It’s been more than 20 years since McKinsey coined the term “war for talent”, a model for attracting and retaining employees that has now become so ubiquitous it can be hard to imagine an alternative exists. Alternatives do exist, however. And in today’s rapidly changing world, they’ve probably never been more urgently needed.
In the established model, talent is seen as a scarce resource. Hard-bitten leaders assert that “A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s”, and there is a relentless push to hire stars and remove the bottom performers. Potential is seen as a fixed quantity – you either have it or you don’t, and it’s the job of the hiring manager to spot, hire and promote those who do.
But the world has changed in recent years. Disruption exists in every sector. Once predictable industries are reeling from the impact of rapidly scaling, innovative and nimble new competitors. The need for agility, innovation and the rapid mobilisation around opportunities is rehearsed on a daily basis.
And in the face of all this, it’s clear our talent strategies move too slowly. In a disrupted world, they too are in need of disruption.
Shifting from Talent to talents
Rather than taking a strategic, planning-based approach to talent management, companies need to be more agile.
Prevailing models tend to place too much value on “executional” leaders, seeing this as a quality synonymous with talent. This view needs to be challenged, though. Organisations should look to hire people with a diversity of talents rather than trying to find that one, singular “Talent”. Indeed, all too often, that Talent will be found to be a single operator, as adept as promoting themselves as they are at shaping a business.
Shifting the emphasis away from Talent requires a completely different, more inclusive approach to spotting and developing everyone’s talents. Old models of identifying and investing in the few simply won’t work when the challenge now is to identify everyone’s talents, to build people’s excitement about themselves, their strengths and their contributions, and to awaken their inner hunger to make the most of these talents.
The shift from Talent to talents, from the few to the many, and from talent planning to talent leadership depends on creating and embedding and building a culture of leadership. And this must start with an organisation’s talent professionals.
They must rethink their role, and shift from talent strategy, planning and management to leadership. They need to lead their organisation in the creation of a fresh, dynamic, inclusive approach in which the company-wide development of leadership is a central, recurring and never-ending theme.
Encouraging a culture of leadership
Building a leadership culture is about much more than just investing in and mentoring the next generation of high performers. Prioritising leadership development helps to imbue employees with an awareness of their natural strengths, it empowers them to go beyond their comfort zones which, in turn, drives a company to higher performance.
Leadership development revolves around recognising and unlocking potential – in ourselves and in others. It depends on us identifying our natural talents, having a vision of ourselves leading, and working to turn that vision into a reality. Organisations with a culture of leadership development work to create a widespread understanding of the value of the individual and their unique contribution to the wider business. Rather than focussing exclusively on investing in time or technology, this depends instead on a culture that provides the right commitment, focus and environment.
Indeed, if employees are to develop their leadership potential, they need time and space to grow, and to feel that this growth is valued by the business. It’s important for them to be able to openly discuss and reflect upon their progress and the obstacles they face. They must have freedom to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Ultimately, though, they must believe that their management and their peers understand the importance of such personal and professional growth, and allow them the time to do so.
The goal is to create a company-wide culture in which everyone understands their own value, and acknowledges not just their own strengths and potential, but those of their peers too. Only when this is has been achieved can everyone truly think of themselves as talent, and feel invested in helping their colleagues develop their talents and become their best selves.
Much has changed during the two decades since McKinsey introduced “the war for talent”. Widespread disruption means today’s business models would be unrecognisable even just 20 years ago; the world just works differently now. It stands to reason, then, that the concept of Talent no longer applies. If they hope to avoid being disrupted by innovative, agile new businesses, organisations today must change their approach to talent management. The time has come for a culture of talents, where everyone has a sense of ownership, and in which everyone uses those talents to grow personally and work productively.