The Talent War
By: Alan Davis
I meet many people in the course of conducting my business, and I have concluded that they generally fall into two types: the superficial thinker, and the profound thinker.
I have observed that the superficial thinkers consider that the talent war is over. They argue that, with all the layoffs that have been announced in the last three to six months, there is a plethora of top talent on the market who can be recruited very quickly and very easily.
The profound thinkers generally take the opposing view. They feel that the people being laid off from other companies are not necessarily the future drivers of their business. They also take into account workforce demographics.
The supply of top talent is declining, whereas the demand is continually increasing. Retention strategies have meant that companies are striving harder and harder to retain their top talent, and to concentrate on keeping the ones who are left after the layoffs have taken place. Also, what employers are demanding from their workforce has changed, and in fact is continually increasing. With the business focus on the next quarter’s results, the preoccupation is generally on cost reduction (which often includes staff reduction); it translates into everybody having to do more with less, and everybody being self-sufficient; support staff have become obsolete. The selection “bar” for new talent is being constantly raised, out of job-related necessity.
The similarities between real wars and talent wars are quite remarkable, and certainly there are business lessons to be learned from studying military history.
Winning wars of any kind is a complex issue, and to really understand the underlying lessons, you must break it down into its component parts. Here’s the cursory analysis:
Generalship vs. Business Leadership
Great generals have won battles against overwhelming odds by thinking smarter than their adversaries. Looking back, it is the “outside the box” thinkers who stand out in history. Strategic thinking was the key to their success. Ghengis Khan allied himself with his fiercest enemies, a radical move which allowed him to create an enormous empire. He became unbeatable.
Stonewall Jackson was the first to realize that with the advent of the single shot rifle, frontal assaults on defended positions were not sound, and would result in unacceptable casualties. His strategy was born out of need. His army was small compared to those of his enemies, and he could not afford to lose significant numbers of troops. So instead of head-to-head engagements, he used speed, stealth and mobility to outsmart, to outwit and to outfight his opponents.
In 1939, General Heinz Guderian used the tank in the previously-untried role of close infantry support combined with front-line air support, with the result of bringing Europe to its knees in six weeks.
None of these tactics and strategies appear to be particularly radical in hindsight today, but at the time it was the people who tried new ideas who won out over the traditionalists.
In today’s business, there are leaders and followers, risk takers and traditionalists. The ones who stand out are the ones who achieved their success through innovations and taking risks.
The role of H.R. has evolved in many industries and companies to the point where it provides strategic vision and best business practices to the organization. Those that do provide this leadership, generally succeed. Those that have not stepped up to the plate have become the dinosaurs of the new age economy. They are destined to be viewed by their peers as the Personnel Department.
The Talent War requires business leaders to devise long-term strategic solutions, not just to provide solutions to today’s problems. They must devise strategies which are constantly reviewed and updated to react to evolving situations. They must devise solutions which represent added value to the organization, in order to earn their place at the Executive Table.
Troops vs. Workers
An analysis was made between the troops in the British Army in the Second World War and the troops in the German Army. The main difference was in how they performed in the absence of direct orders from their officers, and this had an enormous impact on their effectiveness.
In the case of the British, if a group of soldiers lost their officers, they tended to wait for another officer to come along and tell them what to do next. The regular soldiers were segregated from their officers, partly because of the British class system, and most officers considered their troops to be incapable of leadership.
On the other hand, in the case of the German Army, the troops and Non-Commissioned Officers were taught that if an officer of rank was no longer available, the senior NCO would take charge without a second thought. This was facilitated by the different social structure in Germany, but in addition, leadership was taught to the NCO’s, enabling them to continue to fight in the absence of an officer. It represents a military example of improving organizational effectiveness through empowered work teams.
Bringing this analogy to the Talent War requires us to look at the in-company recruiter. Most H.R. practitioners want to be Generalists, in order to advance their career toward V.P.H.R. or Executive Management. Most H.R. practitioners therefore want to limit their time in recruiting, and as such the Recruiting Department or the recruiting function has a largely transient population. Consequently, there are very few Subject Matter Experts in recruiting. Those who are Subject Matter Experts have gravitated toward the front lines of the Talent War in the Technology sectors, where we are now seeing titles such as V.P. Talent Acquisition, recognizing that this is above all a business, not just an H.R. issue. In companies where talent acquisition is not key to the success of the business, subject matter knowledge in recruiting is often sparse.
Companies are learning that in order to be on top of recruiting, they have to pay more attention to it. They must hire bright and articulate people into the recruiting department and give them the appropriate training and support. Recruiters must be given the tools and support to do the job that they were hired to do. Company recruiters should be recognized for the success they bring to the organization, and should be compensated accordingly.
The entire organization must be engaged in projecting and living an image of a best practice, in a technically challenging, employee-friendly place to work. The day of the “Branded” organization is here – and companies which not only embrace the principles of branding, but also live up to these principles, will be winners in the Talent War.
Weapons vs. Available Technology
Weapons have dramatically changed the way in which wars are won. The first significant evolution after the axe and the spear was the long bow, which cost King Harold his life on the shores of the Kent in 1066. The main battle tank employed by the allied coalition in the Gulf War was bigger, faster, had a larger range and better guidance systems than the Iraqi tanks. The outcome was the most one-sided victory in the history of warfare.
The weapons available to today’s recruiter are not as deadly, but are equally sophisticated – especially for the strategic recruiter.
The Internet provides an unparalleled source of information on target companies. Cell phones and satellite phones are new-age ways of keeping in contact with candidates. Computers capable of storing huge databases of candidate information, which can be accessed in the blink of an eye, are available to today’s recruiter. E-mail has become not only a communication tool – it has become a method of keeping in touch – and sophisticated Contact Manager software tells us with whom we should be keeping in touch and when.
The best strategic recruiters are those who not only maximize today’s technologies, but those who monitor emerging technologies and engage them before their competitors do.
Military Intelligence vs. Business Intelligence
Knowing where your enemy is located is a pre-requisite for planning to engage in battle. Knowing how to deceive your enemy takes military intelligence to the next level of sophistication. The widely-celebrated success of D-Day was not a forgone conclusion in 1944. One of the factors behind the success in Normandy was the fact that the Germans had been led to believe that the landings would take place at Pas de Calais, and for the first critical hours of D-Day, were convinced that the Normandy landings were some kind of diversion. Had this not happened, the outcome of the invasion, and indeed the outcome of the Second World War, may have been drastically different.
In the context of a Talent War, the companies that take an aggressive approach to winning know where their future talent is located, and develop relationships with them, well before they need to hire them. The converse is the company that runs an ad to recruit specialists who are critical to their growth, and wonder why so few qualified candidates apply.
Wars with no Ending vs. Talent Wars
The current war against terrorism is unlikely to see an end date, and the signing of an armistice agreement. It will be an ongoing battle, waged over a long period of time, and across the world – somewhat similar to other ongoing wars against drugs, pornography, poverty, crime and many more battles which go on every day but don’t make the headlines.
Similarly, the talent wars are being waged on many continents and at many levels. Some companies are winning and some are losing, many of them not even aware of what is happening around them. Some are conscious of it, but not sure what to do about it. Some hire top talent once in a while, thereby winning the occasional battle but still losing the war. Those who win, put strategies and resources behind the talk.
So while the superficial thinkers are running their ads and hiring what’s on the market, and having to slog through the plethora of CV’s that an ad generates, the profound thinkers are working at lining up top talent now, by building relationships with their future top-performing employees.
They have taken a number of leads from the marketeer’s playbook, and they are taking principles such as branding, permission marketing, and customer relationship management, and applying them instead of to prospective customers, to prospective hires. They are now using web-based tools to interact with their high-potential future employees.
So what combination of war-winning strategies do you currently employ? On a scale from the superficial to the profound (or from Tactical to Strategic), how does your organization rate in the competition to acquire top talent?