What did you do in the great war (for talent) daddy ?

melchertI have a confession, I really dislike military analogies for the world of work (big battalions, tanks on the lawn, in the trenches and the HR-inspired ‘bite the bullet’). Top of the list for me was the infamous McKinsey-inspired war for talent from 1997. It just gives me the boak. If those consultants had any imagination or sense of humour that year they could have just pinched “oh my god, they killed Kenny” from South Park but they had neither and a generation of HR professionals were subjected to a conflict they neither understood nor wanted to get involved in.

(Spoiler alert) – for those who hid in an ivory tower during the time and are unfamiliar with the narrative , the big-bank inspired global financial crisis came along and corporate HR ultimately lost the war to the candidate and as the victor they got to write the history lesson as a consequence. Testosterone-fuelled talent strategies became, in hindsight, the worst idea since Olaf the Viking ordered 1,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside.

For some HR people of a certain age and corporate profile there is a difficulty in discussing and embracing the horrors of that war for talent. As the truth and reconciliation-inspired bloggers converge, with an aim to ensure it was the war that would end wars, the atrocities in the name of progress included the following :

  • Jack Welsh wrote a book with his big smug American face adorned on the front that advocated the concept that we should get all Darwinian and promote aggressively those A players at the top (identified through 9 hours of ridiculous interviewing called topgrading) and cull the rubbish at the bottom on an ongoing basis in some corporate cleansing exercise which gave HR functions all over the world the nickname ‘the grim reaper’.  Camaraderie got kicked into touch as colleagues literally became the ‘disappeared’ after their quick meeting request on the fourth floor and at the top end destructive Gordon Gekko types were creating empires, pulling up ladders and walking all over their colleagues in pursuit of more self-aggrandisement. Enron attended countless management conferences espousing their success was dependent on this talent strategy until a man with a boring job title jumped up and shouted ‘accounting fraud’ from the audience. The rest is history.
  • Organisations, and the HR teams they deserved, got caught between wanting to embrace the new commercial realities of Darwinian talent agendas and their own heritage as giving employees a second thought. This led to the typical hokey-cokey HR approach to talent of whether all people were in, or some people were out of the talent game. We categorised to death the existing workforce (for the hiring of external talent was fast becoming a lost art) in such exotic categories as : high potential, high potential with average performance, ready to move sideways, ready to move upwards, steady performers, solid performers, emerging talent, everyone’s talent, only diverse people are talent, has no talent, international talent, only talented within the Milton Keynes area, decreasing levels of talent, Britain’s got talent, rockstars, A players, top 5 per centers, talent magnets and finally the under 35s but never the over 40s. A plethora of HR nonsense that established an annual process to recalibrate the same people and then agonise whether the talent should be told or whether this was too divisive. In short, we lost the war as we didn’t know what the hell we were doing and in the meantime the true talent inside the organisation just shrugged its shoulders and took off to a simpler more fulfilling place. We just responded by categorising them ‘regretted losses’ !!!
  • Given how convinced we were that the individual trumped the team, we bastardised the annual performance review into a management tool for calibrating large scalable organisations to make sense of the diminishing pay and bonus pot. We encouraged rubbish corporate behaviours and wallowed in ridiculous statements such as ‘we all know he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard’ when talking about the rainmaker or the next golden child of short termism and bullying management. We overvalued individuals at the expense of the team with disastrous organisational results.
  • Another atrocity was that we got into bed with some shady organisations who offered us ‘resource’ solutions in the midst of this. One of them, the RPO, built their models on volume and transaction and responded like lumbering 1970s, soviet tanks when the market changed and introduced a new paradigm. Interestingly, one of their more recent responses was to commission some clever PR sods who advocated they change the word resource to talent and hey presto they look ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with corporates in any forthcoming re-emergence of talent hostilities. Approach with caution as behind the new corporate logo lies for some of them the same tired old recruiter workforce and agency-like behaviours.
  • On the side lines, the CIPD commissioned consultants to develop countless frameworks. The business never used them but they look nice.

So in the distance, the beating drums of war sound as a new generation go back to the old adage that a new war for talent is emerging. Since the nonsense spouted by McKinsey the world of work has changed beyond all recognition. Have we as a HR function (with all our supporting parts) done likewise? I think we are less slavish to consultancy nonsense than we used to be (how many scars do you need before this happens) and I’m heartened to read of more palatable and creative thoughts on a new approach from people like the excellent Paul Maxin in his recent article “The War for Talent is passé, Collaboration with Talent is the Future”.

On the other hand I worry about the impact of Forbes’ constant top 10 things in Talent this year leading us off into a merry dance of irrelevancy. Instead, 21st century organisations, built by charismatic nerds from the west coast of America have demonstrated that a simple return to building an employee-centric workplace that harnesses the collaborative and creative spirit of its people can be enormously successful. We don’t necessarily have to create the cult of the individual personality at the centre of our talent agenda and we don’t necessarily have to shoot the bottom chunk of the bell curve to achieve organisational fulfilment. Those guys on the proverbial naughty step in Financial Services still don’t seem to have caught up as they focus their HR thinking on creative ways of bypassing anti-competitive legislation with clever, sought after reward professionals armed with a whole range of new allowances to attract and retain ‘the best’ talent. Time will tell if we tip into a new crisis or the wolves can be neutered.

A constant theme of opportunity for the HR profession raises its head again – What we need for this phase of hostilities is to be more strategic and relevant to business; to build more compelling workplaces; to be more creative; and artful in our solutions in all areas, including talent. We pursued trendy yet ultimately disastrous fads the last time round. Only HR fools would allow that to happen again. Wouldn’t they ?

Until next time. Make love not war.

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7 thoughts on “What did you do in the great war (for talent) daddy ?

  1. Right…..
    a. Jack Welsh had some good bits – particularly constant feedback and calibration so performance improvement was embedded and quotidian. And he LOVED HR. (OK, that can be a minus, but he knew the people bit was the most important thing – along with the numbers). Top grading – not so bad – as it encourages taking time and a different perspective to hiring. Hire slow, fire fast. It’s the only way.
    b. Talent – agree. A lot of it is situational and time related. Nothing worse than the lumbering talent programmes in most organisations, where your talent cadre is identified. Basically, it’s saying everyone who isn’t talent is a little bit rubbish. It’s like the good old eleven plus. It’s the Michael Gove of HR.
    c. CIPD – still using LOADS of consultants. I can name seven I know personally. Seven. A thought. Shouldn’t all organisations (including the Beeb with their BBC3 cost cutting initiative) have to declare their spend on consultants and interims and coaches each year and demonstrate the impact on the bottom line? That would be fab.
    d. Financial services sector and reward? Unprintable……
    e. Your solution – yep. Up for that. Now – where do we muster?

    • Yeah…I was torn about Jack and I guess you could argue he was a bit oif a curates egg and then I remembered the 7 hours of my life that a famous UK-based FS organisation took from me trying to equate my relationship with my mother to my ability to do good HR ?

      Do McKinsey still do mangement books or have they been bought by Ratners ?

      You forget that many organisations USE consultants so that they don’t have to reveal them. It’s called accounting fraud I believe.

  2. I get the feeling you are passionate about this!!!

    a: WAR – disagree – Whilst the phraseology of WAR may be wrong the essence of what it meant was of value. What it achieved was to get businesses to realise was that they had to compete for the best staff just as they did customers. This recognition was a good thing.

    b: DARWIN: – 50/50 – How businesses translated this perception of competition I agree did to a large extent commoditise staff internally. However it was not the fault of the processes in themselves but how HR teams and businesses coached their staff to execute the process. If more effort was made to make these processes about aligning what the employee wanted with the organisational aims it would be less commodity orientated

    c: BANKS: – disagree – Whilst the banks are culpable to some extent, it is governments that allowed and encouraged the growth because all they care about is getting re- elected and US for spending more money than we could afford to pay back.

    d: FUTURE: – Agree – The future will need to be more employee centric and I feel it will be. I still believe in the phraseology of WAR FOR TALENT, for two reasons. one executives understand the concept and in principle buy in to it. secondly it is still a competition it is just the rules have changed. No longer about what the company wants but aligning the wants of the individual with the wants of the organisation.

    • Thanks Alex…..thanks a lot for contributing. Much appreciated. In response :

      a. We’ll have to disagree on this one. I mean War, huh, good god now, what is it good for ? Absolutely nothing (including business anologies).
      b. I’d argue HR ‘best practice’ got trumped by the emergence of restructuring budgets from accounting, a compliant legal profession, settlement agreements and a surege towards short termism.
      c. Governments try to do the switcheroo between populist polcies to satisfy middle england (down naughty banks) and turning a blind eye to FS in exchange for the percieved value that sector brings to an economy when the traditional heartland of manufacturing has been stripped and sold.
      d. Beyond the headline title, spot on.

      Enjoyed that. Many thanks sir.

  3. Agreeing what employers mean by “Talent” would be a useful starting point. Depending who you ask, chances are you’ll end up with a different definition every time. Across businesses, there are different layers of “Talent” and in an effort to keep up and be “with it”, HR keeps meddling with the way its measured. The danger is “Talent” Management get so immersed in their Heath-Robinson style matrices to measure “Talent” that anybody with half an idea gets tagged as “Talent” and yet the future stars are still missed. And this coming from someone who was “Talent Acquisition and Talent Management Lead” on one of his assignments!

    “War war is stupid, And people are stupid”. Perhaps that great philosopher, singer and DJ Boy George understood better than us all. One to think about at the next Talent Boot-camp!

    • Thanks Dorian. Agreed. Time t step off the pot HR I say. And surely Boy George’s crown as philosopher ended with that derisory performance on the A team in the 80s ?

  4. Pingback: The HR Talent Community – The war for talent: still fighting but under new rules?

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