war for talent is an ugly concept that may prove just as destructive as other
management fads, writes Stephen Overell
On page 15 of The War for Talent, McKinsey’s endlessly fawned-over book,
there is a most impressive statistic: just 16 per cent of the 13,000 executives
interviewed believed their companies could identify the high performers from
Put another way, 84 per cent reckon their firms cannot distinguish between
those who are good at their jobs and those who are not; they might as well
throw darts at a list of names and anoint the pierced as the stars of tomorrow.
This, of course, serves the authors well. "Most companies struggle with
differentiation," they write, before going on to exhort all employers to
"grow a talent mindset" and "invest differentially in A, B and C
players"1 (see table).
You can already sense how it is going to work out. The war for talent has
only been raging for four years – the book has only existed for one – and
already it seems destined for a place in the management-fad axis of evil, along
with re-engineering and the time and motion study. Why? Because the war for
talent with its bundle of clichés about managing creative people and the new
psychological contract is fast becoming a bandwagon.
It is attracting a fanatical following in business schools, think-tanks and
companies, all urging each other down the same path and into the same outlook
at a time when the majority of organisations do not believe in the criteria
separating apples and pears.
The venerable old chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ will strike again. And it
will be profoundly destructive: lots of organisations will ‘adopt a talent
mindset’ and ‘invest differentially’ because those are the easy bits; but they
will continue to ‘struggle with differentiation’, thereby making a nonsense of
the whole idea.
In the meantime, plenty of people will be declared ‘C’ players or ‘Q’
players, and will be passed over, ignored or sacked, while favourites will reap
their time-honoured rewards.
Is this too gloomy a prediction for an increasingly popular set of ideas?
After all, the war for talent is usually associated with some of the softest of
soft HR practices – all that nice stuff about ‘selling’ jobs to ‘the talented’,
employer brands and the ‘fit’ between corporate needs and individual
"Talented people will choose to join companies because of the values,
beliefs and culture of the organisation", trilled Royal Dutch/Shell.
"Good management is fundamental to releasing talented people to do what
they do best, and when you do that, you retain them,"2 cooed The Pentland
Group. It was bland, sure, but well-meaning – even when it began bordering on
Jonas Ridderstr†le, a leadership expert based at the Stockholm School of
Economics, claimed: "Now we are in the business of having to create an
emotional experience for talented individuals. Companies used to be consumers
of competence. Now, they must be both co-creators of competence and providers
Yet the war for talent always had a nasty side that risked clashing with
good HR practice and basic fairness.
Consider the following piece of research. In the midst of the clamour
surrounding ‘talent’, the Corporate Leadership Council, an Anglo-American HR
research body, asked the obvious question: How widespread is it? How many
people do organisations really regard as critical to performance?
Everyone likes to believe they are talented to some degree, yet the results
were instructive: one computer company recognised 100 out of 16,000, a software
firm said 10 out of 11,000 and a transport group could find just 20 out of
Mercer Human Resource Consulting always recommends informing the talented of
their preferment. Lucky them. But what about everyone else?
The war for talent has little to say to most people, except as an unspoken
communication of their failure – the managerial equivalent of the old 11+, but
with less fairness.
As written here before, "people are our greatest asset" was, and
still is, a fib. Yet as an aspirational slogan, it is far in advance of the
ugly, social Darwinist language of the war for talent, with its reward
hierarchies and talent pipelines.
Employment is not showbiz and most people would not like to work under the
elitist regime inspired by talent management, where all but a tiny fraction are
‘affirmed’, but not ‘invested in’. It is inimical to an HR agenda of creating good
quality jobs and building collective commitment.
When it was identified so strongly with the dotcom recruiting frenzy of the
late 1990s, the spin could be as loose as the reward packages and the war’s
harder edge was masked by the bubble-talk. Now, in the chillier climate of late
2002, the war’s frontline has moved and it is about "asking the right
people to leave the organisation".
Beth Axelrod, one of the consultants behind the book, left McKinsey to
become chief talent officer for media group WPP this year. She is helping to
make 5,000 job cuts over two years.
Let’s hope WPP is in the minority with a performance management system more
sophisticated than eeny-meeny-miny-mo. But even if it isn’t, 5,000 should be
little trouble if talent is so thinly distributed.
Of course, all organisations need talented people to make products and
services unique. It is sad if helping them to flourish is seen as a brainwave.
But the problem is that rigid, aggressive, almost bar-coded differentiation
between staff with a view to focusing relentlessly on ‘the talented’, is not
useful or realistic for firms hoping to get the most out of all the people they
As with any management idea, it remains irrelevant until it starts to shape
how organisations act and think. Managing talent has been adopted with burning
zeal. All the working lives destroyed under the banner of re-engineering during
the 1990s should be a salutary reminder of the pitfalls.
1 The War for Talent, by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod,
Harvard Business School Press, 2001
2 Quotes taken from Managing Talent, by Tim Osborn-Jones, Henley Management
3 Financial Times, 27 August, 2002
The old way
– HR is responsible for people
– We provide good pay and benefits
– Recruiting is like purchasing
– We think development happens in training programmes
– We treat everyone the same and like to think that everyone is
The new way
– All managers, starting with the
CEO, are accountable for strengthening their talent pool
– We shape our company, our jobs, even our strategy to appeal
to talented people
– Recruiting is like marketing
– We fuel development primarily through stretch jobs, coaching
– We affirm all people but invest differentially in our A, B
and C players
Source: The War for Talent, HBSP, 2001