group of ten men can do X amount of work (discounting factors like acquired skill and variable technical proficiency).

The second factor in play is the natural human tendency to assume that any task one doesn’t understand must be simple. How hard can it be to work freight for a massive national retailer? Pretty darned hard, actually: a member of the freight team needs to recognize and understand about 100,000 SKUs by their packaging and shipping labels. The worker needs to know where and how to deliver items to tens of thousands of locations in a giant maze of a store. The worker needs to memorize the idiosyncratic preferences of every department manager on every shift so that they deliver the right quantity of components to each in the right order to avoid tripping up other processes. Is any of this knowledge necessarily difficult to acquire? No, not particularly. It does, however, take time to acquire. Even a person who has equivalent experience in a similar business has to learn the store’s unique layout, key personnel and site-specific expectations. Proficiency and productivity come with time.

My son’s company’s senior leaders doubled down on their foolishness with a plan to ‘fix’ the freight team’s low productivity metrics by demanding higher output and by threatening the workers with administrative action (and termination!) if they fail to hit their targets. This is crippling the morale of new hires who are still struggling to learn their jobs. Management’s approach demonstrates a lamentable blind spot towards their workers: they’re insinuating that the team is fully capable, but is deliberately underperforming (perhaps out of laziness or spite). Management’s approach seems to have discounted the painful truth that the new team isn’t yet capable of performing at full proficiency until they’ve mastered their new jobs.

To be fair, many new managers weren’t the least bit qualified to lead anyone or anything when they lucked into their job. It’s only natural that these idiots might assume that everyone else’s experience was similar.
To be fair, many new managers weren’t the least bit qualified to lead anyone or anything when they lucked into their job. It’s only natural that these idiots might assume that everyone else’s experience was similar.

Management’s spiteful and short-sighted plan won’t succeed; I argue that it’s guaranteed to backfire. Even if all of the remaining workers can get up to speed, the team will shrink again as workers get frustrated and quit. There won’t be enough bodies per shift to move all the freight. The metrics will stay ‘broken’, the beatings will intensify and eventually there won’t be anyone left working in the logistics team at all. As one, the abused workers will tell management where to stick their shipments.

I empathize with both sides’ positions in this mess, but I have zero sympathy for the people in charge. Any leader who demands improved performance from a team where he or she has never personally served is asking for strife. A leader can’t possibly make a sound decision without an insider’s view of the problem. Top leaders should be empowering their trusted subordinate leaders to handle their functions. A senior manager who interjects him- or herself into an operation two or more echelons below their own is a dangerous menace.

In this case, it appears that the line manager over the logistics team either doesn’t comprehend how to properly train his new workers, or can’t explain to upper management what it will take to bring his new hires up to speed. I’d bet 20 quid that both assumptions are valid. The odds are good that the manager running the underperforming team is the primary cause of the team’s troubles. The fact that upper management hasn’t addressed that is a sure sign that they don’t know how to lead.

A good leader knows how to turn a greenhorn into a seasoned worker. A strong leader pushes back against unrealistic pressure from above. A smart and strong leader has the moral courage to communicate exactly what it takes to achieve the company’s objectives given the prevailing conditions. A good leader crafts a practical and fact-driven plan that may require over-hiring, overtime pay, seconding of key workers, changing of ineffective protocols and requests for relief from regular performance targets.

‘I love your confidence in us, boss, but there’s no way we can meet that target without skipping critical steps. Let’s see what we can do to get as close as possible to your goals while still following our safety regulations.'
‘I love your confidence in us, boss, but there’s no way we can meet that target without skipping critical steps. Let’s see what we can do to get as close as possible to your goals while still following our safety regulations.’

Credit where it’s due: this is something that the military consistently gets right. During the ten years that I spend commanding a unit, we always had a voracious recruiting and training program. For every unique job code, we had a minimum of three different skill levels: an apprentice, a skilled worker and an expert. We had training plans for each level that included formal schools, on-the-job mentoring, commercial certifications, expert lectures and constant skill evaluations. It was clear when we could count on a team member to perform at full effectiveness, and we never expected unreasonable proficiency from a trainee.

Behind all of the training was a pipeline of new hires that targeted raw recruits against work centres and specializations based on the probability of future losses. Every time a seasoned worker left the unit, the workers behind him moved up and a new recruit was introduced into the apprentice role. Thanks to constant wartime turnover, no section ever stayed fully proficient for more than a few months at a stretch, but that was okay. Sections always rebounded swiftly, accommodating new trainees into a routinized professional development program that everyone understood.

Additionally, we commanders learned to accept that no core function would ever average greater than 75 per cent effectiveness thanks to normal turnover, and compensated for it by aggressively cross-training our senior personnel in multiple technical specialities to facilitate ‘surge’ operations and spreading out critical tasks. We also planned our units’ work based on realistic capability, not irrational desires. The corporate world can learn a lot from modern military management doctrine.

All that being said, I understand the situation that my son’s company has found itself in. They clearly don’t understand how to manage their employee turnover. There are a bunch of us veterans that could help them overcome it… if only they’d listen to what we have to teach.

Relax. Most of us spent far more time planning complex logistical operations than we ever spent employing organized violence.
Relax. Most of us spent far more time planning complex logistical operations than we ever spent employing organized violence.

First, upper management needs to ensure that the manager over the freight team is fully qualified to lead his team. Assign a senior manager to directly mentor the line manager until he’s demonstrated competence on all aspects of his job – including the training of new personnel. Accountability starts and ends at the top of the chain of command.

Second, upper management needs to reinforce the underperforming section with additional trainers whose sole mission is to bring the new hires up to full proficiency. Demonstrate the company’s commitment to workers’ success with aggressive and realistic training targets, not pointless threats.

Third, either lower the productivity targets for the weak section long enough for the team to reach full operational capability (FOC), or else reinforce it with additional fully-trained personnel to carry the load while the trainees learn their function. Pick one path and live with the results.

Fourth, start over-hiring. If the team is supposed to have ten workers, then hire three new apprentice-level workers over the normal roster in order to pre-emptively mitigate future losses. Accept that attrition is inevitable. Once the team reaches FOC, the ‘excess’ workers (who will have clearly demonstrated their value during spin-up) can be used to fill shortages elsewhere in the store.

Fifth, incentivize the seasoned team members to stick around and mentor the new hires. Do everything it takes – raises, promotions, public praise, etc. – to keep the best-qualified team members from leaving until the team can endure their loss. Then free them up to actively mentor trainees rather than pressure them to fulfill individual productivity goals.

Senior individual contributors are to the corporate world what sergeants are to the Army: the backbone of every workgroup. Their confident leadership turns a group of workers into a functioning team.
Senior individual contributors are to the corporate world what sergeants are to the Army: the backbone of every workgroup. Their confident leadership turns a group of workers into a functioning team.

Finally, the senior staff need to lead by example: let their designated seconds-in-command take over for a few weeks and go serve shoulder-to-shoulder with the new hires on the freight deck. Haul boxes. Break down crates. Inventory deliveries. Show the entire team that every job is important, and that leadership deeply values the contributions of every worker. It doesn’t matter how simple a job may seem from a distance; modern jobs have far more in common with daring heist movies than they do with mindless drudgery. Even a part-time freight worker needs to understand computerized inventory management systems, how to pilot a forklift and how the customers who buy their products actually use those products.

In the process of serving on the line, the company’s leaders can learn for themselves just how complicated and nuanced it is to run logistics in their own bloody organisation, and – from that experience – maybe think up some new ideas for improving both new employee training and core work processes. The might even gain some respect for their line workers as well.

All of the steps required to solve the freight team’s productivity problems start and end with leadership ‘owning’ both the problem and the solution. When leaders threaten workers from their corner office, they’re exemplifying the honourless arrogance that inexorably drives an otherwise decent company into humiliating bankruptcy. Bad leaders drive off good workers. This isn’t just a retail truth: it’s applies to every company everywhere. Soldiers, welders, nurses, teachers and box kickers [1] all deserve a leadership team that understands and respects their contributions.

The first crucial step in having respect for your workers is to understand and appreciate what in blazes it is that your workers do. Never assume that a skill you don’t have is either simple to master or unimportant. Condescend to your employees, and they’ll leave you in a heartbeat to go work for someone that does respect them. Ignore this rule at your peril.


[1] In the US Army, all flavours of logisticians used to nicknamed ‘box kickers’.

Title Allusion: Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery (1975 Book and 1979 Film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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