The war for talent - surely, there's another way?

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana on Unsplash

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana on Unsplash


Steven Hankin of McKinsey first coined the term ‘the war for talent’ back in 1997. What he meant was that talented people are in such relatively short supply organisations need to compete fiercely to attract, retain and develop talent.

The trouble is the shortage of talent has never been a secret and while your organisation’s throwing resources into recruiting talent so are all your competitors. Even if your company gets its recruitment right, you might secure a talented individual and develop them further, only for a competitor to poach them with a more attractive offer.

And the talented individual in question might not even fully get up and running while they are with you, meaning all that time, effort and money has gone towards helping a competitor, and your company is left with nothing.

It’s not fair. It’s just how it is.

I’d like to say the war for talent is coming to an end but, unfortunately, it shows no signs of easing up. In response you are forced to continue to devote a huge amount of time, money and resources at recruiting, retaining and developing talent, simply to survive let alone thrive.

There's got to be another way hasn’t there!?

Well, I’m not going to suggest that your company would be better off without talented people – a company’s talent is its most valuable and reliable asset – that’s McKinsey again. However, what I am going to suggest is that ‘talent’ isn’t what it used to be. Back in 1997 talent was about individual performance within structured organisations, where high performers led the way and other, less talented individuals, supported them.

Today, with teams becoming more and more important, talent is much more about collective performance than about the most talented individuals who come up with all the answers. Good collective performance requires all team members to be able to think critically and learn for themselves, enabling them to cope with complexity, manage uncertainty, take risks, solve problems as they arise, make decisions locally as well as taking the lead as and when needed.

Critical thinking and self-directed learning are skills your high performers will use as the norm, however, they are not skills that other team members don’t or can’t have. Many of your people are very capable of thinking critically and directing their own learning and those that aren’t can develop those skills very quickly. It isn’t therefore a skills deficit that has held them back in the past, it’s a mix of fear and the lack of need or opportunity - fear of sticking their neck out in an environment where the high performers call the shots, and lack of need or opportunity because, well, the high performers call the shots.

Now, with teams calling the shots, the need for all team members to develop and use these skills is front and centre, meaning your team members, all of them, could be developing and using critical thinking and learning skills. I say ‘could’, although most of them won’t, not unless you remove the fear factor I mentioned earlier – fear of making a mistake, failing, ridicule, being ignored – which, in recent research, Google found was the single most important element of ensuring team success

You can plough money into raising individual and team performance, provide the latest software, rely on detailed analysis of data, re-engineer you organisation, and many other solutions, but none of this will matter unless you remove the fear. That is, introduce a culture of what Amy Edmondson of Harvard calls psychological safety to your teams, enabling individual team members to perform at their best rather than holding back.

So, maybe your ‘war for talent’ is less about the high performing individuals and more about making it safe, and thus creating the space, for all your employees, to develop and show their talents.

Maximising the contribution of all your people makes total sense and it might give you a lot more than you thought possible. Even the edge your company needs. the than you thought possible. Even the edge your company needs.

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