A talent war is raging.
Deutsche Bank’s chief executive fired a warning of an “increasingly intense war for talent”, after Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan sounded the alarm: “There’s a good war for talent out there . . . You’ve got to win the war on talent.” In such a battle the winners are usually the bankers who earned big bonuses, and the City of London bars where some of their money was spent, triggering a scramble for champagne.
The “war for talent” makes me cringe. It’s also demoralising and confusing.
I can see the appeal of the expression, adding muscular gravity to two functions that otherwise seem pedestrian: hiring and staff development. Business leaders love a dash of machismo glorifying their desk jobs. More than 2,000 years after the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, there is a thriving publishing industry devoted to it, producing such titles as The Art of War for Small Business, but also others for women, managers and senior executives.
You might think that the brutality of real war — as opposed to white-collar jostling — would humble executives and expose the posturing. Surely bombs and devastation put KPIs and sales pitches into perspective? But seeing Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his khaki T-shirt uniform, address Davos earlier this year by video conference made my heart sink. Of course he wants to address some of the most powerful figures in the world, but did some delegates see in him a kindred spirit?
Nonetheless, the “war for talent” is persistent. Coined by McKinsey consultants in 1997, it described companies’ need to identify and cultivate high-performing stars. Five years later, author Malcolm Gladwell wrote of Enron’s full-throttle embrace of this “star system”, dubbed the “rank and yank” approach in which “top performers were rewarded inordinately, and promoted without regard for seniority or experience”, contributing in part to the energy group’s collapse in 2001.
This talent — or star — system persists in some form in most organisations. Either explicitly through high-performers’ programmes, or implicitly through preferential treatment and opportunities to shine. The test is the job offer. A star is wooed with pay rises and baubles. An un-star slips out with no hint of a counter-offer.
The fetishisation of stars omits the work of their organisation or team. Even the romantic idea of a lone author toiling away in their garret has been shown to be a myth by some publishers who now print a page of credits acknowledging the work of the copy-editor, sales team and designers.
The myth of talent is particularly tenacious in television and entertainment. One friend used to work with a well-known TV presenter who would swan in at the last minute and do a few interviews for which he had been primed, before reading out loud the scripts, the result of months of investigative reporting. Of course, the presenter brought fame and charisma but he also believed his own publicity, ignoring the risks and work undertaken by his colleagues. He did not see himself as the icing but the whole multi-tiered cake.
This has an impact on others. Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a human resources body, says fixating on a favoured few, “does nothing to encourage the rest [and] can work against it”.
It is hard to quantify the value of a few stars set against the flagging spirits of the un-stars — though Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, highlighted the financial impact of bad-behaving stars in his book The No Asshole Rule. In it, he cites a star salesman who was also a bully — the fallout cost thousands in legal advice, hurting staff morale and retention.
We are bad at judging talent. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in his book, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It): “Traits like overconfidence and self-absorption” are taken as signs of talent when they should be seen as “red flags”.
When people talk about the “war for talent” in the current jobs market, they really mean ability, knowledge and skills. Becky Frankiewicz, chief commercial officer at Manpower, says “pre-crisis we were talking about bonuses for bankers. We’re now seeing hiring bonuses for truck drivers.” Airports are not hankering for employees with flair, they want people who have the security clearance and knowhow to fill the vacancy.
This is not to devalue such jobs — as recent holiday chaos proved, these are key roles. But rather to see the “war for talent” for what it is, whether applied to bankers or baggage handlers: preening and rather empty.
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