When we're recruiting, we're trying to fill a vacant slot. Barring any changes, whatever the previous person did in that slot is the job description. We aren't hiring people for what we might want them to do in a few years, or what they might want to do later. Of course, odds are they won't be with us for more than a few years anyway. But even if we think they'll be around a while, we don't do a good job of hiring for the future, which means we aren't looking for someone to make a big impact over the long haul.
We don't hire most employees to be business people, either. If we did, whether they worked in a utility, software company, engineering firm, or sandwich shop, we would want to know if candidates learned from past experience what business processes worked and what didn't. We would want to know whether or not they think about how to save money, be more efficient, and make the customer happier in addition to how well they perform basic job tasks.
Instead, we mostly hire on technical ability, education, training, and experiences that match the current slot we're trying to fill. In doing so, we leave out some of the most important information that would tell us how much those we hire may contribute to business success both immediately and in the future.
Not convinced it's a problem? Okay, then step out of your cubicle and ask a few employees the last time they made a suggestion to improve efficiency, lower costs, or develop new products and services. Think about how actively your employees step up to challenges and look for problems to solve. The underwhelming response should be a clue that not only are employees convinced that's not what they were hired to do, but they're certain that their bosses are convinced of that as well. Some employees might even consider it a job-killing move. No doubt, you've also heard employees complain, be skeptical, or otherwise resist your efforts to improve productivity or customer service. These are all signs that you have paper pushers in your organization.
Paper pushers are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats are people dedicated to following rules, policing policies, and getting procedures right at the expense of doing what's best for the team, fellow employee, business unit, or customer. It doesn't make them bad people. They were hired to be like that. And if they weren't paper pushers before, then you have to take credit for managing them to be that way.
But don't worry, you can change it. You can start by tweaking your hiring process to select for strategic thinkers -- people who seek to understand the big picture, want to learn about the company, recognize opportunities to improve how the work gets done, and work from a perspective of making the business successful. Sure, when most everyone is hiring for paper pushers it's hard to find strategic thinkers with experience to show for it. But a few well thought out questions can help you determine if the candidate in front of you gets it when it comes to seeing and acting on the bigger strategic picture. It can't stop there, however. You also have to teach and support employees to be more strategic. If you hire strategic thinkers and manage them to be paper pushers, that's what they'll be...at least until they leave for better pastures.
Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of employees you want -- paper pushers or strategic thinkers -- and consider what you're getting. If you want strategic thinkers and find you're getting paper pushers, you know why, and you don't get to complain about them anymore. On the bright side, now you know what to do about it.
Trying it on for fit:
Look at your criteria for hiring. If you want strategic thinkers, make sure your criteria include evidence that candidates will actively look for ways to help the business succeed. Include the criteria in your job description as well as in your resume analysis. As part of your selection process, develop and ask specific interview questions like, "Tell me about the last company you worked for. What opportunities did you see for improving how the work was done? If you were king or queen for a day, what would you change to make that process more efficient or easy to do? What would you do to give customers a better experience? Describe a time when you saw something that wasn't working or had an idea for solving a problem and acted on your idea. What did you do and how did it turn out?"