Is “the war for talent” part of your business strategy?

Part 1 — by guest writer Rod Haire, Managing Director at Asia Carbon Search.

“The war for talent”, was a phrase coined by some McKinsey Partners in the late 1990s as part of a study about how attracting, developing and retaining talent should be a key business strategy that will impact on corporate performance. That “war” has become more intense, global and all-consuming during the years since then. With increasing pressure on attracting (and retaining) the brightest and the best, organizations have at last recognized that it is essential they look inwards to the people they already have and ask some key questions:

  • Do we know what talent we have? This may sound simplistic, but it is surprising how many companies do not know their internal talent landscape. Many have merely paid lip service to succession planning (often a once a year “tick box” exercise)
  • Do we know what motivates our talent and what their aspirations are?
  • Are we truly developing our leaders of the future?
  • Do we know how well our “top talent” compares to the market?
  • And so on…

As a search consultant I tend to get asked into help when companies realize they don’t have the appropriate internal talent to meet a specific need, and whilst that is my business it always strikes me as a shame that more companies are unable to truly build a bench to develop talent for the future.

External recruitment obviously has its place as there is no way companies will always be able to meet needs from internal sources, especially given how quickly requirements can change in response to the markets. However, from experience and working with clients, it is clear that the more enlightened companies are developing internal mobility strategies, the underlying tenets of which are:

  • Map our workforce, focus on ability/experience/future value to the organization
  • Benchmark our real talent against the market
  • Identify those who have the runway to progress into senior positions
  • And then of course………….. develop them

Now, there are of course some issues in going down this route:

Firstly, how does an organization actually map its talent and really identify who is who, who has what value, who can grow more and so on? As I said earlier, succession planning/talent development has often been akin a tick box exercise, one reason being that companies have not had access to holistic organizational tools that can help them (I’ll come back to this in my next blog).

The other reason is that line managers are often too busy doing their “day jobs” to spend time and effort on this… a real shame given how critical it is. It is not so much that “the line” is not interested in this issue (after all they would be part of it), it is simply that the day to day “stuff” gets in the way.

So, where does this leave us?

Although we can paint a relatively gloomy picture of line managers too busy to identify and develop talent, and the absence of tools within organizations to help with this, I think there are many bright spots:

  • An increasing trend towards building in-house talent management and leadership development teams
  • The inclusion of “developing talent” into Senior Management KPIs.
  • Working with consultancies, including search firms, to benchmark internal talent against the market. For example, we work with clients where we will look into the market for a certain type of executive even though the client feels there is an internal candidate. One aspect of this exercise is to help identify where the internal candidate may have shortcomings versus the market and, if they are not insurmountable, how to develop him or her into the role, or whether to proceed with an external hire

Just to add one last complication into the mix, there is the issue of gender and nationality diversity, especially here in Asia. Traditionally the more senior roles, specifically in the insurance sector, have been filled by western expatriates (and more often than not they are male), although there are positive signs this is changing. However, do companies really understand who they have in their workforce, and how they ensure employees move through the ranks as workforce diversity becomes more of an issue? My view is not yet.

At last companies are beginning to realize the inherent waste in not knowing what talent they already have internally, the problem is that many do not know what to do about it. In my next blog, I will look at new world technologies and how increasingly companies are investing in digital solutions for workforce development.

About the author

Rod Haire is a partner at international executive search firm focusing on senior level recruitment: Asian Carbon Search. If you want to talk about anything discussed in the above, connect with him at roderick.haire[at] or via LinkedIn.

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