➢ The Other A Players

The phrase “War for Talent” has always struck me as a little hollow. It is pessimistic and misleading. Everyone seems to agree that there is intense competition for executive talent, that it’s tough out there and there certainly isn’t enough “best talent” to go around. But that just isn’t so. The word “shortage” somehow suggests that supply doesn’t equal demand in the job market, a free market if ever there was one. It is true that we have very real aging demographic issues (70 million baby boomers versus 30 million Gen X), and now significant competition from innovative companies in developing countries. Nevertheless, all this hand-wringing over talent availability misses the point, which is that we are either failing to define, recognize, identify, or attract sufficient “best talent” for key positions. The opportunities are to get better at all four.

The Other “A” Players

Consider introverts, often excluded on personality, and internal candidates, who because they are known, are often undervalued versus candidates brought in from the outside.  Jim Collins taught us in “Good To Great” the value of these two groups, through extensive research.  Other exceptional people can be excluded from consideration through overly narrow job descriptions.  The best practice is to first define the entire population of possible A candidates before doing any eliminating. Then when we do eliminate, we have a better feel for how much of the search population we are leaving behind.

Defining Best

Even with a clear concept of “best” for the organization and the position, managers tend to hire to a stereotype – whatever their personal concept of “best” is. And that can be limiting in many ways. Best talent is what it is, not what we used to think it was. On the other hand, we develop opinions on types of candidates based on significant and valuable experience. What is important is to avoid being rigid in evaluations, based on the past, and to continue to educate ourselves as new information arises.  Gen Y and X candidates, for example, refuse to conform to old notions of “best”, and look very little like their boomer counterparts. They think differently, view their careers and opportunities differently, and they think nothing of bailing out of a corporate career to pursue something else. They can resist relocation regardless of the incentives offered, and may be more interested in work/life and quality issues than compensation and other traditional incentives. Attracting and retaining them is more challenging.


The Quiet Performers – The Introverts

In our work, we have long held the group we label Quiet Performers in very high regard, but have until recently had difficulty convincing clients of their worth.  I have always valued humility highly in candidates as a critical business and personal balance trait, so was gratified when Collins defined “best” executives as those who “build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  The most successful CEOs studied were not big personalities (charisma and ego), but tended to be low-key and modest, even self-effacing. These CEOs earned less than their egocentric counterparts, and they were homegrown, often long-timers with the company, as opposed to the latest talent brought in from the outside. This in itself is food for thought for us all. Ego has always been counterproductive to the group effort, but in the past extreme (over) confidence was viewed as a positive, even by our most sophisticated search buyers. But ego begets self-promotion, which puts self before the organization. The dismal array of political candidates is the perfect example of personal power needs running counter and against the greater good. In any case, highly charismatic CEOs (or at least those that trade on it) are now out of favor, thankfully. For the outstanding performers in “Good to Great”, their lack of pretense was countered by intense resolve – unwavering insistence on excellence and very high standards. And it was this non-traditional combination in personalities that set them apart and accounted for their uncontested performance. Behind that, of course, was superior drive and discipline, always the first criteria to look for in best talent. And finally, these executives had in common a focus on putting the right people in the right chairs, then letting the team tell them where to take the business. To this point we recommend asking executive candidates how and who they have hired. If best talent wins, have they hired the best, how do they perceive “best”, and what do they measure? Who have they hired and how have they performed? If an executive candidate hasn’t hired great people, don’t hire the candidate. He’ll fill the ranks with mediocrity.

Quiet Performers represent a huge undervalued group of A Players. We have a Fortune 500 client which often rejects talent for lacking necessary mental toughness, because of a lower key personality, when the track record indicates otherwise. The company has a history of relatively strong personalities, and tends to hire to that stereotype. And the concern with other personality types is whether they can stand up to the peer group. The concern is valid enough, but there is an underlying assumption that brute force has value, and is a desirable management style. Outwardly tough people can come across as intimidating, inaccessible, rigid and cold, and often are. They lack style flexibility to deal well with different kinds of people and change. When this stereotype rules, the quiet performer is pigeon-holed and dismissed. The classic outgoing business personality isn’t at all necessary to the running of a great business. Executive presence is required, but there are many people with more reserved personalities who command immediate respect.

Internal Candidates

When considering internal candidates, companies would do well to remember that perfection doesn’t exist on the outside, either.  For morale and talent acquisition cost reasons, promoting from within always makes more sense, given equal candidate quality.

Quality Job Descriptions

Job descriptions need to be well thought out and current, with care taken not to have so many “must haves” that the talent pool from which to recruit is too small.  In fairness, the search industry has a habit of contributing to this problem in the interest of giving the client everything they want in a candidate. Nobody wants to settle for less than desired, so the client and his search partner collaborate to limit the search universe, often severely.  As an example, let’s take a most basic candidate requirement – industry experience. While we certainly don’t advocate going outside the industry for all executive positions, if the best is elsewhere, we prefer to go there. A business is a business, and smart people will be up to speed quickly. “Best” talent will almost always outrun the best the industry has to offer, and quickly.

For these reasons, choosing search providers with industry and recent space experience makes sense. They will be familiar with the quality and quantity of talent available.

Corporate culture issues can be a huge limiter, and is much more difficult to deal with. Some very large companies proclaim that certain kinds of people do well there, and certain others don’t. Once again, this has everything to do with personality makeup. The availability of candidates that fit a stereotype is greatly diminished. So corporate cultures that accept and nurture a variety of personality types in performers will win.

Attracting “Best”

Our clients – US diversified industrial manufacturers – are smokestacks, competing for talent with far sexier industries, at least on the surface. That’s a fact that can’t be ignored, but it can be mitigated. Be a great smokestack and innovate. People go to work in exciting places. Accommodate the Generations because that is where the new talent is. They won’t conform to old standards and they won’t do what you want them to do. The employer/employee contract today in the case of “best” talent will be a compromise, and will serve both parties well. Individual candidates have some capacity for compromise, but companies have far more, especially in a virtual world. And finally, nurture high-promise internals and think inclusively in defining position requirements. Limit the search horizons no more than is absolutely necessary.