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How to become a talent magnet: Getting talented people to work for you

Book cover

by Mike Johnson, Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002.


There is a shrinking talent pool and many companies are fishing in the same pools. The book suggests ways of attracting talented people, matching age groups and personal work styles to the specific needs of the company, and looking for creative, flexible Human Resource approaches.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in December 2002)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

It's a strange world. Remember the Love Bug, the computer virus that caused much mayhem around the globe? Apparently, the high school drop-out who created the virus was subsequently deluged with job offers from the very firms his virus attacked. He told reporters: 'They see me as a talent that can help them in the future.' Whoever gets to hire him, their competitors should watch out!

This is just more proof that the search for talent is an increasingly urgent issue. According to consultant Mike Johnson, today both corporations and managers must become 'talent magnets' or they won't have enough good people to build the business of the future. It isn't just a breakthrough product or service, a great marketing campaign or a brilliantly negotiated take-over that will win market share, it's who you can get on your side to make it happen. In this highly readable and provocative book, Johnson shows you how to build your own systems for recruiting, motivating and retaining the people who will give your business what he calls 'true talent-driven competitive advantage'. His book aims to helps managers at all levels recognise true talent and provide a blueprint for crafting 'compelling' employment offers that will ensure a flexible and diverse workforce.

The skills meltdown

We need to nurture our talent and find better ways to attract new talent for a number of crucial reasons:

A shrinking talent pool. We are not in an economic meltdown, says Johnson, we are in a skills meltdown. The decline in birth-rates across the former 'west' will translate into a people crisis of undreamed of proportions (see the recent review of the book Agequake for an in-depth look at the demographic crisis).

Portable skills. Many companies across borders and industries are today chasing the same people. People now have highly portable skill sets that allow them to move across industries and firms seamlessly.

Changing social/lifestyle structures. Not everybody now follows the traditional career pattern. Distinct groups with often contrary needs and expectations are making their voices heard. We need to be able to offer flexible work patterns.

Global opportunity. More and more young graduates are going to other countries to work - and many of them don't come back.

New competition. A new and often unrecognised threat is emerging. The author predicts that small and medium-sized enterprises (who lack expertise in areas like IT, e-commerce, marketing, logistics and OD) will drain Europe's major firms of 250,000 expert employees, the talent backbone of the firm. Some are already targeting the number 2 or 3 in a major firm and offering them a better or similar salary and an exciting opportunity with less bureaucracy.

A dearth of leaders. Fewer and fewer people want the top jobs in corporations because of the stresses and demands. Johnson also believes that while MBA programmes teach hard analytical skills, these don't necessarily translate into the executive talent needed by firms. Johnson warns that if firms don't confront these issues, they will find that over the next five years they will be starved of the people they need to grow.

Twinkies and Grey Tops

We cannot go on treating people of different ages, experiences and expectations in the same way. We have to accept that people from different age groups, geographies and educational backgrounds all have different needs. The workplace is fragmenting into different groups with different hopes, dreams and fears for the future. Failure to address that sends out a message that 'we don't care'. There are six basic, age-related categories of employees:

  • Twinkies (still at college and under 20). They are the future and somehow business has to appeal to them.
  • Point 'n Clickers (20-25). They want to be themselves at work and will migrate to jobs that let them do that (especially teleworking). Get flexible and don't fight it.
  • Generation X (25-35). A shadow of its former revolutionary self; maybe now the bulk of employees - they've sold out to the corporate dream, are moving into senior management but they support the flexibility and freedom they pioneered.
  • Middle-aged and Manic (35-45). Concerned about personal security but also a better job; very vulnerable to the enticements of headhunters.
  • Growing Old Frantically (45-55). The survivors of the mass downsizing of the early 90s. They own their house, have a spouse who works and the children are through college. They will volunteer to go when the right offer comes, going off to live in Southern Spain, perhaps taking consulting assignments.
  • Grey Tops (55 and over). They know the business inside out; they also know the customers so they are worth money to the firm. But they don't see themselves on the daily commute anymore. They want much more flexible deals about how, where and when they work.

The niche workplace

To be a talent magnet, each of these six groups needs wooing by the corporation. If we want to be seen as a talent magnet we will have to build the ability to be naturally flexible into our operational culture. People are now seeking out workplaces and individual jobs that match their values, expectations, personality and lifestyle and there is now a broader range than ever to choose from. To be an 'employer of choice' will need certain characteristics:

  • A recognised and organised work, life balance programme that meets needs across the business.
  • Professional and personal development opportunities for all.
  • The ability to make a contribution to the firm tied to personal responsibility.
  • A friendly and culturally rich environment ('being with others I can relate to').
  • A business that is responsible to the community as a whole.

It is no longer enough to offer a challenge and a good salary. Employees at all levels want to be themselves at work. This changing profile, demands and expectations of employees, coupled with the increasing shortage of talent, will put huge pressures on managers. Moreover, there is a lot of talent that is about to retire. (Some US firms say that they face the loss of up to 60% of their executive talent pool over the next 3-5 years as the over 55s 'take the money and run to the country club'. Some firms are already putting in place highly flexible and lucrative offers that include part-time assignments; mentoring roles; telecommuting; shared jobs; or variable pay, based on time worked and goals met.

Perception management

The firm's reputation among employees and potential employees is all important. But in future we will have shorter spans of being popular as businesses. Corporate reputations can now be unmade 'in a couple of keystrokes in a Wall Street dealing room' - although going down faster means that we can come back quicker if we get the next business wave right. Perception management - managing the corporate reputation - will need significant investment. Firms will need to change message constantly to attract the right kind of people. Don't look for long-stay talent, recommends Johnson - learn to manage a fluid workplace.

Johnson proposes a 'laundry list' of issues, needs and expectations that every senior HR person should have in their top pocket and look at every day:

Diversity programmes. Organisations must get better at being able to manage comfortably a wide range of people from different social, religious and cultural backgrounds.

Work/life balance. Don't address work/life balance issues on an ad hoc basis - it can send the wrong messages. Set a policy so employees know where they stand and stick to it.

Telecommuting. Firms need to make a clear decision and set a policy about what role this should play in their business.

Professional and personal development. Specific groups need careful attention. Being known for the best in training and development is a major attractor and, when done right, can save a lot of money in recruiting, and boost retention.

Tracking ex-employees and re-hiring strategies. Smart organisations keep in touch with ex-employees - they know the business and have learned a lot since they left. A newsletter for ex-employees will let them know you have some new challenges they might want to be part of.

Communications. We owe it to our people to keep them aware of our plans and get their feedback. The problem is that most employees don't believe what top management says half the time, so it needs a lot of time and money spent on it.

Funding incubator firms. It might be better to give some top talent funds to build a start-up rather than let them go elsewhere and do it.

Attracting the next generation. Making sure that the Twinkies of today are your high performers of tomorrow is paramount. Firms will have to spend a lot more time and money on getting their message across to the next generation if they are to secure a plentiful supply of new talent. This is not just about a slick advertising campaign; it is a long-term battle that needs to be won. Start by trying to understand what Twinkies want in a job a career, a life.

Talent comes in all shapes and sizes

We certainly want to attract some heavy-hitters but Johnson reminds us that most of the talent is going to be of the 'mundane, run-of-the-mill variety'. Learning to attract that and mange it well will be key. Whether it is top talent or fairly mediocre, we had better know what they expect. Today's talented professionals are concerned about development, advancement and work challenge but dislike being managed. They hate layers of management and bureaucracy and loathe meetings and memoranda so the traditional levels of command and control management structures do not work for them. They also want a life outside work and are determined to get it one way or another.

Mobility is also an issue. Don't assume people want to travel. Check carefully what your current managers really think of the lifestyle you have imposed on them. You might wish to make it clear that travel is an option, not an absolute necessity to succeed. For every hot young talent who dreams of foreign horizons, there's a mediocre one just itching to stay home. Furthermore, both partners in a marriage tend to work these days so getting managers to relocate can be a problem.

Talent migrates to what it thinks are cool cities (currently Amsterdam, London, Zurich, Nice, Berlin), although if the job is right, where headquarters is doesn't always matter. They will also migrate to offices that mirror the lifestyle they are seeking. This means giving employees more than just a cubicle and a PC. Today's leading edge offices have atriums, espresso and sushi bars, with gyms and pools in the basement. If a candidate has two offers and one is in an old-style office block and one is a new-style work environment, there will be no contest which job they take.

Lighting your own talent beacon

We need to get some full time talent managers working on the talent issue. At the same, line managers will have to promote themselves as talent magnets. As a starting point, talk to your boss about how much freedom you have:

  • to keep your team or department happy - you need the freedom to reward your team.
  • to go the extra mile to hold onto talent you need - get a clear mandate in writing of how far you can go if talent suddenly says it is leaving.
  • to hire talent - if you met someone (say on a plane) that you quickly realise is the one person who could make a major change to your part of the business, can you offer them a job?

If you want to be recognised as a person who takes care of talent and have people flocking to your team, you have to be able to:

  • Develop and communicate a strategic vision.
  • Lead a long-term commitment to 'executional' excellence.
  • Demonstrate a responsive leadership style.
  • Create a climate of individual responsibility.
  • Provide feedback and coaching for results.
  • Demonstrate high levels of integrity and honesty.
  • Listen carefully to what others have to say.
  • Give or share credit with others.
  • Avoid becoming involved in 'turf wars'.
  • Solve conflict fairly without emotion - don't play favourites.

Some simple talent strategies

Johnson lists a range of strategies that firms should use to find and hold talent and to build 'tomorrow's talent trap', including:

  • Hang out where the talent hangs out - we don't have the luxury to wait for the headhunters to find someone. Find out where the talent is and go meet it in person.
  • Know who you want and why - don't fill the job; hire the person who can make a contribution.
  • Bring in people who bring ideas - you need someone who is going to make a difference and see things in a different way.
  • Think of wacky recruitment ploys - don't just use recruiters or search firms. Think of how to change your organisation's 'boring' image. Run website competitions; offer internships; run focus groups that help locals see what your business is all about.
  • When you find it hire it fast - no-one today is going to hang around and wait.
  • Get to know them - spend time with them; nurture them; understand their personal circumstances.
  • Don't forget the people you inherited - huge amounts of talent lie buried in organisations; find out what you've got in your department and what their aspirations really are.
  • Empower your people - peak performers today expect freedom to act; don't be scared to give responsibility - spend time with them so you can maintain a discreet watching brief over what is happening. When things work out, don't wait until they get an offer from a rival firm, move them up quickly.
  • Mentor them - younger employees see you mean what you say about letting them grow and older ones see you appreciate their skills and knowledge.
  • Reward them - not just with money; if they do a great job, find ways to give them surprise rewards: eg a weekend's vacation, a trip that they can take their partner along.
  • Communicate but don't oversell the job - if talent doesn't get what was promised, it will quit.
  • Offer a future - appraise them frequently and discuss how they are shaping up.
  • Be flexible - the most important of all, be open to new ways of working and new types of reward.

This is definitely recommended reading for managers at all levels - and for computer hackers who are thinking about their future careers.

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