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The (phoney) war for talent

June 25, 2010

I’ve been reading What the Dog Saw. It’s a compendium of articles in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point.

Gladwell’s earlier book, which I loved,  shows how ideas and trends arrive at a critical point at which they become epidemic. In his latest book, he examines a wide range of social and business phenomena, such as criminal profiling, the risks of technology, hiring practices, plagiarism and dealing with the homeless.

For me, the most telling piece in What the Dog Saw is one he wrote in 2002 in the aftermath of the Enron collapse, called “The Talent Myth”. I wish I’d read it at the time. In it, he effectively demolishes the concept of The War for Talent – the doctrine evangelised by McKinsey in the 90s, which has became orthodox thinking across large swathes of the corporate world since then.

Gladwell tells how Enron shipped in boatloads of MBAs from Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, and created a culture of suicidal pandering to the needs of the new “stars”. Enron’s open market for hiring, based on McKinsey principles, would allow executives starting new lines of business to plunder staff from other divisions regardless of the consequences for the businesses thus depleted. Executives were moved from one job to another with such frequency that it was impossible to judge their performance. “Stars” were able to lose millions of dollars on successive project without anyone questioning whether talent – evidenced by a high class MBA – was sufficient to run a business. The stars had become more important than the shareholders and the ordinary employees who kept the show on the road.

The War for Talent myth continues today. It was the mantra of a US company with which I briefly worked a couple of years ago and which has strong links with the a number of business schools. It’s the insurance sell that propels a healthy stream of MBAs from Harvard, INSEAD and the London Business School into high profile jobs (you will fail if you don’t hire the brightest and best). It places potential above achievement. It’s the philosophy that led to the obscene bonus structures among financial institutions (if we don’t pay them, someone else will). It’s contributed to the narcissistic, short term culture within the same institutions that contributed so heavily to the financial crisis of 2008/2009.

Before I read Gladwell’s short and succinct destruction of the War for Talent, I wrote a far less coherent piece on the same subject, called “The Department of Getting Things Done”. It’s at In that piece, like Gladwell, I suggested that the world needs a few more tortoises – people who quietly and effectively get things done – and a few less hares.

In another piece, “Most Likely to Succeed” Gladwell touched on a related subject close to my heart – the disconnect between hiring criteria and the likelihood of success in a job. He focuses on the teaching profession in the US, where rigid requirements for academic qualifications are the gate through which prospective teachers must pass. A masters’ degree to teach primary school kids to read? An exaggeration perhaps, but that was the case in the private school system in the UK when I was growing up. Particularly from the age of nine to eighteen, I was taught by a battery of MAs from Oxford and Cambridge whose abilities were totally unrelated to their qualifications. Some were good, and one or two were truly awful. My parents were horrified one term when the maths teacher said in a term report that I “gave a passable imitation of a fool”. He wasn’t far wrong, but that’s another story.

Gladwell’s view is that “teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree – and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before”. I agree with him, and the same goes for a number of occupations barred to those who do not meet rigid criteria that in no way predict the success of the entrant.

A true philosophy of lifelong learning would produce an education system that encourages incremental learning – learn more when that learning will take you to the next level, rather than accumulate a vast blob of knowledge at the age of eighteen for which you have no context born of experience.

When you graduate at twenty-one, the chances are that eighty percent of the knowledge you have acquired will serve no purpose in your working life. What’s more you will have largely forgotten it within ten years of graduation. That’s a big statement, and open to dispute in many cases, especially with occupational degrees. But I believe it to be to be true as a general rule. Even where people qualifiy for occupations, they end up specialising, and use only a fraction of the knowledge acquired.

To those who would say that the philosophy I’ve described exists today in many companies, institutions and societies, I would answer: for the few, not the many. And that’s why we waste so much of the real talent that would blossom given the opportunity.

  1. Agree with all that you have said. Call me an optimist (or glass half-full guy), but I feel its not the mismatch between potential and performance, but rather a waste of potential. Anybody (save a few) with potential can deliver; its how you nurture. You throw a bone, and ask them to fight, you will get dogs made. But you teach them values, make them understand the virtues of being a tortoise (sometimes), and that life is bigger than the next big pay check.. they will deliver..a little less to the bottom line, a little more to society .

    • Thanks for your post. I see values as personal. When lots of people share the same values, you can make things happen, good or bad. I agree that teaching values is essential, though I’ve never been an advocate of the “values roadshows” beloved of change managers. For me, the stated purpose of a company should imply values, and the behavior of leaders should exemplify them. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t encourage behavior that demonstrates values. But with the best companies, you don’t need to define them – they’re pervasive. Trouble is, there aren’t many “best companies” out there!

      And yes, life is bigger than the next paycheck, and delivering more to society almost inevitably brings more joy to the deliverer than that tweak to the bottom line!

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