When dealing with the ever-so-delightful contractor that helped us remodel our house most of the questions I asked him about how something was done were met with, “well, that’s industry standard”. What amazed me about this nearly daily occurrence is that he actually expected me to be satisfied with that. Granted if his business card and truck had some mention of ISO 14000 certification for all his work, then that would be an industry standard that I could accept. But it was not that. It was instead essentially an excuse to do no more than was minimally required.

There are many times and many ways that we either ask for benchmarking on the industry standard, or some vendor, or client, tries to tell us what the industry standard is. In some ways I am very grateful for this because where there is an industry standard there is an easy path too differentiating ourselves from that standard. For example, in the staffing agency world - if the industry standard markup is a certain percentage then isn’t it easy to figure out a way to lower your figures to differentiate yourself from the standard? Similarly we can look as levels of service in almost any industry, and this gets back to my contractor, it is that much easier to go beyond the industry standard and make a name for yourself.

So the big question to ask yourself of course is, “Do I succumb to presenting the industry standard to anyone (clients, candidates, hiring managers, friends)? If so, what can I do to take the extra step to differentiate myself?” This is a question I ask myself on nearly a daily basis and work at coming up with ways to take that extra step. I also try to use this idea when engaging with my own children on their homework or sports. Not driving them to be something they are not or to conform to an ideal or even to increase their competitive edge. Because it would be easy to read this post and conclude that I am really driving towards making oneself more competitive. I guess I would call that a side effect of the drive towards pride in our work product and efforts, towards uniqueness, individuality, and differentiation among one’s peers.

What about how we look for talent? Here is another area that we all sometimes get stuck looking for someone who will meet our “industry standard” for someone who walks on water for any given position. The truth is that all companies are looking for the same top talent, so many times the job descriptions written by the hiring managers are all the same… “I want them to have it all.” But when they get someone into the role who apparently “has it all” they want that person to be dynamically innovative and creative and think outside the box….but that’s not how the person got the job in the first place. Let me give you an example. A number of years ago I was fortunate to have a friend who went over to an extremely innovative company. I believe Forest Gump referred to it as “some fruit company.” This friend and I had worked closely together a few years before and she knew my style, my creativity, my ability to innovate, etc. She knew that I was running programs across the globe that brought me all kinds of experience that included but also went well beyond what someone in a role with less scope would have. But when we talked about the position I was interested in, where all my experience would be utilized and I could bring a whole new perspective on the business (something they thrived on), she said to me, “Have you thought about going back and doing that lesser role, because we really need someone who has held a position with that generic ‘Industry Standard’ title?” I was floored. I thought to myself, “Wait, what company am I talking to again?” Then I gave her my industry standard shpiel. She could see my point, but could not see her way to pitch the manager because of the way the Job description was written. They spent months trying to fill the position and eventually promoted from within a more junior level person who took even longer to grow into the role and from what I understand did work that kept up with the industry standard. (While there is something to be said about promoting from within I will save that for another post).

Once again please don’t misunderstand me here; I am not trying to say that hiring managers and recruiters need to take a chance on unqualified candidates. I am saying that we need to take the time to learn to recognize and then demand more of ourselves and our peers and our hiring managers. We need to demand that level of differentiation, no matter how small, that sets us and other apart from the industry standard that see and experience around us every single day. Sometimes it may take a little more effort to see it; sometimes it will hit us in the face. But if we take the time to be better than that ourselves then it will be easier to recognize it in others and that will pave a path that drives business success well beyond the Industry Standard.

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Comment by Charles Van Heerden on October 3, 2009 at 2:55am
Hi Randy, perhaps one of the major challenges in HR and Recruitment is the lack of standards, as we find in Finance and Accounting, even in a new discipline such as IT. I prefer to refer to best practice.

Your point on keeping an open mind on candidates that don't tick all the boxes is well made, as this is the general baseline for any internal promotion. Better assessment processes would be a good starting point.
Comment by Randy Levinson on October 3, 2009 at 11:54am
Charles, "Best in Class", "Best Practice", and "World Class" are terms that we used often when developing programs at Cisco as well. I imagine that SHRM and AIRS would say that there are plenty of standards, they just have not yet been standardized. Still though, becasue we looked to customize everything (at Cisco) - every outside agency I worked with would bring up the IS term eventually.

As for assessment process. I am not yet a big fan of assessment tools doing the work that real people should do by talking to each other, but some things like the tools from Hirelabs, Success Factors, and even Winslow are getting close to a more humanistic approach. Though I still have to be convinced that there is a tool that can read between the lines the way an experienced professional can.

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