In the twenty years since McKinsey declared a War for Talent, the doctrine that staff are a company’s most valuable resource has gone almost undisputed. Its premises- the Pareto statistic that 20 percent of staff in a business are responsible for 80 percent of its revenue; that ideas and ingenuity are ever-more-important in our knowledge economy; that moving job is easier now than ever before – are widely accepted. Taken together, they’ve led to general agreement among CEOs and HR teams that attracting and retaining the very best people, as well as offering them plentiful opportunities to work their magic, is a crucial component of business success. To the Innovation Lab!

This is all good stuff- Venatrix wouldn’t exist if we didn’t believe that the right employee can make a huge positive impact on a business. But at the same time, it seems obvious that the War for Talent perpetuates some pretty shaky assumptions. For one thing, images of business ‘rockstars’ and ‘purple squirrels’ are very clearly the progeny of our culture’s individualism, our romantic attachment to notions of x-factor, celebrity, exceptionalism. Yes, a Zuckerberg or a Beyoncé or a Jobs or a Batman will necessarily be one-in-a-million- but we might ask whether the language of extraordinary and unique talent is the right one bring to business, in which success is collective and collaborative.

Writing in 2002, in the wake of the collapse of Enron, Malcolm Gladwell argued along these lines. He identified a ‘talent myth’ that led companies to place too much trust in the revolutionising effects of top performers, leading to an incoherent corporate vision, poor structure and discipline and bad recruitment choices. “The talent myth”, wrote Gladwell, “assumes that people make organisations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way round.” A company seeking self-disruption at every turn must be missing some essential self-confidence; or as he put it, “They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems”.

It’s easy to see the seeds of Outliers, Gladwell’s manifesto against extraordinary talent, here; but there is something in this too. Recent research suggests that it’s our very personal, necessarily biased and deeply unscientific ideas of exceptionalism that have transformed the ‘war for’ into a ‘war on’ talent. Tomas Chomorro-Premuzic, professor of Business Psychology at UCL, argues that the most common problem begins when the people involved in the recruitment process follow their intuition and the latest HR fads in deciding whether a given candidate will be a success. When an application process involves three or four interview stages, it’s easy to believe in its rigour. But if those interviews are general in scope, not focused on identifying the precise traits, skills and competencies that make a worker a success in the role and company, then the whole process is actually just a very long-winded way of finding the person who best matches the biases of the most senior person involved. And of course, there’s no guarantee that that person- whether they’ve got the best CV or the most charisma, or most remind the CEO of themselves at that age- will enjoy or succeed in the daily grind of the role. Muddy interviewing leads to bad recruits and poor retention.

The key to ‘winning’ the war for talent, then, is to take bias and intuition out of the picture. For Chomorro-Premuzic, technology and data provide the answer. Personality-test current high achievers, he suggests, and then scour the pool of applicants for candidates who have the same qualities. Another way forward might be the assessment centre model that Venatrix, along with some other recruiters, offers. We believe we know the tried-and-tested traits that make grads successful in Sales roles- not superstardom or x-factor, but ambition, resilience, emotional intelligence, articulacy, and willingness to learn. What’s more, we think a combination of activities, discussions and interviews can identify these traits and put them to the test.

Think Venatrix could help you make your next great recruitment decision? Give our Business Development Director Sophie a call on 0203 805 3346.

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