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Roger Philby

The Chemistry Group

Founder And Chief Executive

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Recruitment tips: don’t join the war for talent – build your own instead


For too long recruiters have complained of a ‘war for talent’ – but this thinking is wrong. Do your business a favour and look to build an achievement culture instead.

You only have to Google ‘companies struggle to find skilled workers‘ to find a string of results showing that an apparent ‘war for talent’ rages on.

I’m calling time on that inaccurate and frankly damaging phrase. At a human level, it carries so many connotations. There are no winners in this war – except perhaps the so-called exceptional people that employers fight over.  

It might help if I back up a bit and explain where the phrase came from. In 1997, McKinsey Partners wrote a book called War For Talent.

It was the time of the .com boom and names like Nortel Networks, Cisco, Nokia, MCI Worldcom and Enron were global behemoths, impossibly rich and hiring like crazy. It’s hard to imagine but we were still a year away from Google’s incorporation and Apple were welcoming Steve Jobs back to their fold, through their acquisition of Next Computing.

I am not for one moment saying there aren’t skills shortages. To move past this problem, we need a ‘collaboration for talent’.

The book included a case study, on Enron of all companies, the (subsequently) failed and disgraced American energy trading company. In the case study, Enron ‘won’ the war for talent by having one principal definition of talent – intellect.

Enron defined talent in a particular way; from the mouth of Kenneth Lay, C.E.O, “we only hire the best and the brightest business and MBA graduates from the top US business schools”.

That couldn’t have been more wrong. We now know that this hiring process simply has no evidence of success. Even with the word ‘best’, how do you define that? Best at what?

Due to this so-called war, companies fight over the same talent, with all paying higher wages, and all building the pressure. As wage inflation goes up, rates of acceptance go down.

If you consider this story in today’s climate – which, by the way, companies are still doing – there is not an ounce of diversity or inclusivity to realise the breadth of talent available. This creates a ridiculously narrow talent pool and excludes so many people that could be ideal for a role and the business.

Skill shortages

I am not for one moment saying there aren’t skills shortages. To move past this problem, we need a ‘collaboration for talent’. We need to make hiring great again.

This action takes the entire situation from a negative to positive to help all – the business, individuals, even society.

To downplay the very real skills gap many organisations face would be folly. Take construction, where there are simply not enough quantity surveyors in the country for all available roles. The same goes for tech developers, along with many others.

If talent is in abundance in the wider pool, what we need to create is an achievement culture.

The issue and challenges are a systemic problem and organisations need to take a longer-term view and get more involved in the education system if they genuinely want to close the skills gap.

Numerous governments have defined the gap with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) but what employers really need are employees who have a thirst for knowledge, the ability to reskill and redeploy, emotional resilience to cope with a turbulent future, and those who can communicate and collaborate.

The ‘war for talent’ rhetoric has downgraded all those factors. Computer or coding skills can be learned, but emotional intelligence and reinventing yourself need to be enabled in earlier years.

Building an achievement culture

If talent is in abundance in the wider pool, what we need to create is an achievement culture, where organisations attract and retain the best people who fit their roles – or who can be trained into their roles.

Years ago, I worked with Nortel, when the telecommunication standard of 3G was being developed and the older 2G technology was being phased out.

We could not get the number of skilled 3G engineers we needed for love nor money. We were fighting with two direct competitors and we were all losing to high wage costs and low acceptance rates.

Frankly, we knew we weren’t the most attractive guy at the bar – our competitors had far better offers.

Instead, we looked at the skills and capabilities we needed and discussed the issues with our learning and development colleagues.

We agreed that if our resourcing team could find candidates who were highly motivated to learn and had some relevant, adjacent experience, then a fast-track development programme could bridge the skills gap.

We approached the 2G engineers whose work was phasing out, assessed them for their ability to learn and fit with our business. We hired the ones that were highly motivated to reskill and then our L&D colleagues gave them the training they needed.

In so doing, we didn’t have to pay the individuals as highly as 3G engineers, yet they were unbelievably motivated. By taking a long-term (and different) view, we took away the war for talent.

Steps to make an achievement culture work in your business

1. Look carefully at your talent pool

Many companies, like Enron and its perceived need for high intellect, have some form of bias and measurement for candidates.

With graduate recruitment, for instance, some companies contact those they deem to be the brightest graduates (because they go to the top Russell Group universities). They wouldn’t dream of contacting someone who left education and did an apprenticeship.

The ‘war for talent’ means someone loses, and I’d go as far as to say that in this situation most entities lose – the business, many lost candidates, and society.

Why not? We worked with a company, showing them a different way. We widened the talent pool from only the elite universities to 138 of them, making sure all the potential candidates had the right fit for the business.

This provided a diverse and strong talent pool, where candidates tried incredibly hard for the opportunities and motivation was sky-high. Feedback from managers at assessment centres was incredible.

With this approach, the company is winning, the successful candidates win, and there are huge strides in equality and diversity (for instance, the number of female hires has increased 38% to 51%). On top of all that, these graduates are outperforming previous cohorts.

2. Re-think hiring

Instead of replacing an employee with a new employee who is like-for-like, start by exploring the real needs within the team.

A previous prerequisite may have been ‘seven years financial services experience’, but why on earth would someone really need that if the rest of the team has industry experience in abundance?

When deep diving this way, you may realise, for instance, that the team doesn’t collaborate well, so the result is to hire someone with an aptitude for financial services, but who is demonstrably skilled at collaboration and creating cross-functional programmes.

In this same way, perhaps a team is selling to minorities but has no team members with a diverse background to improve its outlook. This process doesn’t need to cost money, it’s just asking direct and better questions.

3. Look at what works and what doesn’t

Your company might believe that candidates with a 2.1 from a Russell Group university are needed, so you focus on what high performers ‘look like’ to achieve success. That’s only one part of the picture.

You also need to know what the low performers look like, because you can bet your bottom dollar that some of those Russell Group employees will be in there.

By looking at the entire picture, you will not only support your hiring process better, but you may find hidden issues in the environment, perhaps leadership perspectives, an imbalance with equality and diversity and so forth. Discovering these things enables a positive stance to resolve.

In summary, the ‘war for talent’ means someone loses, and I’d go as far as to say that in this situation most entities lose – the business, many lost candidates, and society.

Building an achievement culture instead, where you can see talent in abundance in different ways and in different places is the only way ahead.

Want to learn more? Read The real-time methods and techniques that will help you win top talent.

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Roger Philby

Founder And Chief Executive

Read more from Roger Philby