“War for talent”? Mmmm…

Marc Lambotte - Story telling - Purusha Business

That there is a major shortage of skilled workers is a given. That this is a serious problem for companies is obvious. But “War for Talent” is and old idea that was poorly formulated to start with.

“War for Talent” is an old concept. Very old. The term dates back to 1997 and was invented by an American. In 2001, a book was written about it. By a group of Americans. That detail is relevant. Americans have a habit of using big words and, moreover, war has always been present in their history. Even today. For the average Western European in 2022, that is quite different.

If we have to deal with war at all, it is a distant event that has hardly affected us in recent decades. When the former Yugoslavia disintegrated barely 20 years ago and the region was ravaged by terrible war crimes, the war was less than 2,000 km away from the capital of Europe. Our discomfort was largely confined to the temporary loss of a beloved holiday destination – which we promptly replaced with other paradises.

Today we suffer more. The war in Ukraine has its consequences for us. Economic consequences. We suffer from a shortage of raw materials – although you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that we probably suffer more from the speculative opportunism of some big companies than from the shortages themselves. But there you go. So we are suffering indirectly. Apart from that, we are not involved in the war that is played out in front of us on the television screen.

Americans are used to something else. They constantly involve themselves in wars all over the world. They send troops and their sons and daughters die far away from home. Far away from home. Americans fight wars far away from their mother country. As a result, the majority of Americans do not realise what war really is. Those who have lost children, limbs or the ability to function normally do realise it. But that group is relatively small – although it is still far too large. The others did not experience the wars at first hand. New York was never bombed to smithereens as, for example, Dresden was in the Second World War. When two American skyscrapers were destroyed in 2001, it was etched into the world’s collective memory as an inhuman act (which it was). Who has any idea how many buildings were destroyed in, say, Iraq? Or Syria? Or Afghanistan? Or Vietnam? Or Yemen? Or or or. And how many people lost their lives in the process? Our collective memory is a function of the selectivity of the media apparatus.

We contemporary Western Europeans do not realise what it really feels like to live in a war zone. Our grandparents did. They experienced at least one world war. At first hand. With bombs that could end or destroy your life and that of the people around you at any moment. With an “occupier” who was guilty of inhuman cruelty. With words like torture, rape and mutilation that suddenly became much more than words. The real war.

The term “War for Talent” is therefore above all a misplaced figure of speech. A marketing term tailored to an American target group and designed to attract the attention of that target group. A term that was supposed to draw attention to a consultant’s idea. The title of a book. A title that was intended to incite potential buyers to buy. An exaggeration that was meant to make people look up.

In a war, people are constantly trying to survive. Literally survive. In peacetime, they are busy with their quality of life. For some, that means “living even better than they already do”. For others, it means “making ends meet in order to live as humanely as possible”. In Peace Land, survival is a daily concern for only a small group of people.

The same goes for companies. You could say that a company also has a “life”. If all goes well, the company grows, it flourishes, the people involved are well off. But things can also be quite different. Companies are constantly involved in a struggle. A competition. A battle for customers, for resources, for ideas. Those who win the competition are well off. Those who lose the battle are less well off. And in some extreme cases, the company dies, it disappears.

A battle, then. A normal fight. A competition as we know it in sports. Think of a football match. You win one match and you lose another. If you keep losing, your club is demoted. If you keep losing, your club will perish. That doesn’t happen very often. Just like in business. You win one deal and you lose another one. You would have to make some big mistakes for your business to disappear altogether.

The War for Talent is not a war. It is a competition. An important competition that determines which players will be part of your team. If you have a lot of good players who can work well together, chances are that your team will perform well. And vice versa. 

There is no fun in losing. People are personally affected by it. Less good team ➤ less successful company ➤ less big bonuses ➤ less chance of promotion ➤ more chance of budget cuts ➤ more chance of lay-offs and so on. Not nice. Just like it is not nice to lose a football match. But it doesn’t kill you. This is a competition. Not a war. An important competition.

If you are going to play an important match, you prepare (your team) well. You train hard. You get the best coach you can find within the budget you have available. You look for extra money if you need it. Because you know that without good preparation your chance of winning is small. Other teams, better prepared teams, teams that take the game more seriously, will beat you.

The question thus becomes what is your team doing today to make your existing team even stronger, even bigger, even more successful? The goal of the competition is “to recruit and retain good employees”. How well prepared are your people for that competition? 

They will have to portray your company as attractive in a competitive market where perception and credibility are the aces of the card game. They will have to be able to tell the compelling story of your company and explain in crystal-clear terms how its ambitions will be turned into reality. The role of each candidate colleague in that adventure must be clear, and any applicant who fits the bill must be convinced that it is in her or his best interest to join your team.

Discussing the applicant’s CV is not enough. And forgetting that young candidates also inform themselves through social media with your colleagues who don’t work in HR, is a dreadful mistake to avoid. In the race to convince colleagues to come or stay, your recruiting story and the way it is told by you and all your employees is a key success factor.

Can you say with your hand on your heart that your team is ready for it? Great. Then you are undoubtedly winning the race. Or is it not going so well? Then maybe we should have a chat. No matter how well-written your story is, it can only have an impact if it is told in an engaging way by everyone.

The game is on.

Shall we talk about a training course with (or for) your colleagues?


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