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How Can Senior Leaders Hire the Best/Right Talent?

How Can Senior Leaders Hire the Best/Right Talent?

Despite the fact that talent management seems to be a relatively new term for the task of selecting and retaining the best people for a variety of roles, and especially the more professional and managerial ones, in practice, we have been talking about talent management for many decades and we are therefore wise to heed some of the wisdom that served us well in the past and which can serve CEOs and senior leaders well in the current working world, with all of its challenges. To look at some of these lessons of the past, we will draw on two seminal articles which had a huge impact when they were written and upon re-reading seem every bit as relevant today. These are:

  • Andrall Pearson’s “Muscle build the organization” written in 1987
  • Mckinsey’s “War for Talent” written in 1998

Both of these articles had a huge influence at the time of writing and continued to have an impact for a decade or so afterwards in being seen to be both wise and prescient. So, the simple question is, do these articles and the predictions they contained still have currency in today’s world when it comes to talent management?

Pearson’s view: Muscle building the organization

As CEO of PepsiCo before he became a Harvard professor Andrall Pearson had some very real world experience of finding and retaining the best talent he could find at the peak of the “cola wars”. His simple conclusion was that organizations which emphasized “people development” as the way to “muscle-build” their organizations would attract and retain the best talent in the long-term.

Pearson’s suggested that organizations ask themselves the following key questions:

  • Do you maintain consistent, demanding standards for everyone in your company—or are you willing to tolerate a mediocre division manager, an uneven sales force, a weak functional department head?
  • What are your hiring standards? Are you bringing in people who can upgrade the quality of your company significantly, or are you just filling holes? Are you willing to leave a vacancy open until you find an outstanding candidate—for months, if necessary?
  • Are you hiring enough people? Does your organization have sufficient depth—a bank of talent to draw on—or do you sometimes promote people you know will never really produce outstanding results?
  • How effective is each area of your company at identifying high-potential managers and developing them quickly? Are promising people rotated carefully to expose them to different problems and functions?
  • Do you know specifically where your organization’s biggest performance problems are? Are you taking steps to solve them, or are you looking the other way?
  • Do you make measurable progress each year in the quality of your management group and in the people heading each functional area?

As the above questions indicate, traditional approaches to people development (such as job tenure and automatic promotion from within) were not good enough then and work even less well in today’s world (even though the practice continues 25 years later). Pearson called this a progressive “organizational hardening of the arteries” that would ultimately undermine all talent management efforts.

Ultimately Pearson called for the massive strengthening of every company’s entire management group from top to bottom and a willingness to try new talent management approaches or the long term “muscle building” to which his article alludes. It’s hard to argue with any of Pearson’s conclusions and his key questions seem to be as relevant today as they once were.

Mckinsey’s view: The War for Talent

In the late 1990s, when McKinsey did their first article on what they called “the war for talent” they predicted that professional talent in particular would increasingly become difficult to find, especially in the western world. This would be driven by various factors including, accelerated “boomer generation” retirements, the advent of computerization/new electronic technologies and an explosion of smaller companies offering more diverse and interesting work (which would draw people away from the larger and more “corporate” organizations that employed them in the past). This would all lead to a scarcity situation in which only paying careful attention to talent management would provide a solution (and even then the battle or war for talent would become a constant feature of the job market).

Looking back now, Mckinsey’s predictions were not all accurate. Boomer generation retirements happened much more slowly than estimated, computerization had a mixed impact on jobs and smaller companies both drew people away from bigger companies but also became “greenhouses” for others to eventually join bigger firms. However, the general predictions about professional level talent scarcity were broadly accurate and many companies had to face up to losing their more talented people much more readily if they did not pay much more attention to how individuals were hired, developed and engaged.

Much like Pearson’s views of a decade earlier, not only do these broad predictions about the core need for better talent management still apply in the current world but it can be argued that the scarcity is even greater today than it was. A lot of it has to do with demographics. In 15 years, Mckinsey now predicts that there will be 15% fewer Americans in the 35- to 45-year-old range than there are now. At the same time, the U.S. economy is likely to grow at a rate of 3% to 4% per year. So over that period, the demand for bright, talented 35- to 45-year-olds will increase by around 25%, and the supply will be going down by 15%. That sets the stage for an even more aggressive talent war over the next decade or so. This puts enormous pressure on organizations to find enough high quality leaders to get work done.

So what does all this mean for hiring the best/right talent in today’s marketplace?

As we suggested above, both Pearson’s and Mckinsey’s views still have much to say to us today. At the most simple level Pearson’s article suggests that we challenge all mediocrity and put quality time into hiring all professional staff and leaders in particular or face a slow death (or at least a decline into non-competitiveness). Mckinsey’s essentially believed in their original paper (which they have updated several times since) that talent is easy to steal away if you don’t pay attention to the needs of professional staff and again leaders in particular. Hence, both articles suggest strongly that any company’s CEO and senior leaders should be asking tough questions about hiring and actively spending time retaining the best possible talent for their needs, or they will lose out to others who are.

Unfortunately, the advice which was so valuable when it was originally offered, and seems to be just as valuable today, is not enough. In the last decade in particular we have seen further major changes in the shape of the workplace. This includes much greater work flexibility (in hours and location), the far greater use of computers and mobile technology in workplace processes and communication, much shorter and more flexible employment contracts (meaning much high potential staff mobility), many more start-up micro companies than predicted in the economy and far greater use of talent from all over the world (whether outsourced or insourced), just to name a few. This only serves to make effective talent management even more critical today. As a result, the threat to company performance is likely to be many times more quickly felt today than ever before.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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2 Comments

  1. Bob GatelyJune 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    80% of employees self report that they are not engaged.

    80% of managers are not suited to managing employees.

    The two eighty percents are closely related.

    Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few engaged employees.

    Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employee lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Job Talent 



    Employers do a… 

    A. great job of hiring competent employees. 

    B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture. 

    C. poor job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job. 


    Employers have three choices when hiring or promoting employees. Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions.

    If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    1. Competence
    2. Cultural Fit
    3. Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    1. How do we define talent?
    2. How do we measure talent?
    3. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    4. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    5. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most people cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

  2. Adam KuesterOctober 18, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    I agree with you, Bob—the most important skills that good employees have are not found in the classroom. Having a foundational body of knowledge is definitely important, but having working skills and experience to get things done, critical thinking to do things right the first time and follow through to make sure the job was done satisfactorily.
    Our company is having the hardest time finding qualified well-rounded IT technicians. In particular, we have struggled to identify candidates that have communication skills to interface with our users. I was wondering if you would ever recommend training in business architecture for new job applicants. I had recently taken a course on developing soft skills for IT using a training method in business architecture from the Business Architecture Center of Excellence. I would recommend to anyone in tech looking for jobs, that there certainly are jobs available in all areas—app dev and hardware. What I am having trouble finding are people that have the tech AND softer skills (writing and conversational skills) to relate to our customers. Just a thought.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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