'War for Talent' Is Not Necessary

The "war for talent" focuses on the wrong issue. Instead, employers should retain existing talent by fixing morale-sapping processes.

Everyone is talking about the war for talent. Must there be a war? Or can your organization accomplish what it wants to (needs to) by fighting the battle for retention quietly, within its own borders?

There's only so much a company can manufacture with its brand to catch the attention of top talent. Smart candidates understand that the truth about you is displayed by your existing employment base. Your employment brand is much less the result of intentional messages created for an external audience than it is the result of the vibe your existing employee base creates in the marketplace. Social media has increased the volume of this voice exponentially.

To retain the talent you have and to make that social voice work for you, you should:

  1. Make sure existing talent knows it's being treated fairly in terms of pay and recognition.
  2. Make sure each employee leaves work for the day, week, month with a sense of achievement.
  3. Make sure your processes continue to improve. Smart people don't like working with dumb processes.
  4. Make sure each employee has at least a small sense of camaraderie.
  5. Relate all work to the customer experience. Most employees would rather work for customers than bosses!

Brilliant people or brilliant processes?

In some cases, employers believe they need brilliant employees because they are the only ones who have been proven to find their way through the maze of terrible processes. Often, employers don't even realize this is the reason they're looking for talent. A well-known Japanese company's leader once said, "In America, you have brilliant people working with average processes; in Japan, we have average people working with brilliant processes." Something to think about.

Lets face it. There are only so many brilliant people to go around. Most of us are closer to average. Given this, is it really smart to fight a war for talent? Or would it be smarter to work on processes -- remove waste (things customers wouldn't pay for), minimize the things customers do have to pay for but would rather not (things normally required by law) and spend time working on processes that create value? It's about the customer.

The focus of everyone's work must be on creating value for customers. The message should be, "Shoot for referrals, settle for retention." The entire workforce should be motivated by this. Common purpose builds workplaces worth working for.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that it is easier to convince a janitor of this than it is most executives. Executives make a lot of money. There's a lot of temptation to protect their domains, their technical areas of work, their lines of business, their territories, etc. What these executives need to understand is that customers flow horizontally through the spectrum of work performed by each executive's area of influence. The thicker the borders between those areas of influence, the harder it is for employees who want to satisfy customers to get their jobs de. These employees, especially the smart ones, eventually leave the organization. They definitely don't recommend their own workplace to people they care about.

What if you actually won the war?

So before you begin to fight a war for talent, my recommendation is to think internally. If you did win the war for talented people, what kind of environment would they be working in? What kinds of processes would they be forced to work with? Are your best employees already recommending others to work at your company? If not, why not?

Don't just sit there, ask them!

Bernard Rosauer

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Bernard Rosauer

Bernard Rosauer began working as president of the Wisconsin Compensation Rating Bureau in 2010 and is responsible for overall bureau functions. He has 26 years of property and casualty insurance industry experience working with both public and mutual insurance companies.


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