Engaged in talent warfare

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Thewar for talent is an ugly concept that may prove just as destructive as othermanagement fads, writes Stephen OverellOn page 15 of The War for Talent, McKinsey’s endlessly fawned-over book,there is a most impressive statistic: just 16 per cent of the 13,000 executivesinterviewed believed their companies could identify the high performers fromthe low. Put another way, 84 per cent reckon their firms cannot distinguish betweenthose who are good at their jobs and those who are not; they might as wellthrow darts at a list of names and anoint the pierced as the stars of tomorrow.This, of course, serves the authors well. “Most companies struggle withdifferentiation,” they write, before going on to exhort all employers to”grow a talent mindset” and “invest differentially in A, B and Cplayers”1 (see table). You can already sense how it is going to work out. The war for talent hasonly been raging for four years – the book has only existed for one – andalready it seems destined for a place in the management-fad axis of evil, alongwith re-engineering and the time and motion study. Why? Because the war fortalent with its bundle of clichés about managing creative people and the newpsychological contract is fast becoming a bandwagon. It is attracting a fanatical following in business schools, think-tanks andcompanies, all urging each other down the same path and into the same outlookat a time when the majority of organisations do not believe in the criteriaseparating apples and pears. The venerable old chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ will strike again. And itwill be profoundly destructive: lots of organisations will ‘adopt a talentmindset’ and ‘invest differentially’ because those are the easy bits; but theywill continue to ‘struggle with differentiation’, thereby making a nonsense ofthe whole idea. In the meantime, plenty of people will be declared ‘C’ players or ‘Q’players, and will be passed over, ignored or sacked, while favourites will reaptheir time-honoured rewards. Is this too gloomy a prediction for an increasingly popular set of ideas?After all, the war for talent is usually associated with some of the softest ofsoft HR practices – all that nice stuff about ‘selling’ jobs to ‘the talented’,employer brands and the ‘fit’ between corporate needs and individualself-fulfilment. “Talented people will choose to join companies because of the values,beliefs and culture of the organisation”, trilled Royal Dutch/Shell.”Good management is fundamental to releasing talented people to do whatthey do best, and when you do that, you retain them,”2 cooed The PentlandGroup. It was bland, sure, but well-meaning – even when it began bordering onthe daft. Jonas Ridderstr†le, a leadership expert based at the Stockholm School ofEconomics, claimed: “Now we are in the business of having to create anemotional experience for talented individuals. Companies used to be consumersof competence. Now, they must be both co-creators of competence and providersof personality.”3 Yet the war for talent always had a nasty side that risked clashing withgood HR practice and basic fairness. Consider the following piece of research. In the midst of the clamoursurrounding ‘talent’, the Corporate Leadership Council, an Anglo-American HRresearch body, asked the obvious question: How widespread is it? How manypeople do organisations really regard as critical to performance? Everyone likes to believe they are talented to some degree, yet the resultswere instructive: one computer company recognised 100 out of 16,000, a softwarefirm said 10 out of 11,000 and a transport group could find just 20 out of33,000.4 Mercer Human Resource Consulting always recommends informing the talented oftheir preferment. Lucky them. But what about everyone else? The war for talent has little to say to most people, except as an unspokencommunication of their failure – the managerial equivalent of the old 11+, butwith less fairness. As written here before, “people are our greatest asset” was, andstill is, a fib. Yet as an aspirational slogan, it is far in advance of theugly, social Darwinist language of the war for talent, with its rewardhierarchies and talent pipelines. Employment is not showbiz and most people would not like to work under theelitist regime inspired by talent management, where all but a tiny fraction are‘affirmed’, but not ‘invested in’. It is inimical to an HR agenda of creating goodquality jobs and building collective commitment. When it was identified so strongly with the dotcom recruiting frenzy of thelate 1990s, the spin could be as loose as the reward packages and the war’sharder edge was masked by the bubble-talk. Now, in the chillier climate of late2002, the war’s frontline has moved and it is about “asking the rightpeople to leave the organisation”. Beth Axelrod, one of the consultants behind the book, left McKinsey tobecome chief talent officer for media group WPP this year. She is helping tomake 5,000 job cuts over two years. Let’s hope WPP is in the minority with a performance management system moresophisticated than eeny-meeny-miny-mo. But even if it isn’t, 5,000 should belittle trouble if talent is so thinly distributed. Of course, all organisations need talented people to make products andservices unique. It is sad if helping them to flourish is seen as a brainwave.But the problem is that rigid, aggressive, almost bar-coded differentiationbetween staff with a view to focusing relentlessly on ‘the talented’, is notuseful or realistic for firms hoping to get the most out of all the people theyemploy. As with any management idea, it remains irrelevant until it starts to shapehow organisations act and think. Managing talent has been adopted with burningzeal. All the working lives destroyed under the banner of re-engineering duringthe 1990s should be a salutary reminder of the pitfalls. 1 The War for Talent, by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod,Harvard Business School Press, 2001 2 Quotes taken from Managing Talent, by Tim Osborn-Jones, Henley ManagementCollege, 2001 3 Financial Times, 27 August, 2002 4 www.corporateleadershipcouncil.com The old way– HR is responsible for peoplemanagement– We provide good pay and benefits– Recruiting is like purchasing– We think development happens in training programmes– We treat everyone the same and like to think that everyone isequally capableThe new way– All managers, starting with theCEO, are accountable for strengthening their talent pool– We shape our company, our jobs, even our strategy to appealto talented people– Recruiting is like marketing– We fuel development primarily through stretch jobs, coachingand mentoring– We affirm all people but invest differentially in our A, Band C playersSource: The War for Talent, HBSP, 2001 Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Engaged in talent warfareOn 26 Nov 2002 in Personnel Todaylast_img read more