War for talent: Cease fire!

11 June 2019
5 min read

In 1997, McKinsey declared a War for Talent. Since then the world hasn't let us forget it. In an economy where capital is abundant, competition is globally fierce, and iteration moves at the pace of lightning, they argue, "all that matters is talent. Talent wins."

As the job pool increasingly shallows in the digital economy, the battle for smart, technologically savvy, intuitive and operationally agile people with strong people leadership skills will only get bloodier.

Add to this reality a widening skills gap in today's workforce, and the effort to lock down the industry's 'best and brightest' is even more intense. To survive disruption and thrive within the volatile and ever-changing world of business and workforce, McKinsey made it abundantly clear: to get what you want, you'll have to engage in full frontal attack.

And though the war metaphor is apt, it's not necessarily helpful; is it? After all, the metanarrative of the modern workforce is one of collaboration and cooperation. The very essence of a workforce that is future resilient and forward thinking is that its people embrace chaos and challenge, and invite cognitive collisions to cut away at brilliant solutions. The idea that you're 'battling it out' against an imaginary foe may feel all too true at times, but the sentiment isn't exactly inspiring.

Isn't it time to adopt a more constructive metaphor for today's business landscape, one that embraces inclusivity and breeds a cross-pollination of diverse cultures and knowledge? Do all business outcomes actually have to end in a win-lose situation? Or are our creative capacities capacious enough to rewrite scenarios where both sides can benefit?

Let's face it – keeping up with the rate of change these days is exhausting enough. Let's not waste our energy on sharpening our proverbial weaponry and strengthening our defences. Let's rather choose our battles and get on with the business of fixing what is broken, together.

A losing battle

Granted, we all want to fill our teams with tremendous talent and do what's needed to retain these exceptional individuals. But framing this effort within the context of war can be arguably oxymoronic: on one hand, we want employees to feel safe and valued; on the other, we demonstrate that we are quite happy to go to war with some of them. This reality is not only paradoxical: it's incoherent with the kind of organisational ethos and flexible environments that millennials and Gen Z today demand.

Instead of winning a war for talent, organisations appear to be waging a war on talent. "Repelling and alienating employees more successfully than harnessing their skills. The result is a highly inefficient job market where most companies complain about their talent shortages, while most employees complain about their pointless jobs. The definition of a bad deal is when both sides lose," says author Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Red Bull Global Talent Management Head Adam Yearsley.

Known as the job-hopping generation, millennials are the consumers of the workplace, and comfortable to uproot in search of greener employment opportunities. According to Deloitte's 2018 Millennial survey, 43 per cent of millennials plan to quit their current job within two years, and only 28 per cent plan to stay in their current role for more than five years.

Given that such high fluidity and mobility are hallmark traits of the gig economy workforce, shouldn't we spend less energy on fortifying our talent monopoly and rather reimagine our roles as mentors, equippers and integrated change agents within the broader spectrum of an individual's career and long-term personal development?

It's all about experience

Once we move away from the idea of 'fighting to hold onto our best', we give ourselves the green light to build authentically. We can get to the underbelly of our company ethos, consider how best to show our people their value, and turn our offices into ecosystems that nurture inspiration, collaboration and creative ingenuity for them. We start building an experience for our employees (which we know is the only real differentiator after a competitive salary is in place).

With great training tools and opportunities, open collaborations, online engagement platforms, dynamic office spaces, flexible HR and a general culture of inclusivity and innovation, we effectively build those kinds of positive experiences that attract an ever-discerning workforce.

Fantastic projects, with fantastic teams, that incur fantastic recognition, may or may not ensure your top people stick around. But as authors, Chip and Dan Heath, would remind us in their book, The Power of Moments, creating these "peak moments" can be very powerful and ultimately beneficial down the line. The more positive associations we leave with our employees, the more of a 'down payment' we make into our future. The door can always remain open, should they want to come back someday.

Letting industry lead

At the end of the day, we need to consider what benefits the entire industry and not just our small slice of it. To deliver solutions that are robust, agile and dexterous enough to overcome a future of unforeseeable challenge, we have to think beyond our company silos and short-term profitability cycles.

Sustainability requires scalability, which means looking across the industry to supply the full skillset and resources required. So far, engineers have managed to collaborate across organisational lines on issues of health and safety. Why can't we now extend this reality to leverage creativity, entrepreneurialism and knowledge within a broader talent ecosystem for the greater good of the industry?

More companies are starting to think this way, and turning to strategic partnerships as a way to accelerate their innovative journey. Apple, for example, has worked with IDEO to develop many of their designs, including their iconic mouse. Xerox has launched their legendary PARC labs – an Open Innovation business model that partners with startups, Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to catalyse cutting edge innovations and customise top technology solutions.

By harnessing the creative energies and resources of their competitors, companies can leapfrog incremental growth and soar their way forward to sustainable solutions.

So, let's reconsider the boardroom metaphor. Let's tone down the 'war talk' and rethink a more robust vernacular that can sufficiently frame the future – one that embraces a spirit of co-creation and reciprocity. Perhaps the most effective way to take ground is to wave the white flag and declare conventionality the new common enemy, not one another.

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Georgina Mahony
Written by
Georgina Mahony

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