Talent Attack: How to Capture the Stars

In less than 10 years quarter of the leaders required to run our key enterprises will not exist. The year 2010 will see 25 percent shortfall of senior executives in the critical 35-45 age group, according to research by United States-based McKinsey and Company.
The reaction to this anticipated shortfall, particularly in the US, has been an almost unseemly scramble by many companies to identify and recruit talented individuals – even when they don’t have jobs immediately available for them.
The strategy is based on traditional military thinking which links success in battle to the act of holding the high ground. In today’s world, people – talented people – are the organisational high ground. People invariably deliver the competitive advantage. And capturing the right people means being proactive rather than reactive about recruitment. If, to coin well worn cliche, the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain.
And that’s exactly what’s happening, particularly in the US, where the importance of talented people is well and truly understood. Hi-tech businesses such as video games company Electronic Arts (EA), are equipping themselves with human resource databases that provide talent pool of potential employees that are dipped into as required. In EA’s case it’s established permission to communicate with – at last count – 20,000 candidates. It can match individual’s backgrounds, aspirations and skills with positions that become available. Alternatively it keeps people in touch with the company in the hope that one day, the relationship could bear fruit.
EA and other proactive talent managing companies take on “talented candidates” before there’s position available. The rationale is simply that talented individuals, those who are adaptable and learn quickly, will with the proper nurturing, instinctively find ways to earn money for an enterprise.
Massey University academic and HR lecturer Andrew Barney believes this approach effectively turns traditional (and usually stringent) recruitment processes on their head. It goes without saying that, when it comes to recruitment practices, he is not traditionalist.
He is, for instance, critical of the blanket approach toward using the existence of university degree in an individual’s CV as candidate screening mechanism. The screen limits rather than enhances company’s chance of finding talented individuals, he argues. “It is much more important to recruit people with the ability to contribute in interesting ways.”
Barney’s contention, and he’s backed by rising tide of empirical HR evidence, is that talented people allow organisations to innovate and change more readily.
He quotes the Finnish company Nokia as case in point. The company transformed itself from forestry enterprise into highly successful mobile-communications business. This change would not have happened if the individuals within the company had only been confident foresters.
Doubtless there are still people at Nokia who were there when it was forestry company, talented individuals capable of change. “My argument is that people are more important than jobs. Organisations change radically but what remains is the ability of the staff within that organisation to be committed to making an effective product or service. The product and service can not only change, often it probably should,” says Barney.
If management guru Peter Drucker is correct when he says “developing talent is businesses’ most important task – the sine qua non of competition in knowledge company”, then Barney thinks New Zealand has cause for some concern. Our organisations don’t, by and large, invest enough time in the recruitment process and consequently their ability to bring talent first approach to the enterprise is limited.
Spending more time on the recruitment process entails taking good hard look at the whole person, understanding what drives them, identifying their interests, appreciating perhaps the contributions they have made to the community, through to their artistic endeavours. The half-hour interview just doesn’t cut it in these days of global talent warfare.
EA, to hark back again to convenient example, puts its potential candidates through the wringer. They face interviews with up to 15 different people within the organisation before selection. This time-consuming process ensures that the candidate is “the right fit”, before coming on board. Such luxury, I hear you sigh. Or was that dismissive “waste of bloody time”?
A critical component of this liberal approach to HR management is the allowance of sufficiently long lead-time for potential talent to find their way to company.
And getting the correct cultural fit is all-important. As Maurice Ellett, managing director of Executive Search, points out: talent, like plants, will only blossom in the right environment. In other words, an individual may display loads of talent in one organisation, change employment and fail to deliver because the culture is different.
So what constitutes an environment that will attract talent? Often, according to Ellett, it is the charisma and achievements of the organisation as well as the managers or supervisors with whom they work.
The culture attracts. Is it conducive to fun, is it exciting, is it going places, is it an organisation with mantle of either growth, development, reshaping, restructuring or innovation for instance.
Organisations without these qualities are probably going backwards and “talented people don’t want to work for retreating enterprises. Companies that want the best must first determine how they are going to attract them [the best] and then put real work into the plan,” says Ellett.
First up is change of mindset. An organisation genuinely needs to “want” the best and to begin articulating the fact. Then it must be prepared to put the work in to establishing and offering personal reward structure that ensures the best come and stay. Ellett believes that by not setting conceptual standard of what company wants when it goes to market, it ends up taking the best of the bunch, instead of only the very best.
There are outstanding examples of local enterprises that are taking the recruitment process very seriously. The result is they are winning the battle for talent. Christchurch-based software company Jade is one example. It recruits highly skilled software programmers who need to be world class. But when it comes to recruitment, the company’s CEO and founder, Sir Gil Simpson, says many of Jade’s people came to them.
Jade provides an environment where creativity is nurtured. That leads to an ability to “attract talented people because they can find home here”, says Simpson.
A good two thirds of Jade’s 100 or so technical staff are Kiwis. The rest come from all parts of the globe, most of them immigrating to New Zealand just to work for Jade.
Jade also identifies talent in the marketplace when it is recruiting people. It also takes recruits from networks within the company, often from recommendations made by fellow employees.
Simpson’s interview and recruitment process is straightforward. He asks candidates what they believe is their most successful achievement and then explores in depth the reason why they think the way they do about the achievement. Then he asks similar question about what was the least successful thing they had done and explores the response in the same way. “By following this process slowly but surely you unravel what drives this person,” he explains.
The company also operates ‘Get Smart’ policy that encourages employees to learn from mistakes. “It’s OK to make mistakes, it’s not OK not to learn from them. It’s really bad to make the same mistake twice.”
A policy that accepts the possibility of failure, enables the company to do “really courageous things”. The recipe seems to work. Technical staff turnover is around two percent year. “People won’t leave if they enjoy the environment,” says Simpso

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