“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” – George Carlin
Life has a tendency to foreshadow the future, something too few of us notice and even fewer of us heed. Those moments are always clearer in hindsight, when we have the advantage of time on our side. If only you knew then what you know now. If only…
One of those moments occurred early in my military career, when I was too young to appreciate Karma and too shortsighted to see beyond the horizon. It came during a visit to our supply support activity, where I was complaining to the warrant officer in charge about a requisition that had been rejected for a particular repair part I knew they had in stock. The chief looked at the national stock number, mulled it over for a moment, and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s over in reparable exchange. That’s Sergeant Nelson’s area. You need to meet Sergeant Nelson.”
So, together we walked across the warehouse into an area populated by everything from engines and transmissions to starters and alternators. In the midst of this was a hulking young sergeant with a clipboard. The chief leaned in close and said to me, “Watch this.” Then pointed to a stack of ten new HMMWV tires and said, “Sergeant Nelson, how many HMMWV tires do you have there?”
The clipboard dropped to his side as Sergeant Nelson considered the stack of tires before him. “I count eight, Chief.”
“Are you sure? Count them again,” replied the warrant officer.
“You’re right, Chief. Seven!”
“I think we have ten, Sergeant Nelson. Can you count them again?”
“Okay, Chief. Yeah, it looks like ten to me, maybe nine. I’m not really sure.”
I stared at the sergeant for a minute before turning my head back to the warrant officer beside me. Without so much as cracking a smile, she said, “Sergeant Nelson couldn’t count his balls and get the same number twice. I’ll pull the part and have it sent over to you.”
Fast forward two years and I was taking the reins as our battalion logistics officer, a position for which I had competed with a number of other officers. I was the junior candidate, but thought I was well-prepared and educated for the challenges ahead. That’s when Karma came full circle.
The first person to greet me on my first day in the office was Sergeant Nelson, who had only recently been relieved for cause from his position in the supply support activity. His rehabilitation assignment? Working for me. In addition to Sergeant Nelson, my team included a staff sergeant who had been relieved as a company motor sergeant, another sergeant who had been relieved as a supply sergeant, a staff sergeant who was easily one hundred pounds overweight and perpetually angry, a master sergeant who had an approved retirement date, a property book officer who I would fire in the coming months, and two absolutely stellar young soldiers who would prove invaluable to me.
This was my first lesson in the harsh reality of talent management. There’s only so much talent to go around, and it doesn’t always end up where you might want it. Leading a deeply talented team has its challenges, but those typically revolve around managing personalities and sorting through a lot of really good options. The true challenge of talent management? Managing mediocrity.
Most literature on the subject focuses on mediocre performance. That’s helpful in certain circumstances, but what are you supposed to do when someone’s best performance is, to put it bluntly, mediocre? How do you get the most out of someone when the most they can give is below average? In most cases, you can’t simply fire someone for being mediocre, especially when they are honestly trying their best. So, what do you do?
Find the hidden talent
Everyone has a skill waiting to be discovered. Some of us are lucky enough to find it early in life and leverage it to great success. Others aren’t so fortunate. When I eventually fired my property book officer, he was replaced by the lieutenant no one wanted, an odd character who carried a box of field manuals during training exercises because, as he said, “They’re field manuals. Aren’t we supposed to take them to the field?” I soon learned that the lieutenant possessed eidetic memory; he remembered anything he saw. While we spent countless hours improving his other skills, he leveraged that hidden talent to become the best property book officer I have ever seen.
Optimize the talent you do have
Once you’ve identified your team’s individual skills, focus them in ways that help to get the most out their performance. In my case, Sergeant Nelson was exceptionally strong, and the former motor sergeant had an incredible work ethic. As a team, they fed off one another; the whole of their effort was greater than the sum of its parts. They still had their moments – they once installed a new window air conditioner for the battalion commander’s office backwards – but their teamwork reflected the benefit of optimizing mediocrity.
Provide detailed guidance and intent
We often speak in terms of empowering subordinate initiative with broad guidance and clear intent. When managing mediocre talent, that tends to work against you; detail is an absolute necessity. I learned this lesson the day I sent my angry staff sergeant to “top off” our five-ton cargo truck. When I didn’t see him for three hours, I called the motor pool, only to listen to the hysterical laughter in the background as the battalion motor officer explained that my sergeant had spent the previous three hours wresting the top off the cargo bed of the truck.
Maintain an even strain
Even the most talented people make mistakes. Those with less talent tend to make more, and they often make decisions that defy common sense. Losing your temper won’t get you anywhere with mediocre talent and doing so will likely erase any gains you have achieved. Maintain a good sense of humor, because you’re going to need it.
Show your appreciation
For those among the less talented, praise is not something they receive very often, but they need it as much as anyone. Typically, they’re used to the opposite; for them, being on the receiving end of insults, angry outbursts, and general ridicule is the norm. When something goes right, reward them as you would anyone else. When they’re making positive progress, encourage them. In the end, a little motivation goes a long way.
Their success is your success. Remember that.