Dear HR,

It’s time, as a profession, that we talked about the elephant in the room.

It just so happens that the story of a particular elephant, in a particular room, sets the context. It’s the Fénykövi Elephant at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. As told on the Smithsonian website, the process of putting this elephant on display in 1957 was an exhausting and complex one, which took sixteen months. 

Fénykövi Elephant, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Fénykövi Elephant, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

The process involved a detailed study of living African elephants at various zoos, and crafting the display in three sections using 9 different materials including 5 tons of clay. Much of the work to shape the body was done in a plastic room pumped with steam to keep the clay from drying out, and the final assembly was done while the museum was open and had 30,000 visitors inside.

The elephant has now been on display for 57 years, and is one of the most visited exhibits in one of the most iconic museums in the world. Putting the piece on display wasn’t done from an instruction book — the work was unprecedented. It required a cross-functional, highly cohesive team with innovation, creativity, foresight, and no small degree of tenacity. 

Much of the critical work done by unique and sustainable organisations, like the Fénykövi Elephant project, is not repeatable, predictable process. When we measure the success of an organisation, we measure impact — the “dent in the universe”, as Steve Jobs famously put it. But when HR measures employees, we often measure them on productivity alone. We put them into small boxes with reporting lines and tell them exactly what they are and are not responsible for. We often, in fact, structure their roles in a ways that suppress innovation and creativity, leave no avenue for foresight, and discourage discretionary effort. The elephant in the room is that most organisations would never be able to get an elephant in a room.

The critical skills that catapult a technically competent team into a highly performing one (not just highly productive one) are rarely technical ones. It’s one thing to hire elephant experts. It’s another to put together a cohesive, tenacious, cross-functional team who can put one on display. At Kienco, we work with clients on identifying pivotal roles — these are roles that:

a) Make a disproportionately high impact on the execution of an organisations’ mission; and

b) Have a big difference between top performers and average performers.

The surprise for more organisations is that those roles are the ones that are most often overlooked, and that the difference between high performance and average performance is rarely a technical skill. 

In their book Beyond HR, Bordreau and Ramstad cite the example of Disney, who found that street sweepers were their pivotal roles, because a street sweeper who can direct screaming children to the best spots to see the parade, answer questions about what time certain events were on, and so on. Street Sweepers who could do so had a disproportionately high impact on customer satisfaction. At Fedex, they found that Couriers and Dispatchers, not Pilots, were the roles that had a disproportional impact on both financial results and customer satisfaction, and the pivotal skill was decision making under time pressure (source). An energy company client of ours found that the line technicians were pivotal, and that the pivotal competencies were stakeholder communication and problem solving skills. And the list goes on. In all cases, these roles were not the ones that got the most attention by the organisation. In all cases, they were the roles that helped the organisation make a strategic leap forward when HR started focusing on how those roles contributed to the overall success of the organisation in ways that were not reflected in the official job description, and put in place strategies to support those outcomes.

Pivotal roles have an almost guaranteed return on investment in attracting, hiring, developing, and retaining the right talent within your organisation, and so taking this approach is helpful in determining where to spend the finite resources of time, money, and focus as an HR professional. The key is to remember that although many organisations source for technical skills, that’s not typically enough for true performance at an individual or team level. Having a zoology degree alone won’t get the elephant in the room.