The war for talent – is there another way?

Image of a cross roads sign pointing in two possible directions

Written by Kevin Oubridge, Director at Accelerated Success

We’ve heard a lot about the war for talent since Steven Hankin of McKinsey first coined the term back in 1997. In a nutshell, talented people are in short supply so organisations need to focus on attracting, retaining and developing talent to keep ahead of the competition.

The trouble is the shortage of talent isn’t a secret, which means if your organisation’s chasing talent, so are all your competitors. 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.

In addition, 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 you have very little to show for it.

It’s not fair but neither is it unfair, particularly if you’re the individual being poached to a bigger and better job.

And the war for talent shows no signs of abating. In response you are forced to continue to throw the kitchen sink at recruiting, retaining and developing talent, and that’s just to survive, with no guarantees your company will thrive if you do so.

Surely, there’s another way!?

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, I am going to suggest that ‘talent’ isn’t what it used to be. That’s because, back in 1997, talent was about individual performance within structured organisations, where key players would forge the way and those around them would provide the necessary support.

Nowadays, with flatter organisations and teamwork coming to the fore, talent is as much about collective performance as it is about high performing individuals who know or come up with all the answers. Driving collective performance requires all team members to be able to think critically and learn for themselves, which then enables them to deal with complexity, manage uncertainty, take risks, solve problems as they arise, make decisions locally and even take the lead as and when needed.

Critical thinking and self-directed learning are skills your high performers will use as the norm, however, they should not be thought of as skills that other team members don’t or can’t have. Many team members are perfectly capable of thinking critically and directing their own learning and those that aren’t are perfectly capable of developing those skills very quickly – what has held them back in the past is a mixture of fear and the lack of need or opportunity to use them, rather than lack of ability.

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 5, 10 or 20% of high performing individuals and more about making it safe, and thus create the space, for all employees (including the other 80% or more) 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.


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