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Generating the will to win is more important than buying top talent

Photo by Margarida CSilva on Unsplash

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in boardrooms and heard the assembled say they are engaged in a “war for talent.”

The gist is as follows: talented people drive results. We must have the best talent in this company. Top talent is scarce. Top talent commands top remuneration. Ergo, we must pay more to get the best people in. Otherwise we will lose this war.

There is a flaw in there somewhere. Can you see it? Seth Godin pointed it out many years ago. In one of his pithy blog posts, he wrote:

“Plenty of recruiters and those in HR like to talk about engaging in a war for talent, but to be truthful…it’s not really a search for talent. It’s a search for attitude.”

What is “talent?” It usually refers to some sort of natural, innate aptitude. Something that you are born with, or something that you perhaps acquire due to fortuitous circumstances such as being born to affluent parents and attending the best schools.

In modern management-speak, talent seems to have morphed into referring to the unusual skills that drive business performance. And it is true, great people are a very necessary ingredient of business success. That’s not the flaw in the argument. The fallacy is to think that greatness comes from degrees, certificates, knowledge and years of experience.

When we engage in this “war for talent” what do we actually do? Engage recruiters and headhunters to find the talent for us. We create role profiles and job descriptions and screening criteria that spell out how many degrees we need; how many years of industry experience and how many of those in a senior role; and how much evidence of strong results achieved in comparable roles elsewhere.

In other words we buy into the argument that the talent exists “out there” and we need to have it “in here,” whatever it costs. Otherwise we will fail.

But Seth pointed out:

“There are a few jobs where straight up skills are all we ask for. Perhaps in the first violinist in a string quartet. But in fact, even there, what actually separates winners from losers isn’t talent, it’s attitude. And yes, we ought to be having a war for attitude.”

So yes, let’s fight. But let’s fight to have these things in our organizations: ethics, beliefs, convictions, standards, determination, curiosity, responsibility. Those are attitudes worth having. And that’s where the game is won or lost, not in accumulating trophy CVs.

Seth continued:

“An organization filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, ethical and driven people will always defeat the one that merely has talent. Every time.”

So it will. So why do we try to spend so much time and money looking for talent, and so little trying to develop attitude? Because the latter is difficult. It requires that magic thing called leadership. It needs managers who understand that game-changing corporations are not defined merely by resumes and dry capability statements; they are created in the simmering cauldron of human desire and search for meaning. Those who can generate a widespread will to win have a far better chance of cracking success than mere recruiters and gatherers do.

And here was Seth’s conclusion:

“The best news is that attitude is a choice, and it’s available to all. You can probably win the war for attitude with the people you’ve already got.”

Aha. This war is fought inside, not outside. It is fought in the corridors and meeting rooms and cubicles of the enterprise, not in its recruitment and PR budgets. Those who know how to get the best out of people, who know how to enrol them in missions, who know how to teach them loyalty and patience and grit – those are the real generals of this war. And that’s actually what you should be doing, deep inside your organization: creating causes and the enthusiastic armies of willing workers who will fight for those causes.

But nah, sounds too tough, so let’s just go back to boardroom games and all pay ourselves more and all be disloyal and jump ship at the first sign of higher remuneration elsewhere. It’s a much easier life.

You can gather yourself the best résumés and credentials in the business, and you won’t go anywhere much. But combining a bit of knowledge with a lot of leadership and a lot of attitude? Now you’ll be talking.

(Sunday Nation, 2 December 2018)

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