"Making Talent a Strategic Priority": Thoughts From the Fringe (Part 1)

Talent acquisition. What should a company's priorities be. Acquiring talent, or managing talent? This post discusses the HR role in managing talent successfully by realizing that not everyone is created equal.

The new McKinsey Quarterly came out today, and thus, it is a good day. Of particular interest is the article titled, "Making Talent A Strategic Priority", by Guthridge, Komm, and Lawson. For those of you who, much like me, have trouble digesting 3,000 any later than 2 hours post-coffee (or Green Tea for the caffeniatically-challenged), I'm going to translate and focus on those elements to purely Talent Acquisition. (Yes, the entire Talent Mgmt continuum interests me, but I don't play in the cradle-to-grave talent cycle today, so I'd be off-base to offer any misguided musings.)

The authors early on point out that the notion of Talent Mgmt is nothing new - their reference to McKinsey research published back in 1997 made me feel old :) You mean talent was important last decade when Dinosaurs roamed the Earth? [Sure it was!!!] Just like back then, the following mantra that "people are our greatest asset" still pointless flows through the annals of Annual Report MD&A corpses. Different Day, Same %^$# if you know what I mean . . . and then they dropped the bomb on us:

"The widespread belief that expensive efforts to address the problem have largely failed compounds the frustration of many senior executives. In the past decade, organizations have invested heavily to implement human-resources (HR) systems and processes, and talent issues have unquestionably moved up the boardroom agenda. Although these moves are laudable and necessary, they have been insufficient at best, superficial and wasteful at worst."

*/ But how could this be? That sales rep at the last trade show (I mean, "carnival" or whatever neuro-linguistics-phrase-du-jour is used to subconsciously suggest networking/partying trumps learning nowadays) told me that there would be 1000% ROI if I purchased by the close of the show! And that "thought leader" who just presented last week told me that process improvement was the key . . . he even had some whitepapers for me to buy at $149 a piece. Both those parties told me that their process improvement ideas (and their unique techonology) was immune to the widespread failures of their forefathers. Were they lying to me . . . or just themselves?

"To manage talent successfully, executives must recognize that their talent strategies cannot focus solely on the top performers; that different things make people of different genders, ages, and nationalities want to work for (and remain at) a company; and that HR requires additional capabilities and encouragement to develop effective solutions. Only in this way will talent management establish itself at the heart of business strategy."

*/ Really? You mean that all people aren't created equal . . . and for that matter, all market segments and/or talent segments? Let's wake up, Everyone - we can learn a thing or two from our marketing cohorts. It's called market segmentation (or in this case, talent segmentation), which I'll be discussing at Sourcecon and the Kennedy Info Recruiting Expo (and I'd be remiss to mention that there are also some cool topics that look to be on the slate about these issues at RecruitFest). This peanut-butter mentality of spreading the whole talent acquisition investement (or better, costs) evenly among all talent pools is about as "Industrialization Era" as it gets. It's almost as if Henry Ford's ghost is running the Talent Acquisition function with the ever infamous mindset, "Why is it that I always get the whole person when what I really want is a pair of hands?"

Of course, Gen-Y comes up: "HR professionals say that these workers demand more flexibility, meaningful jobs, professional freedom, higher rewards, and a better work–life balance than older employees do. People in this group see their professional careers as a series of two- to three-year chapters and will readily switch jobs, so companies face the risk of high attrition if their expectations aren’t met. The Gen Y cohort, already representing 12 percent of the US workforce, is therefore perceived as substantially harder to manage than its predecessors."

*/ This goes back to a similar post I made referencing Stoic philosophy. If a dog is pulling a cart, and the cart starts rolling down hill . . . yes, the dog can resist cooperating, but it will likely just wind up in the bushes. What am I suggesting? Simply, I recommend acknowledging that Gen-Y'ers might leave no matter what you do, so understand that it may be nothing more than an example of currency risk in other form. Do what you can, but live with it because you're going to lose more than you win (Vegas, anyone?)

"Finally, knowledge workers, the fastest-growing talent pool in most organizations, have their own demands and peculiarities. By one estimate, 48 million of the 137 million workers in the United States alone can be classified in this group . . . Knowledge workers are different because they create more profit than other employees do—up to three times more . . . Yet the performance of knowledge-intensive companies within the same industry varies significantly, which suggests that some of them struggle to extract value from this newly enlarged type of workforce."

*/ Yes, I do admit this is a "hindsight is 20/20" moment . . . but this comment hit me hard the more I thought about it. What is suggests to me is that there can be an organization with greater talent and more knowledge workers, yet still underperform a competitor with less talent. This could be a premise for an entirely new post, but I imagine that a mediocre car-driver in a Ferrari could outrace a professional in a Honda. This may perhaps be the #1 point that is most heavily rejected and resisted by the Executive Search community.

"When companies do make talent a priority, they often fall into another trap: focusing narrowly on HR systems and processes, which divert attention from the place where most of the obstacles lie: people’s heads. “Habits of mind are the real barriers to talent management,” one financial-services executive confided."

*/ Well stated - such is a fact of life . . . as well as business.

"Recent UK salary surveys show that senior sales, finance, marketing, and IT managers earn up to 50 percent more than their HR counterparts. Our research confirms the idea that HR’s influence is declining. The executives we interviewed criticized HR professionals for lacking business knowledge, observing that many of them worked in a narrow administrative way rather than addressing long-term issues such as talent strategy and workforce planning."

*/ Isn't it ironic that the same organization touting "people are our greatest asset" in the annual report significantly underpay those who spearhead Talent Management? Fat bonuses, lavish stock options, golden parachutes, and underpaid HR Execs. Color me surprised . . .

I'll be back with Part 2 over the next 48 hours - I hope my ramblings were worth an eyebrow raising, a smirk, a laugh, or above all, a thought . . .

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