Lessons from the war for talent

Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman,

Where were you when the “War for Talent” was in full swing?

I know exactly where I was – in Silicon Valley interviewing executives about best practices in recruitment and retention for a book I was writing, called  The Human Side of High Tech: Lessons from the Technology Frontier .

For the past few years most companies have stopped worrying about retention because the tight job market tight has employees staying put and feeling lucky to have a job. Any job.

But as the economy rebounds, the retention issue will resurface. And, if the past is any predictor of the future, the impact will be most notable in the ranks of your best and brightest.

The changing needs of valued employees 
Back in 1999, when I was first researching this topic, dot-com competition was forcing formerly stodgy institutions to be more responsive to the changing needs of valued employees. Then, the most sought-after new workers were Generation Xers — techno-savvy, self-assured, and job-hopping in numbers never before seen by their corporate employers.

While the most tangible lure for talent in that booming economy was money, the most important shifts were in the culture and work environment required to engage the best and the brightest. The lessons I learned over a decade ago about how to attract, motivate and retain talented people were enlightening. Here are a few “talent attractors” from the past to keep in mind as we look to the future.

Meaning: For years, I have been commenting on the power of meaning to attract and motivate talented workers. Technology companies were especially brilliant at letting new hires know – right from the start – that the work to be done was exciting and important.

Culture: Talented techies were more likely to stay with an organization whose culture reflected their own values – and more likely to leave companies where there was a cultural misalignment. That’s why the mantra of savvy Silicon Valley managers soon became “Hire for the culture. Train for the job.”

Candour: Communication in a high-tech start-up was open and immediate, with a candid, “get to the point,” style of delivery. This resonated with bright employees who wanted to be involved in an authentic dialogue about where the organization was headed and how their efforts supported the organization’s business strategy.

Development: With job security no longer guaranteed, GenXers demanded “employability security” — including classes, training, and job assignments to grow and develop their abilities. Organizations found it risky to invest in employees who may be temporary (“What if we educate them and they leave?”), but far riskier not to (“What if don’t educate them and they stay?”).

Control: The newest generation of employees brought with them an increased demand for more control of their time — whether it involved organizationally structured arrangements such as flextime, flex-place, part-time or contractual work, or management philosophies and practices that stressed results over “face time.”

Re-recruitment: In order to keep top performers from leaving the company as soon as other opportunities arose, high-tech companies learned to identify and “re-recruit” their most valuable employees. The process of re-recruiting top talent was an ongoing conversation that began with leaders knowing the answers to questions like these:

1. Why do the most valuable employees choose to work at your company?

2. What are their career goals?

3. What is their #1 career concern?

4. How valuable are their skills in the market?

5. Do they feel fairly compensated?

6. Are they satisfied with their work – their colleagues – their projects?

7. What do they like/dislike about their current assignment?

8. What do they like/dislike about your management style?

9. What are their personal interests – hobbies – family issues?

10. What rewards would mean the most to them?

Can’t control your most talented employees 
The greatest lesson I learned from my research was that the commitment of the best and the brightest can’t be commanded or controlled. It can only be invited. The success of high-tech environments was less about the technology (or even the salaries) and more about the relationship between individuals and their organizations. And much of that relationship – forged for the previous generation of high performers – remains valid for today’s newest workers: Top talent is attracted to, thrives in, and choose to remain longer in environments where it is supported, developed, encouraged, and valued.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. She is the author of  THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work . Her new book, THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead will be released next May. For more information, contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, e-mail: CGoman@CKG.com, or through her websites: www.CKG.com and www.NonverbalAdvantage.com. You can also follow Carol on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CGoman.

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About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. speaks on leadership, change, collaboration and body language in the workplace to association, government and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is &l...