Why You Are Losing the REAL War for Talent

I often hear people mention the phrase “the war for talent”, which of course implies that various organizations are competing to attract the best and brightest managers and employees to their ranks. The supporting logic is that, by employing the most talented people, these organizations will reap the subsequent positive economic benefits, such as enhanced performance, positive growth, increased revenues and greater profitability. Few people could argue against the benefits of attracting and retaining the most capable people, but an argument can be made that most organizations are actually losing this “war”, with many of them not even realizing that they are losing or the reasons why. Despite all good intentions, the real war for talent is being lost by most organizations because they improperly define talent, they look for talent in the wrong ways, and they fail to effectively attract and retain it.

Improperly defining talent

Try to envision two circles, with the first circle being four times the size of the second circle. If one circle represents people who actually have talent, and the other represents everyone else, which circle do you think would best represent truly talented people? If you chose the larger circle, you likely believe that talent is abundant and that the great majority of people possess it. If you selected the smaller circle, you most likely believe that talent is rare and therefore may be more difficult to find. Unfortunately, it seems today that the word talent is applied to almost everyone and, since it has become so over-used and “watered down”, it has lost its definitive value. And as a result, this “war for talent” is mistakenly being fought in the wrong place (the large circle), over easily accessible and abundant people, rather than the right place (the small circle), over people who are actually rare.

By re-evaluating how we define talent, we can move away from a broad, all-encompassing definition to one that focuses on what really matters from an organizational perspective – performance. When we more specifically identify a talented person as one who possesses exceptional performance ability we can then re-focus our attention, and efforts, on people who are rare. It only makes sense that organizations employing a majority of poor performers will perform poorly, those with average performers will perform at average levels, and those with superior performers will experience superior performance results. So, far beyond simply filling vacant positions with the improperly evaluated, large circle “talented” people, the identification, attraction and retention of rare, exceptional performers should become the real organizational talent management objective.

To be successful, we will need to avoid the trap of simply replacing the word “talented” with the word “performer” – obviously more substance is required. We will need to first understand the nature of performance, to then properly define specific performance objectives for each position, and then to finally define all of the specific technical capabilities and non-technical performance qualities that a person would need to possess in order to consistently meet these objectives. If we do not properly define what we are looking for, and “stick to” our definition, how can we expect to know who we are looking for, or where and how to look? And unless we refuse to settle for people who possess anything less than our performance definition, all of our defining efforts will be wasted and we will be unlikely to consistently meet individual, departmental and organizational performance objectives.

The unproductive search for talent

“Everyone is doing it so it must be right”. Wrong.

A big part of the problem is that most people naturally gravitate to what everyone else is doing despite the fact that the results they experience do not always justify joining the “pack”. If talent is rare, then finding it will require using search approaches than are different than what everyone else is using. And since acquiring anything of rare value most often requires extra effort, finding valuable talent is usually going to require organizations to apply more effort than their competition. Unfortunately, rather than putting in the effort to actively find those rare people who have the performance capabilities that they really need, too often employers mistakenly expect those small circle people with real talent to find them, via such low-effort passive search techniques as position “postings” that are more easily accessed by the large circle supposedly “talented”. As a result it is not unusual for employers to fall into a post, hope, settle, justify, complain, create new vacancy, re-post sequence. And this is especially true when they improperly define talent from the outset.

But not only does the small circle represent those rare people with talent, we can also say that it represents the rare organizations that are actually interested in acquiring it. Already staffed with talented people, these organizations know, to be successful in acquiring rare high-performers, that they would be wise to NOT do what everyone else is doing. So rather than post key positions on job boards, “selling” candidates on the organization, putting applicants through extensive on-line application forms, and general “cattle-call” recruitment techniques, they place more importance on the quality of their search approach than on the quantity of applicant responses.

“I don’t need 1000 average resumes. I need 1 exceptional person”.

These rarer, attractive employers understand that it is unproductive, and too risky, to hope that the right person will find them at the right time. Instead, they focus their search efforts on finding those rare people who can both prove past performance, and who can show the capability to meet their specific performance requirements. Armed with this performance focus, they utilize talented recruiters who go well beyond posting to the easily accessible large circle people, the simple evaluation of the presence of the most keywords on resumes from numerous applicants, or believing that people possessing a title have in reality achieved real past performance results. Instead, their recruiters use their own rare ability to strategize, to adapt, to identify, to evaluate, and then credibly communicate with found desired rare performers. “Talent is more likely to be capable of finding talent”.

The key is to evaluate search methodology on the basis of subsequent performance results, and to hold people accountable for effective search outcomes. Until large circle decision-makers make a conscious effort to start using different search techniques that are more suitable to talented people, they will continue to lose the real war for talent to their more strategic, active and ‘non-settling’ small circle competition. The common search approaches, although easier to administer and seemingly less expensive in the short term, become very expensive when long-term performance objectives are missed.

The improper attraction and retention of talent

“If you build it … they will come”. And stay.

Talented people want to work in similarly talented organizations, led by talented managers with vision, and staffed by talented high-performing peers. Always career-oriented, they want challenging work and opportunities to further grow and develop their performance capabilities and, if organizations do not actually offer this, they will not join and they will not stay. It is that simple. The recruitment and retention of real talent is an organization-wide phenomenon that every member, in some capacity, must consistently contribute toward. This is why small circle, talented organizations have an advantage – they are naturally attractive, top to bottom, to other talented people.

Talented people do not make mistakes in their career development, or in their career search, and they often reject hiring organizations that do. Just like their potential employers, they are strategic, cautious and selective. They are not often fooled by untalented recruiters who make mistakes and who behave more like salespeople than honest evaluative “match-makers”, and they will be repelled by weak managers, poor recruitment processes, and inexperienced and inadequate organizational representatives (internal or external).

“The way the organization is acting … I wonder if they really want me, or if they just want anyone”.

Only when personnel quality is a key consideration will organizations be able to move away from the typical time consuming, high-volume and costly hiring approaches to more rational, focused and effective talent management systems. Organizational leaders who delegate their talent acquisition / development / management programs to untalented personnel, who are more concerned about looking successful than being successful, are only contributing to the problem. Without a senior managerial commitment to their performance accountability, organizations staffed with these delegates will struggle to compete in the attraction and retention of talented personnel, they will continue to dwell in the large circle, and they will never reach “employer of choice” status.

The Root Cause

It could be argued that this lack of awareness, and success, typically occurs when people, managers, departments and even overall organizational cultures possess a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset. Within a fixed mindset, people will often ignore the causes of poor performance results, there is a tendency to avoid challenges, to resist change and improvement, to minimize effort, and to appear to be capable rather than truly be capable. Rather than rationally respond to performance issues, they are instead more likely to justify the status quo and then build various systems that support its maintenance. When it comes to talent, while fixed mindset personnel may fully believe that their approaches are effective and that they are actually identifying, attracting and retaining talented people, the reality is that they are often settling for the best of the most easily accessible, and then later justifying poor performance results.

By comparison, within a growth mindset, progression dominates. Challenges are embraced, logical change is initiated, skill development is encouraged, effort is real and rewarded, and true performance capability is the desired objective. It is logical to assume that, since talented people invariably have a growth mindset themselves, they will more often respond to growth-oriented search, attraction and retention approaches, and they are only going to be interested in the challenging careers (not just ‘jobs’) that are offered by similarly minded managers within growth-oriented organizations.

I have to stress that everything begins at the “top”. It is only when senior management conducts an honest evaluation of organizational, departmental, mid-managerial and individual performance results that the effectiveness of the organization’s talent search, attraction and retention activities will be known. Should performance results be insufficient, at any of these levels, it is essential for senior management to take the lead, and to move their people away from the fixed mindset justification of current attitudes and approaches toward a new growth-oriented, performance-based overall talent management methodology. Only then will the real war be won.