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Equal Opportunity, High Potential Employees, and Golf

Authors: Managing Partners Robert Eichinger, PhD and Roger Pearman, EdD

Contributing Author: L Diane “LD” Bennett, PhD

Equal Opportunity. Everybody endorses it by now. Certainly, most managers, leaders and executives of sizable enterprises endorse it. We are all striving toward Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I). It’s a winning strategy. It benefits everyone.

Here is one disruptive twist in the DE&I conversation:  If you believe in Equal Opportunity, you have to apply differential treatment! That’s right, you HAVE TO treat people differently. Therefore, fairness is differential treatment. Treating everyone the same would not result in Equal Opportunity BECAUSE people are different. They have different development needs, different backgrounds, different preparations and experiences. You have to adjust to the differences in order for each person to flourish and succeed given their unique gifts. Many can make it to the top leadership spots but they will get there differently. The career path support will be different for each candidate depending upon where they start.  

Our Point of View

Accessing, promoting, and nurturing diverse talent is essential for a sustainable and thriving enterprise. Further, inclusion brings intentionality to the table so that the right opportunities are provided to maximize a diverse workforce. Any barriers to talent development and utilization need to be systematically removed. Therefore, in the TalentTelligent library of research-based practices for successful high potential employees (KSAP: The Knowledge, Skills, and Attributes of High Potential Employees) our clients leverage a mission-critical Practice item worth exploring. The item is:

Practice 13: Managing People Differently
The Essence

People are different. Groups are different. Enterprises are different. To be the most effective in working with and managing people, you need to be able to read important differences, consider your own differences, and match the two to apply the best tactics to get great things done together.

The Definition

People and group differences require being managed differently. A single- or one-way style of managing and leading people will be limited to only one version of people. Ideally, a leader would lead people where they live, each according to their unique need for direction, support, engagement and development. Some people like to move fast, some slow; some detailed, some general; some with rapport, and some more direct. Some people like more frequent feedback than others. For some, feedback works best with humor. For others, not so much. Knowing how to confirm strengths and/or provide corrective feedback for motivating others is important. Developing leaders need to practice multiple approaches in order to manage different people differently.

The Behaviors and Observables
  1. Approaches and manages different people differently, aligned to needs.
  2. Reads people’s comfort points and adjusts accordingly.
  3. Builds and uses multiple approaches to managing others. 
  4. Adjusts midstream when the first approach isn’t working. 
  5. Sets aside personal preferences or style to match the preferences or style of others.

Managing People Differently is derived from a number of sources. It is in part a diversity and inclusion item. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is oft-quoted as saying, “judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character”. It comes also from Isabel Briggs Myers in her book Gifts Differing.  Her point was that people come in different sizes and shapes, or characteristics of personality, and need to be dealt with differently. And it may be taught through an analogy from the game of golf!

Golf and a Level Playing Field: an analogy

It’s Saturday morning and a friendly foursome of golfers begin a round of golf. Each of the four players would like to better the others by playing 18 holes with the lowest number of strokes. They will enjoy the game more if there is Equal Opportunity to win. Usually, there isn’t. One player might be a card-carrying professional and another a low handicap golfer. One might be a Saturday regular and the other could be beginning a new hobby. The pro would probably win every Saturday, which is not very exciting or motivating for the other three. To remedy this common scenario played out around the world, a golf handicap system, managed by a governing body, was created to level the playing field. 

A golf handicap is a numerical measure of an individual golfer’s scoring potential, based upon how well they typically score against static course ratings, that is used to enable players of varying abilities to compete against one another. Better players are those with the lowest handicaps. Those with lesser ability have higher numbered handicaps. Stated simply, handicaps allow for calculating a “net score”, arrived at by subtracting one’s handicap from the total number of strokes played. The net scores become the basis for comparison for who wins the day. So, all four golfers in the foursome have an equal chance of “winning” the outing with the least number of strokes, once adjusted by the handicap. 

It follows then that the game of golf manages golfers of different abilities differently, each according to their current skills. Unequal treatment results in an Equal Opportunity to have fun and win, regardless of whether or not you are the best golfer standing on the first tee.

Equal Opportunity and Value Statements 

Many organizations have value statements. It’s common to find these statements: “treat people equally and fairly”. It works if “equally” means differential attention, opportunity and support. It works if it means everyone gets the treatment they uniquely need.

During thousands of coaching sessions we have heard leaders state that they proudly treat people equally. If that means they treat people the same, that’s not Equal Opportunity. If it means they give every direct report one hour a week to talk about their career, that does not lead to Equal Opportunity. Some need two hours and some need a short chat. That’s differential treatment leading to Equal Opportunity.

You’re probably asking by now, why are we telling you this? In our largest study to date using KSAP—the Knowledge, Skills & Attributes of Potential, and correlating it against other independent measures and estimates of potential, this item did not correlate. It was actually a negative correlation. The higher people rated your potential, the lower they said you behaved like this item. To further interpret this finding, they said people with a lot of potential didn’t do the following:

  1. Approaches and manages different people differently, aligned to needs. 
  2. Reads people’s comfort points and adjusts accordingly. 
  3. Builds and uses multiple approaches to managing others. 
  4. Adjusts midstream when the first approach isn’t working. 
  5. Sets aside personal preferences or style to match the preferences or style of others.
Negative Correlation and Positive Course Correction

The negative correlations were a curious result. All of the other items in the KSAP Survey correlated positively. This one didn’t. Why? There are a number of possibilities:

  1. People do not understand the item, they do not read the definition and think it means being unfair by treating people differently. They are reading the item against their internal value judgement that managers and leaders should apply equal treatment. They see treating people differently as a bad thing, a flawed practice, and something you shouldn’t do.
  2. The sample for this analysis included a lot of senior executives. It could be that this is a vestige of implicit bias and that they believe that providing more support to select team members is not fair to all members. They could posit that people needing more support and more “treatment” are lesser in value and quality. These possibilities might be a last stand against DE&I programming. We have experienced many executives state that they support DE&I, as long as the standards are high and equal.  They render the now oft-stated request to HR and recruiting to find me a “qualified” X, and I will hire them.
  3. Maybe today’s High Potential Employees are not like the High Potential Employees to come. In the past, you could get to the C-Suite and do well with a “treating everyone the same” mindset.  It could be that this item will begin to correlate with younger people earlier in their careers. We are positive that leaders of the future will need to embrace and execute on DE&I to be successful.  
All in, we are puzzled and curious.

We will monitor other studies to follow this result. If it continues to not perform, we will change it. For the time being, we are going to keep the item in our KSAP (High Potential Employees) library, where we’ve also published 210 assignments describing roles and strategies to provide the development experiences needed, depending upon where one starts on the development-readiness curve.  

As to golf, we leave the on-course performance to our golf-crazed colleagues.