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Guest Post – The HR home front: Why the war for talent is dangerous and how to fight it right

I am pleased to introduce a new guest post by Colin Wong (@colinjwong). Colin is passionate about talent and a better way to work. If you like this post, check out his Wooblog.

The war for talent was a mistake. Or at least this seems to be the opinion of a growing number of people (including Malcolm Gladwell). Me? I think this goes too far. While the war for talent has undoubtedly led many businesses astray, there’s nothing wrong with the concept, as long as we get straight about what it takes to win this war. The key point: we need to remember that the war for talent isn’t really a war in itself. Rather, it’s the home front in a larger war.

The HR home front

What do I mean by this? First, think of a real war. In war the home front describes the civilian contribution to the war effort. Civilians might produce armaments or ration food or put out fires to preserve infrastructure. How do you know when you’ve won on the home front? One answer would be that you win by producing the most armaments, eating the least food and preserving the most infrastructure. This answer is wrong. After all, these things are pointless if they don’t help the broader war effort: saving food, for example, only matters if the soldiers actually need more food (and if the food gets to them). The lesson: you win on the home front to the extent that you contribute to victory on the military front. The moment you forget this is the moment that you cease to fight effectively on the home front.

Turn back to the war for talent. What does it take to win the war? One answer would be that you win by hiring and retaining as much talent as possible. This is the wrong answer: it misses the point that the war for talent is the home front, not a war itself. In a real war you win on the home front by contributing to the broader war effort. Similarly, you win the war for talent by contributing to wider business success. And that means that if some action doesn’t contribute to such success, it doesn’t count as victory: if hiring talent damages business success because it means too much turnover then this is not a winning move.

The dangers of the war for talent

Why is it so important to take this perspective? Because it helps us to avoid many of the dangers of the war for talent. Consider the following problems that have plagued businesses that buy into the war for talent metaphor:

#1: Organizational structure doesn’t matter

Focus too much on individual talent and you can forget that teamwork and organizational structure matters too. On the other hand, the home front is all about teamwork: it is just one of many components that combine to bring about broader success. Think about the war for talent as being the home front, then, and it’s impossible to forget that talent isn’t all that matters.

#2: Talent outweighs grit and knowledge

A focus on the war for talent tends to lead to a focus on people with a certain raw level of natural ability, at the cost of those who can contribute in other ways (for example, via greater experience). However, the home front is all about recognising that people can contribute in different ways: in the world wars farmers were often exempted from conscription as soldiers in recognition of the fact that they contributed on the home front.

#3: Bend over backward for talent

Famously Enron went to Herculean levels of effort to keep their talent satisfied, giving them total flexibility to move between units (resulting in some units being overstaffed and some completely understaffed and borderline inoperable), letting them dictate exactly what they would work on, paying them huge amounts and giving them whatever perks were required to keep them satisfied. Obviously retaining talent is of great importance but retention doesn’t mean bending over backwards (after all, one can only bend so far before something breaks). On the other hand, the home front is all about trade-offs: every tractor built comes at the cost of not building armaments that could be used to fight the war. Remember that the war for talent is about the home front and the idea of acting in a balanced manner follows naturally.

Fighting on the HR home front

The metaphor of the war for talent has always been dangerous; tempting organizations to become unreasonably single-minded. But I think there’s life yet in the metaphor, as long as we remember that the war for talent is simply about the home front in a larger war. The home front, after all, is inherently about something bigger than itself and so as long as we take this perspective, thinking about the war for talent need not lead us astray.