How do we get past competence camouflage?

HR teams need to take a more holistic approach to hiring that looks beyond the traditional indicators of success

By Dominic Keogh-Peters

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Published: Sun 21 May 2023, 10:30 AM

There was a fantastic post last year on LinkedIn in which the writer said they were going to join Google and leave after 2 weeks – just to write Ex Google on their LinkedIn header. Funny but unfortunately it highlights a real modern issue in hiring talent which I am going to call – competence camouflage.

We all know that out there are some incredible companies. They have spent many years building their brands, refining systems and processes — attracting the best talent – who have then continued to grow and develop those companies into leaders in their field.

Unfortunately, what we don’t want to talk about is that those world class processes also create life support systems for the incompetent and the mediocre and when they are hired by a new organisation to raise the bar, based on their previous big brand experience – they struggle to make an impact in organisations where they don’t paint by numbers.

Let me be clear — many of these organisations are led by exceptional talent and these people are not the focus of this article. What I do know is that great companies will often have great people processes – and you will see top talent be picked up by these systems and moved up and around within the organisation. These organisations also have great performance management systems. In contrast this is when you also see people move after 12-18 months often between these famous brands. You could pass these short time stints off as ambition, I have a different view — I personally believe this time frame is around when you get questioned on when you have made an impact in your role. And for many it’s time to move on.

So the question is why do people then continually get hired into new if not better and more senior roles when they don’t stay long or have proven concrete achievements in their current role? Its now becoming a modern phenomenon. When you list you have worked in the biggest brands in the world people automatically assume your abilities — whether they test for them or not. Its competence camouflage.

Dominic Keogh-Peters is Group Chief Human Resources Officer of Galadari Brothers
Dominic Keogh-Peters is Group Chief Human Resources Officer of Galadari Brothers

Another area this also applies is to our higher education systems. I hear all the time that we should only hire from top business schools. I agree that there is merit in this. However, as our current education systems are currently set up, we are often hiring academically gifted students who are great at passing examinations —when in reality many of the analytical skills they have learned can now be done by AI.

There is little value add in competing with computers — so we should now be focusing on hiring for the future proof leadership skills of creativity, compassion, collaboration, and critical thinking, most of which, sadly, are not taught in business schools. Interestingly, someone who went into the working world earlier and missed business school could have taken the time to hone and develop these skills and theoretically should have a competitive advantage over the more academically qualified candidates. A new trend which I am beginning to see is many forward-thinking organisations are now moving away from asking for a first degree because of this and opening up their talent pools.

The other fact that we don’t like to talk about is how this can affect social mobility. There is sadly a bias that the majority of those that can attend the best academic institutions do so because of family wealth and previous access to a high level of private education. It’s not a level playing field for talent that didn’t get the same great start in life.

What am I saying then? – Its simply cast your net further.

To overcome these issues, recruitment teams need to take a fresh approach to selection and focus on developing frameworks and techniques that determine cultural fit and potential abilities for future contribution to the organisation, rather than just looking for brand names on a CV. Screening people based solely on the companies they worked for or the business schools they attend can cause organisations to miss out on a wider pool of talent and potentially encourage groupthink.

In short, HR teams need to take a more holistic approach to hiring that looks beyond the traditional indicators of success. It’s time to move beyond competence camouflage and start finding the best talent, regardless of their background or the brand name they use.

The writer is the Group Chief Human Resources Officer of Galadari Brothers. He is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a graduate of the Wharton CHRO programme. His work on organisational transformation has been showcased by the CIPD in their digital learning series and presented at the CIPD London Festival of Work. In 2023 he was listed in the top 50 most Influential HR leaders in the MENA by the Economic Times.

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