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Lessons in talent management – from Singapore’s Lee

Apr 18, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“It had taken me some time to see the obvious, that talent is a country’s most precious asset. For a small, resource-poor country like Singapore, with 2 million people at independence in 1965, it is the defining factor.
…To get enough talent to fill the jobs our growing economy needed, I set out to attract and retain talent – entrepreneurs, professionals, artistes, and highly skilled workers. In 1980, we formed two committees, one to get them placed into jobs, another to integrate them socially. With the help of our student counsellors in Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, a team of officers would meet promising Asian students at their universities to interest them in jobs in Singapore.”

Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First (2000)

Say what? Go out to other countries to attract the best students to come and take the best jobs in your country? What madness is this? Madness indeed – but madness uttered by Lee Kuan Yew in his autobiography. Madness that enabled him to transform this tiny nation with no resources into an international powerhouse – in one generation.

Writes Lee: “After several years in government, I realized that the more talented people I had as ministers, administrators and professionals, the more effective my policies were, and the better the results…we have to change our attitudes and take advantage of what was once considered foreign and not assimilable talent..without foreign talent, we would not have done as well.”

OK, can we in Kenya now stand up and admit that we have got this one completely wrong? Recruit the best from other countries? Hey, we can’t even make ourselves recruit from other tribes! Some of us can’t even bear to recruit from other clans!

But wait a minute, you say: don’t all these foreigners take our people’s jobs, you ask? No, says Lee. They will take some jobs that will create a large number of other jobs. In his words: “Thousands of engineers, managers, and other professionals who came from abroad have helped us to grow. They are the extra megabytes in Singapore’s computer. If we do not top up with foreign talent, we will not make it into the top league.”

I do hope I live to see a leader with similar vision emerge in Kenya (but on dark days I doubt it). “The extra megabytes in Singapore’s computer” – how aptly put. With a better memory and processor, the machine produces much more output, from which everyone benefits. A job is not a mandazi that must be eaten only by ‘locals’ – it is an output-producing mechanism which must be given to the person who can produce the most.

Are our corporations any better? A little, but not much. Here too, we are suspicious of ‘others’. Here too, we try to achieve ‘tribal balance’ rather than ‘talent balance’. Here too, we are deeply preoccupied with studying patterns of surnames.

All of this is holding us back, way back. Without talent, we are nothing. All our oceans and forests and minerals and soils will yield nothing if we do not ignite and acquire the talent to manage them. What creates success, whether national or corporate? It’s the people. That is the only causal effect that matters.

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