The Real War on Talent

This article is the Context piece from the Book Rapper issue: Anti-Self-Help. It provides a context for the book summary of two books: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

The War on Talent Just over ten years ago, three executives from McKinsey and Co coined the phrase ‘The War For Talent’. It came out of a study into the hiring and promotion policies of corporate America. They found the best performing companies were recruiting the best and the brightest. Also, they were promoting them more rapidly than at other firms. A popular book followed their report and HR departments around the world began a new fight to recruit better people.

The Rise of Human Capital

This was an appropriate response to the way the world had shifted. Gone were the days where financial capital was the key to buying the means to production to gain market advantage. Arrived were the days where human capital has become the key factor to create, design, implement, manage and improve upon existing products. In an era of global competition, you really do need to be world class to make it to the top. Human ability is now in high demand.

The Collapse of Talent

All this sounded good in theory and the McKinsey report was just that. The significance of their writings was tarnished by the collapse of Enron. They had been their number one disciple following the War For Talent message letter by letter. Rampaging egos and the demise of a workable culture ensured Enron imploded from within.

The Talent Myth

The great lessons from this fiasco were as follows:

  1. Recruiting top people remains a good strategy as long as we are clear what ‘top’ means. IQ, SAT scores and college degrees hint at one’s future potential but they are not the full picture. This is the myth of talent at work that prompted Colvin and Gladwell to write the books that they did.
  2. Promoting people rapidly can work as long as the entire organization is structured and managed well. In other words, smart people don’t make smart organizations. More likely, it’s the other way round. This is the second part of the Talent Myth – that we are successful in isolation. We need to build strong corporate cultures. When we drop solid performers into an ecosystem built for success, it’s much easier for everyone to thrive.
  3. The missing ingredient for many companies in the talent domain is the development of their staff. The Enron approach was to lavish rewards on the top performers, chastise the moderate ones and threaten the rest with dismissal if their game didn’t improve. Sound familiar?

The REAL War on Talent

McKinsey’s War on Talent has sparked a fresh debate. And, Book Rapper wants to point to the REAL War on Talent. It’s not limited to recruiting the best and brightest. It’s not even in the domain of the corporation. For many individuals, the window of opportunity to develop their own talent has already closed by the time they start their first job.

The Role of the Parent

The REAL War on Talent is to give everyone the opportunity to be the best they can be. It all starts with good parenting. We need parents to demonstrate the value of a strong work ethic.
• We need parents to coach, support and nurture the talent within our children.
• We need our schools to further this work. And, we need a community that nourishes and supports all achievers.
• We need to fight to expose and eliminate the hidden advantages that aimlessly promote one over another.
• We need to distinguish the cultural legacies that thwart future potential.
• We need to celebrate the opportunities that are around us everyday. This includes ignoring and challenging the media that deliberately dampens our enthusiasm to serve its own ends.
• We need to promote hard work, deliberate practice and effort as desired virtues.

Who Are You Going To Be?

The REAL War on Talent starts with you right now. Who are you going to be? And, this brings us to the heart of this ‘talent’ RAP and ‘Anti-Self-Help’. Gladwell’s work shows that success is ‘social-help’, not ‘self-help’. We need others to be successful. No one does it on their own.

The Only Shortcut to Success

Also, the research from Anders Ericksson and colleagues that underpins Colvin’s push for Deliberate Practice. It contradicts the promises of many quick-fix charlatans. Did we really think we could become the person we wanted to be from a one-day seminar? Or from a short-term diet?

Ah, the delusion of life. Yes, we wanted to believe because fundamentally, we wanted a short cut to success. Who really wants to put in ten years of hard work? Who really wants to practice for 10,000 hours?

I guess the few that do, deserve to be the top performers they are!


Summary of Anti-Self-Help
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