Recently, we began a series on getting it right. We talked about the potential impact on operations and effectiveness when we miss the mark in our work environment. In the $150 billion dollar world of financial aid administration1, the effect of not getting it right may cripple an institution. There are at least three components in getting it right: the right people, the right service, and the right exposure. The concept of getting it right is often referred to as employing best practices. In this segment of our series we will highlight getting it right in regard to the people in the organization.
Schools that participate in the Title IV Federal Student Aid programs are aware of the regulatory requirement in 34 CFR 668.16 that dictates that a school must demonstrate “administrative capability.” Part of that administrative capability includes ensuring that a “capable individual” is responsible for administering the Title IV programs. Additionally, this regulation requires that the institution have an adequate number of “qualified persons” working in its administration of the programs. These terms used in regulation give importance to the concept of ensuring you have hired the right people.
Most have likely heard the old motto that became popular in management circles in the 1980s: “People are this organization’s most important asset!” It seems that this surfaced as the trendy catch-phrase about the same time as the Personnel Department evolved into Human Resources. Surely, it was an attempt at acknowledging this key concept we are discussing, or at least a meager nod toward the idea. Yet, employees were not taken in by this new terminology. In order for it to be a true statement, the organization had to ensure that it did, in fact, have the right people. How is that to happen? It takes a conscious effort. This must be manifested in three areas related to the employees: knowledge of the people, proper training, and proper hiring.
The Importance of Knowing What Is
One may question the order of these three components in getting it right as it relates to having the right people. It may be a common thought that in order to have the right people, you have to start with hiring the right people. Hiring the right people is important, and we will discuss this more momentarily. But, unless you are an entrepreneur starting your own company from nothing, or you are going to fire everyone currently on staff and start from ground zero, hiring the right people is not the first critical area of consideration. The first step is to start with what—or, more appropriately, who—you have on board at present. To ensure you have the right people, you have to begin by acknowledging what is the current state. Once you know where you are, you can begin to modify the current course, or change direction completely.
Most organizations have performance reviews. Purported reasons for these performance reviews are to assess the employee’s production, teamwork, potential for raises, promotions, etc. It is possible that the performance reviews, whether a traditional formal review or one of the newer, highly touted “360° reviews,” do provide some sense of an employee’s work. But, for the most part, supervisors simply go with the flow of everyday activity and assume an understanding of their employees based upon sporadic interactions and specific measures or metrics, albeit some of these are infrequent and impersonal. Depending upon your and your organization’s management philosophy and style, such interactions will not likely provide an understanding of who your employees are, and thus, whether each one is the right person for their job and your organization. It is easy to look at productivity to determine how well an employee is performing, e.g., number of appointments with students, number of error-free applications processed, etc. But, such quantitative and qualitative measures do not help you to know who your employees are. Each employee is a unique individual with specific capabilities, talents, goals, values, and needs. While definitive quantitative criteria may help you understand some capabilities of an employee, it does not get to the other crucial areas of who he or she is as an individual. Some concerned organizations have utilized their Human Resources department or outside entities to assist in conducting various personality tests such as the historic Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis, etc.2 When a supervisor and organization make effort to know their employees, it enables more effective direction and utilization of the employee’s capabilities. (It also increases the likelihood of employee buy-in to the organization’s culture, values, and mission.) This is not to say that bosses are to be overly social with staff. In fact, one former boss of this writer said, “I like my staff, but they are not my kissin’ cousins!” when referencing the suggestion from staff to go out with some of them for an after-work drink. It is true that there needs to be some discernment exercised in the amount of social interaction with staff, and in what settings. Yet, it remains that organizations—and supervisors in particular—do need to make effort to know key factors of importance to their staff, which involves more than just numbers related to production. It takes some interaction that is non-confrontational and non-performance related. This allows for learning who the employee is. What is of importance to the individual? For example, is the employee more concerned with intrinsic or extrinsic motivating factors? What are the goals and aspirations of the employee, professionally, educationally, and/or personally? How do those points impact the individual and his or her performance? A factor in discerning whether an employee is the right person is taking the initiative to know who they are, in addition to a regular and routine analysis of his or her performance.
The Importance of Making What is, Better
In the business world there is a concept that it is cheaper to retain a customer than to obtain a new one. Many schools will likely say that is the case regarding student enrollments as well; it is cheaper to retain a student than to recruit and enroll a new one. Similarly, in an organization it is generally less costly to train and retain an employee than to terminate and hire anew. There are all sorts of axioms that have been recited over the years about improving, growing, and getting better as an individual and employee.
- “I will study and prepare, for some day my time will come.”
- “If you want to be a leader, be a reader.”
- “Plan your work. Work your plan.”
These are just some of the many that circulate. Bookstores (mostly online now) are filled with self-help volumes that are available to the “everyday Joe.” The point is that every person and every employee can continue to grow and improve. Earlier it was stressed that it is important to know who your employees are. And, again, that is referring to truly knowing them, not just their names or employee identification numbers tied to their production numbers. It is important to know your people so that you can also understand what their greatest strengths are, and where opportunities for growth lie. When, based upon knowledge and understanding of their employee, an employer works with the employee to further his or her knowledge, growth, and expertise, it will be a win-win for the individual and the organization. An appropriate plan of training and growth will enhance efficiencies and ease of operations.
But, training of your right people does not happen automatically. True, some instances of learning happen accidentally. The story is told of the young professional that was given charge over a large division of a competitive company. The young professional in his first role of significant responsibility was careful. Yet, he wound up with a million dollar loss to the company. He was called in to meet with the CEO, and was sure he was going to be fired. Instead, the CEO asked him if he had learned anything from the experience. The young professional assured him that he had and explained what he had learned. The CEO said, “Good! Go put to use what you have learned!” The young professional, with surprise, exclaimed, “I thought I was going to be fired!” The CEO said, “Fired? I just put a million dollars into your education! There is no way I can afford to fire you! Put that education to work for me now!”
Now, we could go in a variety of directions with the illustration just given. But, generally speaking, it is better to provide the appropriate training before there is opportunity for a significant loss. To do that takes a proper perspective on the value of training. Further, it also takes actual work and commitment to develop a training plan and program. At times organizations may believe that only the training that takes place in the initial, albeit brief, on-boarding process is necessary; and that, merely because it helps acclimate the new hire to the organization. But, in reality, ongoing training is necessary and should be scheduled accordingly. This is especially true in the world of student financial assistance where regulations and laws frequently change.3 An employee that is truly known by the employer and is provided the right training will then be in position to actually be a valuable asset to the organization. It is also important to keep in mind that an organization should not allow itself to become too shallow on the bench of talent. So, once an investment has been made to obtain the right people and to provide necessary training, work to keep them. Good talent and the right people are hard to find.
The Importance of the Right Hire
This is a statement of the obvious: if you want to have the right people on staff, you have to make the right hire. Anyone who has hired more than one employee in his or her career is most certain to affirm that this statement has become evident. The right person must be hired. Without the right hire, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for you to meet your goal of getting it right in your operations overall. And, that is not to mention the regulatory requirement pertaining to administrative capability. To hire right seems to be simply common sense. But, there are a variety of issues that may impede or prevent the right hire. This topic is one where the axiom heard decades ago rings ever true: “mistakes are easier to avoid than to correct.” What are some of the issues related to making the right hire?
First, there is the challenge to know who you need to hire. This requires specificity and accuracy in defining the position and describing it effectively in any job posting. To say that an organization needs to hire someone is not sufficient. Hiring should be a matching process where applicable knowledge, skills, talents, and experience of candidates for the position are closely scrutinized with a specific end in mind. That is, the ultimate individual selected for the role must have the qualities and attributes that are synchronized to the well-defined roles and responsibilities to be fulfilled by the individual in the position. Hence comes the rub. Many organizations attempt to utilize a “canned” job description that they have had around for years. They forget, or are unaware, that positions in the realm of financial aid have a tendency to morph. New responsibilities are mandated by regulation or legislation and that has potential to necessitate a change in job knowledge requirements. Perhaps a perceptive individual in the organization realized that the financial aid job description may need modification and thus researched and found an “updated” job description online…in an effort to not “reinvent the wheel.” Some may have borrowed a description from a colleague at another institution without truly crafting a description that is unique to the position for which an individual is to be hired. Even worse is when an organization hires someone absent a job description that has been intelligently crafted and made available to the individual prior to accepting a position. This creates unrealistic expectations with both the employee and employer. It is understood that at some executive or more senior level positions there may be less definitiveness in a role’s detailed functions. If that is to be the case, there should also be much more flexibility in the expectations of the organization toward the individual hired. Nevertheless, most institutions working on hiring individuals in the financial aid industry will be best served to have accurate, well-worded and constructed job descriptions prior to the announcement of the position opening.
Another possible challenge in hiring the right person is in regard to getting applicants to consider. Recent dialog with a colleague in reference to an open position resulted in him saying that he was “getting zero traction and zero good candidates for the job.” It is important to place the opportunity of the position before a quality pool of potential applicants. To address this concern takes preparation prior to the need to post the opening. This means that awareness of the environment of the industry is vital. While anyone could post a “help wanted” ad in a newspaper (print or online version), that does not guarantee a resulting pool of quality applicants. The individuals responsible for hiring need to be aware of the industry and have a good network of professionals and organizations with whom to share the announcement of the opening. In the financial aid arena, there are a number of potential electronic posting options available. Some of these include the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ (NASFAA) Career Center, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities’ (APSCU) Job Openings page, and posting in online publications such as Inside Higher Ed’s Careers, or The Chronicle of Higher Education (print or online). There are also the various state and regional associations of student financial aid administrators’ Web sites. (See NASFAA’s Directory of Associations for the various state and regional association’s Web site addresses.) And, another key possibility for posting an announcement of an opening is on the FINAID-L listserv, which has thousands of practicing financial aid professionals as subscribers.
One additional and final challenge we will discuss for today regarding getting the right person is the sense of urgency in hiring. It is without doubt that supervisors do not like to have vacant positions if the positions are truly valid and important. Thus, there is a desire to get the position filled as quickly as possible. Hiring managers hope to have obtained extreme quantities of quality applicants from which to select interviewees. That, however, does not always occur. As an impending announced resignation or promotion approaches and then takes place to create a vacancy, the desire is to move swiftly to get someone in the position. And, in the event of a less pleasant reason for a vacancy, the urgency seems even more critical. In any event, hiring managers are encouraged to consider restraint in offering a position to just any individual that seems to fill the bill. An adage that has developed in this writer’s experience is “quick to hire, more likely to fire; slow to hire, no need to fire.” While there may be exceptions to this adage, it seems to play out in most cases. It is better to take one’s time to ensure the correct person is hired than to engage an individual and regret it shortly thereafter. Getting the right people takes work. It is important to not skip doing an appropriate and thorough background and reference check. In today’s litigious society many seem to have become hesitant to do a thorough reference check. An appropriately performed reference check can greatly benefit the decision making process. It is better to take time and make the correct decision than to have expended much time and monetary resources to hire quickly the wrong person.
In this article we have addressed getting the right people, which is one of the three components of getting it right as an organization involved with student financial aid administration. A recent Deloitte LLP item in their “Deloitte Debates” series online does a compare and contrast of “cash as king” and “people as a company’s most important asset.” While it is important for companies and organizations to keep an eye on cash, having the right people is critical as well. In summary of their debate is an interesting observation: “Talented people are hard to find — and even harder to replace. If you erode your talent base it could take a long time to rebuild it, and you may get left behind when the economy turns around.”4 Although making your people your most important asset takes work, and perhaps some financial investment, it is a key component to a successful organization. In our next edition in this series of the FAME Regulatory Bulletin we will look at the aspect of getting it right as an organization in regard to service. This topic encompasses a great deal; perhaps more than one may think initially. In the meantime, take a fresh look at your process of ensuring you have the right people, so you get it right as an organization.
1 Federal Student Aid’s Web site at https://studentaid.ed.gov/about on September 12, 2014.
2Disclaimer: The writer is not a psychologist or human resources expert. Thus, there is no intended vouching for the importance or legality of the use of these tools for employment purposes, pre- or post-hiring. The author only acknowledges having experienced them and found them interesting. Individuals interested in these tools should research them with their Human Resources professional and/or legal counsel.
3 An excellent resource for regular training on subjects applicable to student financial aid administration is FAME’s annual Financial Aid and Management Conference. The 2015 annual conference will be held April 13-15, 2015 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
4 Are People Really Your Most Important Asset? Deloitte LLP, as viewed on 11/12/2014 at https://www.deloitte.com/view/en_US/us/Insights/Browse-by-Content-Type/deloitte-debates/b18353a622701210VgnVCM100000ba42f00aRCRD.htm#
This article is presented for informational and educational purposes only and should not be considered to be giving legal advice.