Fighting the War for Talent? Dont waste your time...

War for Talent? Or the Emperors new clothes?. At risk of offending most people involved in the talent arena, I have to say that the so called war for talent is a totally pointless war because most organisations are fighting over a resource which actually isn't scarce at all.

Lets go back for a minute and look at the origins of this so called war – and where the phrase was first coined – The McKinsey Article. The authors of this paper in particular can be celebrated for bringing the core issues to the attention of a wider audience, but unfortunately never has a message been so badly distorted.

The phrase ‘War For Talent’ seems to fall so easily form every self respecting HR professionals lips these days, not to mention an increasing number of CEO’s. The reality is that a large proportion of those people will not actually have read the paper, nor indeed its follow up in 2001. Consequently it is constantly misquoted and misinterpreted and its core meaning often taken out of context.

Whilst the article suggests that there is an impending shortfall in the numbers of ‘talented’ executives in the coming years, which has been seized upon by many organisations as their core focus, it was more about what organisations need to do about it than the war in itself. Its core proposition centred around three key areas:

  • “Why would someone really good want to join your company?”
  • “How will you keep them for more than a few years?”
  • “Yes, money does matter”

Those that did read the article and understood it are still reeling at the implications for their organisation and what they have to deliver as a result:

  • A Great company to work for
  • A great role that will stretch my skills
  • And great compensation.

Many HR functions, where the responsibility for managing and developing talent sits unfortunately lack the scope of influence to develop or deliver all three of the above. Worse still, the organisation looks to the HR function to actually deliver the above, when in reality it’s a corporate responsibility not a functional one.

Consequently, the ‘war for talent’ has spawned a plethora of ‘employer brand’ or ‘employee proposition’ initiatives that amount to nothing more than empty promises, served up in many cases with the kind of spin that would put this current government to shame.

Perhaps the greatest disservice the article did for the employee masses was to suggest that there was a ‘shortage’ of talent in our world today. Total tosh. Talent is everywhere. We are surrounded by it. In a country with a working population of some 28ish million, are we really saying we can’t find sufficient numbers of people with the ‘right stuff’? Unfortunately, most executives see only trees when they cast an eye around their organisations and not the precious wood.

If you employ say 10 people in your company then I guess there is a small chance that you are unlucky and you have become the rest home for the local dufus population. But when you number several thousand, or tens of thousands, the law of averages says that you will have a significant number of great people in your business.

The truth is that most organisations are awash with talented people who could drive business results through the roof, if given half the chance. Unfortunately their creativity, commitment, loyalty and energy is depressingly underleveraged in most cases, primarily because they feel under utilised, unloved, over managed, down trodden and generally achieve zero ‘return on their energy’.

At a conference last year the Group HR Director at one of the UK’s largest employers spoke about Talent. Addressing the conference, he talked about the size of the ‘talent pool’ in their organisation.
This, he described as the ‘top’ 1700 or so people out of an organisation that numbers 150000 - Approximately 1% of the population. That is a small number don’t you think?

He then went on to discuss the budget they spent on talent in the previous year, some £17 million. Now maybe we were supposed to think that that £17m was spent on the 1700, it was certainly implied in an ambiguous sort of way. However, unfortunately it sounded a little like a brag, if I’m honest.
It immediately conjured up thoughts of said HR director calling the FD (for the purposes of this article, assume his name is Bob) and the conversation going something like this:

HRD: “Hi Bob, its Andrew.”

Bob: “Hi Andrew, what can I do for you?”

Andrew: “Well, I’m doing a conference on Talent, and I was hoping to throw in a few numbers to impress the audience. I need to get an idea of what we spend on ‘developing talent’ so I’m wondering if you can pull together the costs for recruitment,
training etc and tell me how much it comes to.”

Bob: “OK. Shouldn’t be a problem. Ill run all the relevant cost centres. What about some of
the associated costs, do you want them as well?”

Andrew: “Such as?”

Bob: “Well, Advertising costs for instance. Oh and then there’s the costs of the assessment centres.”

Andrew: “Good, yes we’ll have those.”

Bob: “How about the peripherals?”

Andrew: “Peripherals?”

Bob: “Well, the paper and pencils?”

Andrew: “Yeah, why not. Chuck ‘em in, the more the merrier!

Bob: “Biscuits…?”

Ok, so it’s a little harsh, but I’m thinking I’m maybe not miles from the truth here. Bigging it up can be a temptation.

Impressive figures though, no matter what you include. But I couldn’t help think about how the vast majority of the employees would feel about those numbers or the statement that the ‘talent pool’ in the organisation is only 1% of the population. I imagined that to some, it would be a bit of a slap in the face. Picture one of their call centre operators, who that very same morning had spent the first 4 hours of their shift, convincing half a dozen customers not to cancel their accounts. They did this by
making commitments they didn’t have a chance of being able to meet and by making promises on service they knew would be broken once the issue was passed onto someone else ‘higher up’.

Who added the most value to the business that day? Who stretched their talents that day? That person, and many like them, will probably come and go without any of the top team or ‘talent pool’
noticing they ever existed. Does the fastrack talent machine for the senior team include 6 months in the call centre on the customer complaints section? I doubt it. I doubt it very much.

And this is the fundamental problem. Most organisations suffer from the following two core problems:

v They can’t see, or fail to acknowledge the talent that surrounds them – the mechanisms for selection and development are too myopic to stand a chance of seeing any of this talent.

v What they do see is handled badly - The way most potential talent is handled, particularly in the recruitment process, for example is so appalling, that many organisations miss the opportunity to hire good people. The process is weak and uninspiring in many cases and despite all the energy that goes into the resourcing process many fail almost universally to address the one most important issue – the quality of the candidate interaction.

If you look at the profile of those that have got it right (from a resourcing perspective at least) you see that what they have done is recognised one key difference in approach – its not about acquiring talent, its about attracting talent. They have addressed the three key elements of the war for talent article mentioned above.

And that’s why we need to put the whole notion of a ‘war’ out of our minds. If organisations are going to be successful they need to move away from acquisition strategies and to think more about attraction strategies for new talent. They also need to ask themselves some tough questions about the way they manage and nurture those they have already who they consider to be Mr and Mrs average as they are probably superheroes in the making.

We seriously need to get to grips with this issue and wake up. Otherwise we might all be going around thinking we are wearing this seasons latest fashion when in reality we are totally butt naked!


I wrote this piece on the 6th May 2005 and was inspired to dig it out and post it following a brief conversation about the War for Talent on Twitter. It never made it to our website (Didn’t have a blog at the time!) but I may as well have written it yesterday for all that's changed, which isn't a great deal! Apologies for the length also, but thought it worth sharing in full.

Views: 192

Comment by Tim Collins on March 26, 2010 at 10:23am
Another great post Gareth. Surprizingly timely considering that you first wrote it 5 years ago!
Comment by Jayne Johnson on March 26, 2010 at 10:27am
I didnt realise you had written it so long ago! .. very good post indeed!
Comment by Will Branning on March 26, 2010 at 12:50pm
Great points - attraction is very important for sure - thanks for sharing this again!
Comment by Omowale Casselle on March 27, 2010 at 4:55am

Great post. Good to see that your articles are still relevant 5 years later. I love the point you make that it is not about "acquiring talent, its about attracting talent". How does your organization communicate value (great company, challenging job, and competitive salary/benefits) in such a way that the best employees want to work at your organization as opposed to another?


Omowale Casselle
Comment by Dr. Brian A. Schwartz on March 31, 2010 at 11:18pm
This is a superb article that cuts to the chase about the real challenge....discovering the true potential of people and empowering them to develop themselves as much as they can possibly can while aligning them with the work and career opportunities that will benefit to them and society. A great read on how this operates in real organizational life can be found in O'Reilly and Pfeffers landmark study Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People. While I have reservations on the use of the word "ordinary" here, the key point is that the overemphasis on the so-called "A" players distorts the communal effort needed to make any society work. The elitist impulse that informs much of the mythology around high potentials often goes awry. Just look at the financial services industry and modern politicians. Can anyone find true visionary leadership there? It has forced us all to be proverbial Diogenes looking for the honest and competent man or woman!!!!


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