“Companies are about to be engaged in a war for senior… talent that will remain a defining characteristic of their competitive landscape for decades to come. Yet most are ill prepared, and even the best are vulnerable” – McKinsey, 1997
Ever since the phrase “the war for talent” was first coined by McKinsey in the late 90’s, talent sourcers, recruitment consultants and all those involved in the talent acquisition process have been self-challenged to think more creatively on how to attract talent from what has become known as a limited talent pool. The 3 key reasons for this ‘war’, according to a 2011 report by the Aberdeen Group are; increasing competition in the market place for top talent, a shortage of required skills available in the labour pool, and pressure in meeting organisations growth objectives. But are these really the key reasons for this ‘war’ or are there other underlying, and often unexamined causes?
Consider this analogy to help explain the point: If you place a pencil into a glass of water, what happens? The pencil ‘appears’ bent, does it not? Indeed, our thinking will initially tell us that it is in fact bent, just like a mirage in the desert will have us believe that there is water in the near distance. However, upon further examination, and as scientific thinking later tells us, it is not the pencil that bends, but the refraction of light, as it hits the pencil at an angle that causes it to appear bent:
The way we think about talent (what it looks like, where we expect to source it from, how it should typically present itself or behave, etc), tells us that there is a war, that there is a very limited talent pool to tap from. However, upon further detailed examination of our ‘rational’ presuppositions, of our expected ‘criteria’, we may realise that it is not so much that there is a shortage of talent, but a shortage in our understanding of what talent is. The ‘war’, as McKinsey terms it, is not only about ensuring talent management is a burning board level priority, but in addition, I suggest, is even more so, about the war in our minds…in our heads! How are we to really understand 21st century talent?
Globalisation, new technologies, amalgamating geographies, the migration and socio-cultural integration of peoples; these are the forces that underpin an initial new understanding of what talent is. Throw in the typical generational characteristics, behaviours and workplace demands of Gen ‘X’, ‘Y’ and even the looming Gen ‘Z’, compound that with the reality of a globally ageing workforce – and one begins to gradually understand the 21st century picture of talent: It is increasingly difficult to ‘define’ and comes in a range of shapes and sizes…
But the complexity of the talent picture is further compounded by the fact that traditional sourcing systems – recruitment processes, competency frameworks, assessment & ‘cultural fit’ criteria, talent acquisition technologies – used for identifying and developing talent, themselves need to be cleaned out to make them more adaptable to the 21st century talent-task. Importantly, however, and indeed above all else, are the brains behind these systems: how they think, and how their thinking is applied in action to sourcing, such that ‘non-typical’ talent are given a fair go, so that the lessons learnt from the latter half of the 20th century, do not repeat themselves in the 21st, ensuring that ‘the war’ is well and truly defeated.
These ‘systems’ – and the unconscious biases that presuppose them – have lead, for example, to the fact that approx 70% of CEO’s, globally, are 6ft tall and above! But there is no logical connection between height and leadership ‘qualities’ – is there? Our ‘systems’ appear to think there is. Indeed, the reality of unconscious bias has been effective in successfully carving out huge sections of the global workforce (women, people from a wide range of ‘minority’ groups, etc) where talent available for sourcing are often wilfully overlooked, with ‘rational’ arguments by way of rigid selection criteria and candidate briefs used to justify them. What are we looking for, I ask? The ‘bent’ picture of talent in our minds? The ‘mirage’ that we think we know and are ‘comfortable’ with? Is ignorance really bliss? Or does it lead to ‘war’, a war in our minds?? Have we learnt from the lessons of the latter half of the 20th century?
How do we respond to this ‘complexity’ that 21st century talent presents then? An Old Testament Biblical quotation may have the answer: “You cannot put new wine into old wineskins, it will rupture”. Expecting new results by performing the same old actions, no matter how technologically and logically sugar-coated they might appear, will never produce the desired long-term outcomes.
What needs to change, I propose, is our thinking. To implement this change in action, recruitment and search consultants, talent acquisition and sourcing specialists, as well as key organisational stakeholders – all, collectively, need to demonstrate an individual readiness to think differently in the talent sourcing process. The solution to ‘the war’ is more so within, than without. It is a thinking challenge. A challenge which, at its core, requires embracing diverse perspectives as a lasting solution. It’s the only way to win the war of minds – without which we will continue to remain in the McKinsean armchair, hypnotised, and thoroughly bought into the idea that the ‘war’ is real…like the bent pencil – in our minds.
Jude-Martin is Director of diversity-is.com a consultancy focused on providing a fresh and innovative approach to diversity through the provision of HR services covering Strategy, Assessment, and Development for ensuring effective people management.