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Why the battle for talent won’t win you the war anymore

Move over ‘The war for talent’, the ‘war for staff’ is coming! In 1997 a “Ground-breaking McKinsey study exposed the ‘War for Talent’ as a strategic business challenge and a critical driver of corporate performance”, the business world paid attention. But was the war for talent just only a battle in the war for staff? or the war for the hearts and minds of the people of the enterprise? Is the talent myth about to debunked?

Today, many businesses in New Zealand that employ workers with technical skills in technology, IT and, in trade-oriented professions (such as fitter-welders) are desperately short of staff. In our region alone, 70 trucks were parked up just because the organisations had no drivers employed for them. In the horticultural industries such as apples and kiwifruit, having enough able-bodied workers is a critical success factor which is hard to achieve. In the 2019 picking season, export grade apples were not harvested and left on the trees because there were not enough pickers to bring the fruit in.

Having talented leaders and specialists obviously will have a significant impact on business performance, all things being equal. But they cannot achieve much without quality staff. My view is that the talent myth is elitist – and I’ll explain why.

Let’s examine that seminal article and book again. With many business concepts, the thought-process behind the talent mindset was sound, it’s execution often dismal. The war for talent book review reads: “The authors propose a fundamentally new approach to talent management. They describe how to: create a winning EVP (employee value proposition) that will make your company uniquely attractive to talent; move beyond recruiting hype to build a long-term recruiting strategy; use job experiences, coaching, and mentoring to cultivate the potential in managers; and, strengthen your talent pool by investing in A players, developing B players, and acting decisively on C players. Central to this approach is a pervasive talent mindset – a deep conviction shared by leaders throughout the company that competitive advantage comes from having better talent at all levels.”

Very sound and convincing right? But it led to two other activities with reasonable concepts and poor execution: the “heavy hitters” and “rank and yank” ideas.

Recruitment specialists bringing in “heavy hitters” into your organisation to win the war for talent is wrong on so many levels. You are showing your ineffectiveness in developing people internally, you are disrespectful to the existing people of the enterprise, the heavy hitters often fight each other for territory pushing their preferred method and sharp elbows, and you bring in a lot of foreign DNA that activates the organisations’ immune system (fight and reject). Heavy hitter thinking does my head in. It’s lazy, ineffective and disrespectful.

And then “rank and yank”. The recent passing of GE’s ex-CEO Jack Welch resulted in obituaries lauding the immense value creation under his reign, the ‘invention’ of six sigma (actually the mass adoption) and the concept of ‘acting decisively on C players’, which in GE was rank and yank. The bottom 10% was shown the door each year. Again a sound concept, but over time poor execution often results in the B players focusing their efforts on getting others into the 10% C player group, rather than actively pursuing excellence and joining the A player ranks.

Combine the “rank and yank” and “heavy hitters” and you’ll understand that the recruitment specialists are fishing for heavy hitters in a pond filled with fish that have been ranked and yanked. A process that guarantees success…not.

So, are the recommendations from the war for talent study wrong? Not wrong, but just too narrow. To debunk the talent myth, we just need to be less elitist and more inclusive. In the book review, just substitute the word ‘talent’ for ‘staff’. Redefine talent not just in leadership or specialist terms, but also in people who can complete a perfect weld, drive a truck safely and reliably, or hand shuck oysters at speed with perfect quality and minimal waste. The organisation that does that well, will own the future.