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Defining the Average Employee

<b><i>The author draws from the studies of his college years to show how statistical probabilities can impact the quality of employees that you hire and retain.</i></b>

I was awarded a doctorate degree with one of my majors in statistics decades ago. I've forgotten most of that formalized training by now. I was into some pretty arcane stuff back in those days and can't possibly take credit now for being a fully functioning statistician in my current life. However, vestiges of that training remain, and one of those old statistical terms I've always liked is “regression to the mean.”

Statistically speaking, it simply means that if you had a population of “abnormal participants” and combined them in some fashion, the overall results would be closer to average as opposed to more abnormal. For example; if you mated seven-foot-tall men and women, the probability is that their children would be closer to the mean — they would be shorter than their parents but still taller than the overall population. Evolutionarily speaking, extremes rarely succeed — it's those plants or animals that may exhibit slight exceptions to average that succeed in moving the gene pool, not the extraordinary. Ever look at a stand of trees and look at the heights of those trees? The heights are remarkably constant; all are close to the mean. What exactly does this have to do with talent and the electrical manufacturing and distribution industries? Let me “regress.”

About three years ago, I hired a new recruiter into my office whom we will call “Betty.” She had several years of recruiting experience, and was remarkably outgoing and aggressive on the phones. In recruiting, the top predictor of success for a new employee, regardless of their previous experience, is the amount of phone time they incur. In Betty's first two weeks, her phone time was nearly double the existing staff of recruiters in my office. I told her to keep it up and that it will pay tremendous dividends to her learning curve and immediate success. After about three months, Betty's phone time was roughly average for the office. Why? She regressed to the mean. The subtle effects of social evolution were at play. Although the recruiters surrounding her are all high-performing and well-tenured, Betty mirrored her phone time metrics to those of the high-performers, even though that was the one metric that was critical to her specific learning curve and success in learning a new industry. New employees mirror the activities of their new peers, regardless of whether that's in the best interests of their new employer. People who aggressively exceed the performance of their peers simply don't succeed for too long.

We've built our company around the tenets of Bradford Smart's book Topgrading. It's an excellent treatise on defining and qualifying talent into “A” players or “B” players, with the underlining premise that “A” players are the key to extraordinary success. I still subscribe to that premise, but after 10 years of recruiting I also recognize that not every company is an “A” company and that a “B” player in one company can become an “A” player in another. Hiring talent is about matching skills, expectations, personalities, responsibilities and other factors. Ultimately, most companies are a collection of average people — all hovering about the mean for that company. Success then becomes managing your team of “average” employees to meet the objectives of your company. Missing your goals? Hire talent above your mean, and replace the talent below the mean. Statistically speaking, this means you have increased the value of the mean and have raised the bar for acceptable performance within your company. The caveat to that statement is that rarely do people hire someone who is disproportionately stronger than themselves. In recruiter parlance, “B” players never hire “A” players. So increasing the value of your company's mean may not be practical if you yourself are “average.”

Hundreds of books have been written on hiring quality talent, effectively managing people and developing growth strategies for your company. For every GE where talent acquisition is a formal process, there are 100-plus companies where just finding someone who can return a call on time is a remarkable event. Defining the quality of talent your company needs to achieve your goals is an admirable endeavor, but the first step to that process needs to be defining what “average” performance within your company is and defining if that's acceptable. Don't overlook what your personal definition of “average” is — your new and current employees all mirror your performance, no matter how outstanding they were to start with.

Ted Konnerth is president/CEO of Egret Consulting Group, Mundelein, Ill., a retained search firm with specialties in electrical manufacturing, distribution, consulting services (architectural and engineering) and mergers and acquisitions consulting. Prior to founding Egret Consulting in 1999, Konnerth was with Cooper Industries. He was vice president of sales for 4.5 years for a $1 billion division of Cooper before starting his search firm. Contact info: (847) 307-7125; or e-mail: [email protected]; website:

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