I caught up for a beer with old friend Tom Stewart, currently Chief Marketing and Knowledge Officer at Booz & Co, when he was in Sydney recently. We chatted about interesting topics such as business cycles, talent, and where media is going.
Afterwards Tom wrote a great article titled Why There’s No Such Thing as a Talent War reflecting on some of our conversation and his other meetings in Australia, where attracting and retaining talent is top of mind for many corporate executives.
I had told Tom my thoughts on the global talent economy: in a world in which knowledge workers can work anywhere, the most talented can pick and choose choose who they work for – on projects or sometimes in long-term employment.
Critically, the work choices the most talented make are rarely about money, but more often about how interesting the projects are, who they will work with, and how enjoyable it is working with their client.
The core theme of Tom’s article is that the “value of talent is highly dependent on context”. As such, the war for talent is meaningless – it is not a fungible and transferrable commodity. Tom points to three ways in which talent is contextualized:
The team: Harvard Business School’s Boris Groysberg has documented the impact of teams on individual performance. He has shown, for example, that superstar bankers don’t look so bright when lured to a rival firm. We’ve all seen that: the hotshot who turns out to have needed his team more than anyone — especially the hotshot — knew. Or the reverse: the ugly duckling who comes into his own in a different group.
The time: Winston Churchill was an irrelevant, boring, self-important jerk until he became the indispensible, eloquent leader of Britain and the world in its fight against fascism; then he was unceremoniously voted out of office when the war ended and his time had passed. No better example exists of what Nitin Nohria and Anthony Mayo call “zeitgeist leadership.” Whether at the CEO level or anywhere else, the value of talent is radically affected by the tenor of the time. (Think, for example of the leadership vicissitudes of Hewlett Packard.)
The game: 3M and Procter & Gamble are both great innovators, but they play the game differently. At the Minnesota company, innovation starts in the lab: “Eureka — I discovered something! I wonder if we can sell it.” 3M’s famous 15 percent rule instructs scientists to spend plenty of time looking for ideas, regardless of the market. P&G, by contrast, likes to identify unmet consumer needs and then invent products to satisfy them; hence WhiteStrips, Swiffer, et al. I can’t imagine a culture shock greater than moving from one of these innovation-nonpareils to the other.
As Tom eloquently points out, the issue is not finding talent and stuffing it into your company. It is about bringing together the right talent with your strategy to create outcomes.
That is absolutely correct, and many companies miss this point in ways small and large. However what interests me most about this issue is how it applies in a world of distributed work, where companies are looking less for employees that clock in at corporate HQ, and more for global talent to bring in to projects.
It turns out that the nub of the issue is teams and teamwork. What will most attract a top player is the opportunity to work with his or her global peers. And managing that dynamic effectively is what will bring out the best from that talented group.
While the discipline of managing global virtual teams has been a flourishing domain since the 1990s, still very few companies are even half good at it, particularly when it goes beyond internal team members. This is more and more the field and play and how companies will both attract, and get the best from, the world’s most talented.