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What Should Firms Do To Beat The Talent Crisis ?

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  1. What Should Firms Do To Beat the Talent Crisis?
  2. What To Do?
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If your goal is to make your company the “employer of choice” for talented people, read this article, which is derived from Talent Magnet by Mike Johnson (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001, ISBN: 02736554888). It offers a simple approach to attract and and retain talent.

I am sitting in a room in mid-2001 with a trio of very, very senior human resource people. These three are so "with it" they probably don't even consider themselves HR people anymore. Anyway, they aren't really HR people, never have been. They are as far away from the cares and woes of the personnel department as you can get. They've never seen a payroll printout, never worried over a pension plan. These guys are hired for one thing alone: to worry about talent. Why we don't have enough? Who are we losing it to? How do we get more? For anyone who thinks that HR people don't think strategically you should meet this lot—they're scary! One is an ex-banker for goodness' sake, another is an ex-oilman, and a third is a former heavy hitter in fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). They all get very well paid—with bonuses too—to think about five years ahead. No such thing as long-term planning? Ha, of course there is.

These three all have the ear and the private mobile phone code for the chairman. They represent between them over $150 billion and more than 300,000 employees. Still, they struggle to get talent to turn up and then to stick.

What concerns these guys, possibly three of the most powerful talent procurers on earth?

  • The banker: I have 250 highly talented individuals, all under 35, and all worth more than $10 million. My big concern: How long can I expect them to commute to work every day, and when they decide to stay home, where does the next generation come from?

  • The oilman: Our organization is suffering from a talent famine. Big oil isn't a place to build a career any more, and it is showing. We've always grown our own timber from college graduate to vice-president. We can't do that any more, the industry isn't cool, isn't fun, and just doesn't appeal.

  • The FMCG man: Globalization led to a loss of talent for us, rather than the reverse. Our product strategy was developed, imposed, and measured from headquarters, so bright young marketers quit and joined other industries. Our concern is to reverse this trend and appeal to a new generation.

As part of beginning to understand some of the people issues we are all facing in creating and sustaining our firms as talent magnets, let's look in a little more detail at what this trio of outstanding talent developers is going to have to do to get their firms back on track. At the same time, let's weave in a few comments, insights, and advice by others in their industry on what it is going to take to make it all work.

Bankers have problems. One of the most pressing is that they have made a lot of fairly young talented people seriously rich. If you are sitting on a lotta loot, are you really going to want to get in the office before nine in the morning and do your stuff? Does a dirty subway commute appeal? The answer, of course is "no." That's why every major bank is beginning to put together wider and wider talent searches. Searches that are taking them from the traditional recruiting grounds of the top business schools to a second tier of countries. Banks I have spoken to are putting newly graduated talent from Poland, Portugal, Macao, Brazil, and Russia onto fast-track learning programs. The idea is that they need to look deeper and further than before. If they cannot do that, they will literally run out of talent to fuel their business objectives. Furthermore, bankers will have to spend a lot more time "stroking" the best talent they already have. As one banker told me, "My job is to make sure that the top people who work for me know that this IS the very best place they can work. They have to take home with them every night the idea that they are in the very best organization on earth, that gives them the very best challenges and pays them better—or equal to anything they can get on the outside. The day we burst that bubble is the day we have lost." Similarly, a former Citicorp senior executive once said to me, "yes, we drive them [our high potentials] very hard. But you need to consider that when they get a country of their own to manage, they are possibly going to be the most important person in it apart from the prime minister or the president, and basically, that's because we've secured his loans and he owes us money!" Now that's a talent magnet, not for everyone, but for a lot of the people you need. It's all about challenge, with a good dollop of ego thrown in for good measure.

So how do you, in the banking or financial services world, get set to be a talent magnet in the 21st century?

  • Make it your mission to look for high potential talent in places you have never looked before.

  • Have a program that gets your firm noticed by those you want to influence (local business schools, industry groups, etc.).

  • Have a high-profile award, prize, or other sponsorship initiative that garners you focused, rifle-shot publicity among the potential candidate group.

  • Manage the hell out of them so they realize that this is something they won't get anywhere else.

  • Keep the learning curve steep and very varied.

  • Hold their interest by getting them to use their skills in "out of bank" events, committees, and think tanks.

  • Think long and hard about how you change the culture of your "institution." Many managers want to find ways of working from home, but won't due to peer pressure. How do you get around that?

  • Where you are seeking to have and hold high-performance specialists, be prepared—as some banks have already done—to have professional managers that do the "people" stuff for the experts and team leaders.

The oil and gas industry is having a hard time, too. Basically, it has a credibility problem with younger graduates, who see its record in the environmental area as well as its profitability as unacceptable. Although they don't totally shun it, they don't see it as a place for them. This is causing problems for many of the big majors who have traditionally hired graduates straight from college and then waved them goodbye at 60, managing their career all the way. Simply put, this doesn't work any more, but to date most oil firms haven't managed to find very much of a useful solution. Senior managers headhunted from other industries have rarely lasted long. In an industry not noted for its talent churn, this is unsettling. However, there is no doubt that a shortage of talent internally and the difficulty of getting mid-career hires to stick is going to have to be addressed—and soon.

One other issue compounding the problem is mobility—or lack of it. In the good old, bad old days, a manager basically got told to go home and tell his wife (it always was a wife) that they were off to Brazil for three years. That was all part of the career you signed up for. Today, the still mostly male managers have wives who work and won't move. They, in turn, refuse too.

So the issues that need addressing with some urgency if they are to recover their once highly respected reputation as magnets for talent are

  • less-than-sexy image
  • A shrinking internal, old-guard talent pool
  • Limits to mobility

What To Do ?

  • A massive diversity program needs to be put in place to hire from (like the bankers) non-traditional areas and countries. This includes hiring women, who still don't figure in many big oil hierarchies except at the fringes of power.

  • A communications' program aimed specifically at soon-to-graduate talent to show that the industry is changing and can offer exciting, challenging work. In other terms, "you gotta get sexy."

  • A more focused approach to promoting earlier and pressing talented employees to want to become managers.

  • Equally an understanding that there is a great deal of talent that doesn't want people responsibilities, these people need to be put on other lucrative development tracks that utilize, not squander their skills.

  • A careful program of external recruitment that doesn't just plug gaps, but aims to not only hire but fully orient mid- and senior-level recruits into the business and fully embrace the culture.

The FMCG industry has it share of woes, too. Dominated, like big oil, by big players—who traditionally stole talent from each other—they have all found themselves under siege as other industries have realized where marketing talent was located. Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Nestle, and Sara Lee have all suffered badly at the hands of predatory headhunters stealing their people for other industries that need the branding skills that FMCG professionals have.

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