I 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.