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The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting — Sun Tzu


It started with The War For Talent, McKinsey’s 1997 announcement that the world of commerce was now at risk. With increasingly emotive language, McKinsey described a “severe and worsening shortage of the people” resulting in unfilled jobs, failed business objectives, skyrocketing compensations packages, and CEOs who could not sleep at night. All are vulnerable, they wrote in bold. And while it would be possible to win the war for talent, this could only happen if you “elevated talent management to a burning corporate priority.”


Did you hear that? Burning.


The problem was unlikely to resolve, not during the tenure of our working lives anyway. The forecast, grim and uncompromising, promised that “companies (were) about to be engaged in a war for senior executive talent that will remain a defining characteristic of their competitive landscape for decades to come.”


Why such an apocalypse? The reasons included a shortage of 35-44 year olds to replace the baby-boomers who were retiring, competition from smaller companies, and increased job mobility. Oh, there were people around, but not enough good people. Anyway, good was the enemy of great; good was the new bad. You had to get rid of good, explained Jim Collins in his 2001 book Good To Great; you had to rinse the cottage cheese (make tiny changes that add up). And you had to do it now. Don’t forget the sleepless CEOs, striving to heed Collins’ advice and get the best people on the bus. They could have fatigue-induced cardiac arrest—and who on earth would replace them?


Firing was as important as hiring. McKinsey was bold enough to state it outright: “Our research suggests that taking action to deal with poor performers is…the least exploited talent-building lever for any company.” Building talent through firing concentrates the talent, you see, increasing productivity of those remaining if only through necessity.


Letting go, constructive discharge, downsizing, there is no nice way to describe firing. But the important thing was to get rid of unwanted talent-blockers, even whole departments (blockages) through whatever legal means possible. Use velvet gloves; trot out executive coaches and outplacement advisors. Make a note that you have fired them so that you don’t accidentally re-hire them again in your effort to recruit the best talent. Rinse that cheese…


So how are we doing twenty years past McKinsey’s critical call to action? Is the war for talent over? It is, sort of. But all wars leave casualties. As Josh Bersin from Bersin of Deloitte explained, “The war for talent is over. The talent won.”


In case you are not aware, companies moved from the war for talent to a crusade for engagement. The word crusade sounds lofty, but it is important to remember that crusades are just wars with passion. In this new crusade, companies must become charismatic, irresistible magnets for the best people (not good, not even great anymore, but the best). Luckily, Deloitte can help a company become irresistible. After two years of research and discussions with hundreds of clients (where did they find the people to do this?) they uncovered five major elements and underlying strategies that makes organizations irresistible.


Compensation is part of it, sure. Breathe easy: you can still buy people. But salary is just “a hygiene factor”, not an “engagement factor.” You have to make the best and brightest happy, not clean. Work has to be self-directed, dynamic, creative, all the things we don’t normally associate with the word work. In fact, let’s not call it work anymore. Let’s call it mission.


How do we get people to join our mission? Of course, training and support, autonomy, “clear and transparent goals”, but you also need to create a “humanistic environment.” Admittedly, I don’t know what a humanistic environment is; Deloitte seems to have borrowed the term from studies run by dental schools, but I believe it means having respect and compassion for those around you.


Google’s idea, and one that could only come from this extraordinary thinktank, was to give engaged people time “to think, create, and rest” and, frankly, I’m already feeling the draw. But you can only give such time to the best people—those with passion and mission and purpose, those given to moments of brilliance and inspiration. There is no point in allowing people time to think if they can’t think. Those people have to go.


Luckily, automation is helping companies get rid of people who shouldn’t be given time to rest and think. Companies may still be losing the war for talent, but they are progressing on the firing front. Advancements in data allow companies to tag individual employees in various ways to predict whether they will be useful five or ten years down the road. Through a series of complex algorithms and predictive analytics, companies are able to sift through their mission-supporters and deselect those they wish to exclude from their flexible, person-centric, humanistic environments. With the removal of the good (enemy to great) and with a closely focussed digitally enhanced eye on the great, it is possible to clear the way for the best.


Or so we hope. Recently, McKinsey launched a new look at the war for talent (see The New War For Talent), explaining that many of the old problems haven’t gone away, and adding more challenges to the mix. It would seem that the talent is still not cooperating. The new soldiers on the talent-front are millennials and, according to Forbes, “Millennials don’t want jobs. They want lives.” If companies seek to recruit them, it isn’t enough to be irresistible and woo them. If you are lucky enough to succeed in wooing them, you have to convince them the whole enterprise is their idea. To that end, companies are striving to create an entrepreneurial culture, as 72% of millennials want to be their own boss.


What have all those managers and C-suite leaders actually achieved since 1997? Their expectations on employees were so high, their standards so rigid, their firing so efficient, they’ve convinced the new generation of talent to self-exclude. Maybe the talent didn’t want predictive analytics that value them one against the other. Maybe the talent preferred to make their own luck than be subject to constant evaluation. While recent graduates struggle to find any work at all, millennials are stepping away from opportunities. In an interview with McKinsey, Ann Robie, global head of Human Resources at StubHub said, “The future of talent is that people are not actually wanting to be employees.”


And so it evolves, as war often does. Perhaps we can no longer call it a “war for talent” or a “crusade for engagement.” The landscape has changed, the battleground no longer defined by its original architecture. What we see is that command control originates from the opposing side. We’ve reached the age of “talent at war”. Or talent@war, if you prefer. #NotInterested


The Writer's Economy

The New Freelancers


Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported that fifty-four million workers in the US are now freelancing for a living. The word freelancing, traditionally associated with writing and journalism, now extends to any job a person does as an independent contractor for a firm. Sometimes called the “gig economy”, or “agile talent”, freelancers come into a firm to conduct any kind of work – often technical work, research, or some sort of limited management function – and then they leave. They are paid for their work but with no further promise of employment once they’ve completed a project. They are not given any assurances, have no employee rights, no pension contributions and cannot expect any professional development or mentoring.


Writers are very familiar with “agile talent.” It’s how we get to write an article for The Sunday Times without actually having a job there. We pitch articles or get assignments and we know that after our 800 words delivered by Thursday, we have to look for another gig. My mother freelanced; I freelance. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the practice of freelancing. Until now.


From the point of view of big firms, “agile management” is a great idea. In their book, Agile Talent, Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood describe the growing need for companies to “have expertise on tap” but also the problems inherent in the practice of temporary hires in which the expert is treated as separate but not equal, and most importantly, extremely expendable.


The global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Bob Moritz, told the FT’s Ben McLannahan in March 2016 that this new brand of freelancers allows him to “bring in the right talent in the right place at the right time.” What he didn’t add, however, is that the “talent” is a person, and that this person is not given any employee rights or benefits, let alone ongoing professional skills development, and that it is often this shift of responsibility that makes agile talent so valuable to an organization.


Nonetheless, Moritz sounds convinced that the “talent” wants it this way. “We know when you look around the world, that an increasing number of people will want to be more of an independent contractor than a full-time employee,” he said. Deloitte reports that as  much as a third of America’s workforce is now working as “agile talent” or “super temps”.


Nobody has to convince me of the advantages of working for oneself. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ve even freelanced for professional services firms, though not PwC. However, working as an “independent contractor”  is not unusual for writers.  Writers have been “agile talent” for publishing houses forever. That’s just the way that the publishing business operates.  I write a novel on spec, the editor either wants it or doesn’t want it (and is usually under no obligation to accept it), then makes an offer.  With very few exceptions I’ve only been offered single-book deals and for wildly different sums.


This financial arrangement is acceptable to me because, I suppose, I’ve always imagined that the financial risks of writing fiction must be borne by the novelist. We produce something with a value that is difficult to define, hard to signal to the market, and about which opinions vary tremendously. Also, the publishing house is investing in us, in our books, and in our careers. There is a deal defined by cash and commitment. The publicists and marketing people work hard on the novel’s behalf. If the book is published well it is a good deal for the writer. Of course, if the book is published badly, and the publishing house does not put enough effort into it, it is always the author who is blamed.


With businesses now defining themselves not by what they produce but by the solutions they provide (the company that makes my dogs’ food does not sell dog food, but solutions to my dogs’ hunger), the solution my novel can offer might be to help people think about a subject in a new manner, or about their own lives in a new manner. Novels feed a kind of cultural appetite.  In contemporary business parlance, I don’t sell novels but solutions to cultural hunger.


But it turns out there are a lot more novels out there than there is hunger for them, which is why my book has to be just that little bit better, or my publishers marketing of it has to be better, or I just need raw luck. Usually the last.


I might like it to be different. I might like more job stability, financial stability, a sense of being part of a larger organization and team, the feeling of being valued by my colleagues on a regular basis instead of every few years when I bring out a book (unless they reject it, which is always a possibility, in which I feel terrible). It would be great to be groomed for success the way I imagine that executives are taught, to be taken by the hand by a publishing house and given advice on how to conduct myself during interviews, speak on television and radio, how to build networks, or make good relationships with key media figures. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s not the way publishing works.


If I wanted stability, if I’d wanted continued professional development, I’d have to go into a different profession, a more stable profession. If I didn’t want to have to always be pitching, selling and looking for the next gig, I’d have traded in my jeans and kitchen office for a crisp suit and a job at an international professional services firm, a place like PwC. After all, it is an enormous, profitable firm, the most prestigious accounting firm in the world.


Oh, except maybe I wouldn’t. Now that companies like PwC are building their “Talent Network”, so that they don’t have to offer anything more than short-term contracts, it seems that a “regular job” is becoming a rare thing, indeed. And being a writer has become no riskier than any other profession.