Chapter 4 Brokering Peace in the War for Talent – No Cape Required


Brokering Peace
in the War for Talent

Practice peace—change your world

—Prem Rawat

In the same way that it is reputed that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM,” I suspect no one ever got fired for agreeing with McKinsey. I’m a bit contrary. In all my years in IT, I never bought IBM, and for quite a while now, I’ve been screaming “no!” whenever I see the phrase popularized by McKinsey: “The War for Talent”

For a start, I have a problem with the whole war metaphor. I was amused once to read about the “foot soldiers in the battle for peace.” There’s something ironic in that, and in today’s interconnected world, the war metaphor is not helpful.

Organizations that formerly perceived others as “competitors” have had to learn to collaborate. For example, large construction projects may work with more than one firm that might, originally, have been bidding for the contract that the now lead contractor won. They need to collaborate.

Today, more people are working independently as consultants and, through the associate model, supplying their skills to different organizations. The chances are those organizations are competitors, but they’ll benefit from sharing the skills of that consultant. With appropriate levels of confidentiality, that consultant will be better as a result of having worked for your competitor and vice versa.

If we see our talented people as a commodity to fight over, it creates a mindset that, while possibly successful in the short term, does long-term damage.

Just because we live and work in a VUCA World doesn’t mean that it has to become a battlefield. Indeed, you might argue that the war for talent increases the uncertainty and volatility. It’s time for peace. But what might that look like? It certainly looks like an organization that coaches and mentors all its people; where conversations are stretching and challenging without being confrontational; where moving to new projects is seen as an opportunity; and where, despite all the challenges, people feel valued and recognized for their contribution, not overlooked and displaced.

Target Talent

I’ve managed a lot of teams in my time, and of course, I’ve had my favorites. The individuals who make the biggest contribution to the team’s success, by extension, make me look good. So naturally, I value them. The important thing, though, is how I manage things when either they want to move on or the organization has another project, where I believe their individual or team contribution would be sorely needed.

I hope that I develop and encourage people to move on at the right time; the point where the individual feels it’s time to move on is usually too late. Managers are in a better position to notice when a team member is getting bored and their performance is dropping off. I saw part of my role to work out the best point in the arc of performance to start to have the conversation with them about their next role. But if I missed this and they came to me wanting to move on, then it is in everybody’s interests to facilitate that willingly and enthusiastically and make it happen as quickly as possible.

If that person leaves my team resentful because I was dragging my feet over their release, then my reputation as a leader and potentially that of the organization we work in is at risk. If they leave thinking well of me and of the organization, then they will tell good stories about us, and potentially, as they broaden and enhance their skills in other companies, they may well return in a more senior role later. And chances are they will assimilate back in more easily than a brand new hire would.

There’s a financial benefit to this approach. In 20101 and 2011,2 two authors highlighted the financial value of promoting from within the existing talent pool in the organization, rather than paying lip service to developing talent and then recruiting expensive and poorly performing outsiders.

How often have you worked in organizations where a new project has come along that requires the brightest and the best to make it a success? The word goes out, and managers offer up someone for the role. All too often, existing managers see this as an opportunity to get rid of the “difficult” or “awkward” members of their team, rather than supporting the new project’s future success. The ideal is to resource these important projects with the best people; if it makes your organization more successful, then it will have a positive impact on everyone.

I worked for a boss once who was so frustrated by the unwillingness of his managers to let their best team members move around that he called us all into a conference room one day. He was standing at the front with two big jars. One contained the names of the key people in the organization. The other contained some vacancies on important projects that we were unable to fill. He started to pull pieces of paper from each jar, matching a random person to random job vacancy. I remember watching this and thinking, “Hmm, they’re going to struggle in that role, but it could be interesting. We should do that.”

I was fully on board with this novel approach, until the name of one of my team was pulled out, when my reaction was, “Are you kidding? They could never do that and anyway I need them!” After “filling” about six vacancies, our boss stopped and told us, of course, he wasn’t going to make those moves happen. But the unsaid subtext was if we didn’t contribute, he might well repeat the exercise for real.

That was probably the point in my own learning when I shifted my own way of thinking. My unconscious bias was so blatantly, and publicly, exposed that I had to acknowledge my own part in the suppression of talent. Another benefit of moving the so-called best people on to new projects is that it gives great opportunities for other people in your organization to shine. You may have missed their talents because they were overshadowed.

The gardening world offers a great analogy. You have a plant that’s alive, but you can see it’s not thriving. Yes, you water and feed it, but your senses tell you it’s not quite enough. Sometimes, repotting the plant in a bigger container is the solution to revitalize it. Now, I’m not saying our employees are plants, but the analogy holds.

I was working with an organization, supporting them to create a good succession planning approach. We did all the usual things: identifying who was suitable for the promotion and in what sort of time frame, looking at the jobs that they may be best suited to going to, and analyzing the roles in the organization to determine which were the critical ones where we absolutely need to have a good plan.

Additionally, we identified roles that would be ideal development opportunities for people with the talent, potentially, to fill the critical or more senior roles. The people currently occupying those roles would not necessarily be looking to move and their roles weren’t mission critical. But what it meant was we could create some great opportunities by moving people on. In some cases, the long-term inhabitants of those roles were happy where they were and resisted being moved on. However, many did eventually admit that having been “repotted,” they too had found benefits in an otherwise unexpected and unplanned move.

This takes a combination of some forward thinking and, perhaps, deep breaths and clenching of teeth. However, when we can see the advantages of moving people around in the organization, more people might sign up to the notion.

Support Career Development Outside the Organization

But what if I said you should move a person onto a different organization? I was once responsible for creating a pool of internal coaches. One of the huge advantages of an internal coaching panel, using managers trained as coaches, is that you can break down silos across the organization.

A secondment opportunity is another way of achieving a wider “real world” view. Investing in this kind of development is a clear win/win. Not only are the coach-like managers better leaders because they have the skills, but where they volunteered to coach people across departments, both parties benefit as well. If a person from engineering is coaching someone from marketing, both departments get to learn more about each other and, through the coaching skills, build better trust, rapport, and communications.

Through networking, I had come across two or three other organizations that had done the same. I suggested it might be a good idea if we shared our coaches across organizations. We’d see how different organizations operated, and we might bring back some great learning into our organization. Sadly, my seniors were terrified at the thought of our best people being poached as a result of another organization finding out, through coaching them, that they were quite good. I may not have won that argument, but it helped me see the fear that arises from the notions of competition and the “war for talent.” All these examples, and the lost opportunities to go alongside them, stemmed from thinking that we are in a battle.

And I understand that the immediate, tactical, and operational priorities mean that it’s hard for people to see the strategic benefit of wider experiences. But at a time when organizations are calling for greater innovation and creativity, new and different experiences are powerful ways to develop those skills.

Talent as a “Finite” Resource

Another, subtler message implicit in that phrase is that talent is a finite resource. A bit like fossil fuels, one day it will run out, so let’s squeeze the maximum out of people for the short time they’re with us. It’s simply not true. If we nurture talent well, it’s more like a renewable resource.

We see this attitude in the world of soccer. In the UK, football clubs, driven by the need for short-term success, are more likely to go into the external market and pay increasingly inflated fees for established stars. The alternative, of investing in young local talent, is seen as too dangerous in the short life spans of the managers. And it plays to the fans who get more excited when some big name signs for their club, as opposed to seeing someone rise through from the youth academy and taking pride in the investment in more local talent.

If we see talent as being a finite resource, then, of course, we will go to war to hang onto our best or to steal from the opposition. Hanging onto our best is not a great strategy, and I would also argue that “stealing” from the opposition can be counterproductive.

First, the evidence3 suggests that well-developed, homegrown leaders are more successful than those parachuted in, especially at the top of the organization, the CEO or the COO. And remember, you already have a pool of underdeveloped, untapped women; people from diverse cultural backgrounds; and younger people, all being overlooked because they don’t fit the traditional paradigm.

Secondly, if those external, sought-after individuals do get lured to you through some promising package, then you have created a mindset of them being a commodity that can be secured by the highest bidder. How loyal are they likely to be?

The headhunting industry relies on churn. While they’re promising you the exclusive on a highly valuable external hire, they’re scouting around your organization and promising the moon and stars to your existing talent, who may feel under-recognized and undervalued. There is likely to be an impact on the existing people in your organization: the role that gets filled by this imported star is likely to be one that people saw as their next step. This makes them much more vulnerable to the lure of the headhunter the next time they get that call. So, you have simultaneously stirred up unrest with your existing team, created a mercenary attitude, and potentially, hired a failure. All because you got seduced by the idea that talent is finite and therefore you had better get your hands on some soon.

A much better strategy is to grow your own. It is, as a side benefit, quite likely to be a cheaper option as well as being more effective.

The FortonD4 (4D) Model

We recommend four steps to systematically optimize your existing and potential leader and manager resources: define, discover, develop, and deploy. In our Organizational Development (OD) or Learning and Development (L&D) consulting assignments, this is our typical starting place for exploring what our clients already have in place, before we recommend new initiatives.

D1: Define

While, by now, it may seem obvious, it is vital that you clearly define exactly what the talent is you are trying to grow. You need to look at what the leadership needs are in the organization right now and also be planning for the future. Most organizations will be moving and changing quite quickly, and so anticipating the future need rather than just replicating existing styles is important.

Indeed, it may not be leadership you are short of; perhaps, there is technical or professional style of leadership that is important. The role of the thought leader in inspiring creativity and innovation in your organization will be quite different from, and complementary to, the leadership required to deliver your new vision or strategy.

D2: Discover

Before embarking on some expensive wholesale development program, it’s worth looking deeply at what talents and skills you already have in the organization. Sheep dipping is useful only if the whole flock has got disease, and given today’s freedom through blended and self-directed learning, it makes sense to personalize and target the learning investment.

While targeted leadership development programs have their place, you may find you have some great internal skills that can be shared, for example, by developing the mentoring skills in your older or more experienced leaders.

The sense of “legacy” and “giving something back” is typically strong in people who have grown their career through the organization. Mentoring is a powerful win/win because it shows you value both parties. It grows confidence, builds loyalty, and helps you discover hidden talents in the organization.

In any sizeable organization, you’re going to find pockets of different team or departmental cultures with different talents across the organization, so it makes sense to see diversity as a resource and find ways to tap into it.

D3: Develop

Formal training programs based on a clear definition of need (“define,” above) and existing potential (“discover”) still have a vital role to play. Yet there are other alternatives to consider. Putting a team together to tackle a strategic project is a great way for them to learn about leadership, especially if they are facilitated in ways that mean they genuinely try new ideas and learn, rather than just approaching the project in the way they would have done anyway.

Coaching and mentoring, from either internal or external people, is often rated as one of the most useful interventions by the people being developed. I mentioned earlier that a particularly effective way to make best use of all resources is to train leaders and managers to be more coach-like. Creating an in-house coaching team, a subset of those people willing to carry out coaching and mentoring roles, is another valuable resource. You can also train them to a higher level as coaches, which has a number of advantages.

Your leaders will be better for knowing how and when to deploy a coach approach. You will have an internal pool of coaches that, while not entirely replacing external coaches, bring some cost savings. You can clearly measure the impacts and return on investment (ROI), which can help improve your management of external coaching services.

As a consequence, people will be developed through being coached. Most importantly, because the coach–coachee relationship will be across different teams, you will start to break down some of the silo mentality that typically pervades complex organizations. The design of the development intervention is crucial.

I recently completed an advanced driving course. I’d like to pretend this was solely driven by my interest in driving, but I must confess that a gentle nudge from a driver-awareness course, offered to people who have been caught speeding, was part of my motivation. Mea culpa! Now, I really enjoyed the advanced driving lessons, and I would heartily recommend the course to anyone.

However, I went through some of the challenges that face adults who have to learn new skills. My instructor was great: a really expert driver who volunteers his time for free to take people like me out for a couple of hours and help improve their driving. His style was fine, a good mix of encouragement and pointing out places to improve, but I still had a problem with having my mistakes pointed out to me.

I tried to work out why. I just felt stupid: I’m an adult, surely I should know everything? I found myself arguing back, justifying why I chose the gear I did, or why the speed really was right. What I learned from this is how important it is to get feedback right. To create a supportive environment for learning.

I was also going through that phase of conscious incompetence, trying to change the way I approached roundabouts, getting the deceleration, the speed, the gear, and the steering all just right. As a long-term driver, I’d been doing this unconsciously for years, but bringing awareness back to the surface and trying to adjust meant, initially, I was getting it wrong more often than right.

So the development phase includes careful design, blending the learning methods, peer support, coaching and mentoring, as well as positive feedback approaches.

D4: Deploy

Whichever routes you choose to develop your people, it’s key that you then give them opportunities to apply their newfound skills so they continue to learn and grow. Providing leadership opportunities means designing in work shadowing, opportunities to “act up,” for example, by attending meetings with the necessary decision-making powers or undertaking holiday cover at the senior level.

All these opportunities rely on the willingness and ability of senior people to trust and respect junior people and to delegate and properly hand off tasks to them. When well organized and prepared, these leadership opportunities offer greater stability and continuity for the organization.

The Final Leadership Taboo

In the 21st century, the notion of leadership from younger people is one of the most challenging concepts. We pay lip service to encouraging leadership development in women or supporting people from diverse cultural backgrounds to develop their skills, but leadership from younger people feels like the last taboo in this field.

There’s an often repeated maxim that we reward people for their increasing experience and role longevity. But what if that’s not 20 years of experience, but just 1 year’s experience repeated 20 times? When we shift recognition and reward systems away from annual pay rises (which reward loyalty but little else) to rewarding technical leadership, based on skills and contribution, factors such as age cease to matter.

Recognizing technical leadership has the added advantage of not promoting people unsuitable to people management into those types of leadership roles. When looking to recruit, or when looking to move people internally, there is a growing body of evidence that a more effective approach can be to recruit a home team or reuse an existing team, rather than trying to build from a disparate group of individuals.

We’ve already shown that the impact of a single individual, especially at the more senior levels, is often overrated; the stories of the organizations “saved” by hero leader are legion but not entirely true. If you have a team of people who have been working on a project that has come to an end, then reassigning them as a team has the advantage that they already know how to operate well as a team that can cut down the time it takes to reach peak performance. Equally, while logistically more complex, bringing in an existing successful team from outside could work in the same way.

When intelligent people lack drive and challenge in their role, they look around for it; if they don’t find opportunities to stretch themselves in their current roles, they often leave the organization—at great cost to employers. The cost of replacing lost employees is fourfold4: “stars” bought in from outside tend to cost 18 percent more than their replacement, and there may be additional costs in raising pay for the team members who receive the new leader. They are crucial to ensuring the new hire gets up to speed, and there is an overall decline in performance during this period. At the end of all this cost in time, effort, and extra money, the new star is 61 percent more likely to be let go than internally developed leaders.

This waste in talent and resources is costly and unnecessary, as well as improving performance and return on assets by filling the leadership gap with a more inclusive and diverse pool of leadership talent, there is still an opportunity to achieve value, even if people—such as the young rising stars—are (temporarily) leaving the organization.

Now’s the time to drop this war analogy. Create abundant leadership in your organization, start using the talent you have, and stop paying the price for waste.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

In this chapter we look at the options of recruiting leaders and managers from outside the organization versus identifying, developing, and supporting in-house talent to grow. Before the 4D™ method can be applied, it’s worth thinking about how the organization works today, in terms of recruitment, retention, and leadership development.

Survey Your Colleagues

Ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is low and 10 is high), how good is the succession planning process at spotting talent in this organization?”

Targeting Talented People

How well does the organization culture support the easy flow of talent?

Coaching Culture

How might a coaching culture better support individuals, teams, and performance?

Organizational Reputation

What’s the impression of your organization that you want people who leave to take with them into the wider world?

Radical Thinking

What radical change to your recruitment system would have the biggest positive impact?

The 4D Method

  • Define
  • Discover
  • Develop
  • Deploy


1.B. Groysberg. 2010. Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

2.M. Bidwell. September 2011. “Paying More to Get Less: The Effects of External Hiring versus Internal Mobility.” Administrative Science Quarterly 56, no. 3, pp. 369–407.

3.B. Groysberg. 2010. Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance and M. Bidwell. 2011. “Paying More to Get Less: The Effects of External Hiring versus Internal Mobility,” op.cit.

4.R. Shah. September 25, 2014. Have You Got Millennial Workforce Expectations All Wrong? Quoting the work of Prof. Matthew Bidwell.