War for Talent 2.0?

Printer-friendly versionSend to friendPDF version

Wherever on this world you skip through the job announcements in the area of management, you seem to enter a battlefield. Companies fiercely compete for the “best and brightest”, look for the “high-potentials”, or - as associates of McKinsey titled dramatically already in 1997 – wage a “war for talent”. Times have not changed too much since then. A recent study of Beskin & Company addresses the “war for talent 2.0” now fought also in the social media of the “web 2.0”. About 50 percent of all companies reviewed see their growth hindered by the problem of being unable to hire adequate talent. Of course, all companies engaging themselves on this battlefield offer exciting challenges and great opportunities in teams and work-groups which, by the way, also provide fun and the opportunity to self develop.
Corporate reality looks different. “The man of routine is always the majority in his profession” stated British philosopher Georg Bernhard Shaw already in the 20ties. He is still right, and it is good this way. Also, and one might say “especially” modern corporate business is characterized by well defined processes which all activities have to serve in the end. They don‘t leave very much room for individuality. The quality of industrial products and services must be independent of individual efforts. Therefore, routine is a good thing, crystallized experience how to do something best. Yes, there are a few positions which not only allow but demand bold individualistic decision making and there are adventurous departments like R&D or Marketing, but the majority of the staff does not work there. For this majority daily business means to report and to engage in many meetings to find compromises and spread responsibilities. This is not a criticism since a stable best practice needs the support of all and, in fact, responsibilities are spread.   
This proclaimed search for “talent” or high “potentials” expresses primarily two miseries of corporate human relations management. First, after some initial enthusiasm companies and consultancies encountered soon the limits of the assessment center. Modeling task demands in a realistic manner is essentially impossible. These demands are just too complex and vary too much with their context to be simulated in a meaningful way. Consequently, assessment centers focus on attributes like presentational and social skills together with more general aspects of knowledge and reasoning. These attributes are, however, secondary. As important as social skills may be, some genuine expertise and experience can be helpful. Secondly, companies have realized how difficult it has become to define task demands and a career path to which the profile of a candidate might be fitted. Functions and structures in organizations can change fairly fast nowadays. We are not in the glorious 50ties anymore when companies had a sizable department named “personnel development” for educating, preparing, and training their leaders looking towards the next decade. It’s a pity, of course. But it’s also the reflection of the reality that many small and big leaders would hesitate to bet that their department or company will still exist in a decade with a structure predictable today.
Thereby, many ideals meet in the “high potential”. It is the individual all head hunters want to offer and all companies want to employ: somebody, who can do nearly everything, everywhere, and under changing conditions. Obviously, such a person is hard to find, even if one allows for some exaggeration in “personnel marketing”. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the “best and brightest” often do not pursue a management career. In contrast to popular opinion in corporate human resources departments, selection does not start there but some years earlier when young adults choose the subject of their studies. Many “high potentials” end up in the “free professions” becoming doctors or lawyers; others stay in the academic world. In addition, those already holding a job and being bright are often unwilling to change. Finally, in many cultures including the industrialized countries businesses are family affairs. The question where talented daughters and sons will work does not even come up. Secondly, many graduates entering the potential corporate labor market just do not fit into corporations. Individuals with „entrepreneurial spirit“ have not surprisingly a tendency to become indeed entrepreneurs. You find them in the universe of startups where many of them, by the way, prove also the limits of their talent. Of course, their idealism and enthusiasm could help a corporation, but what does it help and what would it cost? These individuals do not like the inevitable hierarchies, reporting, and meetings. Corporations dislike their individualism, non-conformity, and risk taking. In fact, you can see every year in the rankings of preferred employers by university graduates that they want to combine the best of both worlds in companies like Google, Apple, Facebook or Microsoft. These companies have a reputation for advancing individualism, seem to be safe havens with regard to salaries and job security – and offer credible opportunities of individual careers in a rapid expansion which is not to be found in most companies of the “old economy”.
This does not mean that most corporations have to settle with the dumb and untalented residual of a strongly self-selecting labor market. If you should be working in one of these many non-exceptional companies and look around, you will find a lot of able and motivated colleagues who never fitted the label “high potential”. They are good, decent, and motivated people you can rely on. They work hard. Yes, they want to be with their family in the evening and would hesitate a lot when presented with the prospect of having to work in the Australian outback for two years. But they will go loyally through the ups and downs, cope with change, and mentor new colleagues informally. They form the backbone of corporate operations. As far as “talent” is concerned, these people display something even more important than big potential: actual performance. Corporations are well advised to strengthen their backbone instead of snapping the finger for somebody they often hardly can retain.