Once in a while a management book comes along that changes everything. Well at least it changes the conversation in business about the way organisations should be led. Tom Peters established the new vocabulary of quality in his 1982 classic, In Search of Excellence. Through the 1990's Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, became beloved of CEO's and presidents, propelling its author to fame, and a not inconsiderable personal fortune.
The buzz word in the management of people for the millennial generation has been "talent", and this too was started by an influential book, but in this case the hype has far eclipsed the original book. When McKinsey consultants Beth Axelrod, Helen Handfield-Jones and Ed Michaels first published their "War for Talent" on 1 October 2001 they could hardly have imagined the impact their little book would have. It didn't even sell particularly well, especially in comparison to some of the greats of twentieth century management literature, but its wider impact has been phenomenal.
Now over 7,000 titles on Amazon now extol the virtues of a "Talent-based" Human Resources strategy. Literally thousands more conferences, seminars, management summits and training courses every year promise organisations that they will outstrip their competitors if they learn the "Talent strategies" of the best in the world. The role titles of managers and all sorts of business processes are being revised to work that magic "T" word into them. Truly the "Talent Agenda" has been like a gold rush for business consultants, but the question should be asked, after a decade of "talentmania" whether we are merely mining pyrite... mere fool's gold.
What is talent?
So what, according to the authors, is this talent to which they refer? Well, rather tellingly the book itself did not contain a definition of talent. Talent "eludes description" they say "you simply know it when you see it". They do go on to provide a collection of nine attributes which the talented people they are describing will exhibit. They write "... managerial talent is some combination of a sharp strategic mind, leadership ability, emotional maturity, communications skills, the ability to attract and inspire other talented people, entrepreneurial instincts, functional skills and the ability to deliver results."
More to the point the talent agenda says that some people possess these attributes ahead of any actual relevant experience in business and some other people, no matter how much training and experience they acquire, will simply never be your organisation's "alpha's". This then is a genetic theory of organisational leadership, and one in which the top stream of high flyers also happens to contain those who could afford to go to the top business schools, with an education in one of their elite feeder institutions.
What is the evidence for this breathtakingly audacious claim? Well the writers, all management consultants from the elite firm, McKinsey, initially describe their findings as a kind of shared mystical revelation. They described it like this; "we looked at one another and suddenly the light bulb blinked on." Of course, the idea of a genetic elite of superior leaders is not a new one. The Victorian polymath Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) famously expressed his eugenic theories, coining the term "nature versus nurture" along the way. His ideas were taken up throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by various groups with unsavoury agendas. It should not be surprising therefore to find it re-appear in the twentieth century as a management philosophy.
A case study in the talent war
Later in the book they do provide an extended case study. One organisation they discovered was pioneering the War for Talent. This business recruited aggressively from the Ivy League business schools, applied a rapid "rank or yank" evaluation system, promoted its stars rapidly into positions way ahead of their hands-on experience and showered "the Talent" with glittering prizes that far outstripped both the external market and internal peers. This organisation also happened to be one of McKinsey's top clients.
So who was this example of best practice in talent management? Well its name was Enron. The very public bankruptcy on 2 December 2001 of their prime example was probably not the best sales promotion for the newly published management text. The War for Talent though was an idea too good for a mere setback like that. Too good also to be hampered by the lack of empirical data, or a thoroughly thought out theoretical framework. No, this was an idea for the generation of "masters of the universe", a new model for the "Brave New World" of global capitalism, Web 2.0 and celebrity leaders. The financial services sector, in particular lapped it up. Business such as RBS, Lehman and pre-eminently Goldman Sachs saw in the talent agenda a method of management that suited their short-term, bet-the-farm instincts and the feelings of entitlement that went with the debt fuelled artificial boom of the millennial decade.
Moving beyond the war
Throughout the "decade of Talent" one thing was profoundly overlooked. Great organisations are not just a platform for star performers to shine brilliantly. The truly great organisations which have consistently improved profitability and steadily grown shareholder value have been those who have understood that a business is a whole system of value creation. Furthermore they understand that long term value comes from consistently delighted customers and clients. What those clients value is reliable customer service. Reliable is a good word, and one not featured in the Talent agenda. "Re" plus "liable". "Liable" means taking responsibility. And "Re" means over and over again. And that's what businesses should be looking for in their people, and what people should be looking for in organisations.
So was there ever a "War for Talent", or was it simply a myth to propel the interests of a few over-rated narcissistic performers? If there was a war then perhaps it is time for an armistice and for the peaceful rebuilding of business based on sound principles of service, excellence and experience. And that's something worth fighting for.
The article was origianlly published in 20/20 magazine. You can view the online version here