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Want to win the war on talent? Time to become exclusive


At the turn of the century, Ed Michaels, a McKinsey consultant, suggested that if businesses wanted sustainable competitive advantage, first they had to “win the war for talent”.

At the time he was speaking specifically about leadership talent and suggested that winning the war was less about frenzied recruiting tactics and instead about the timeless principles of attracting, developing, and retaining highly talented managers - applied in bold new ways.

Fast forward 20 years and across almost every sector, at every level, the war for talent goes on. Michaels’ argument still holds true, based on the premise that people and not the technology, buildings or capital employed by an organisation are what creates its real value. As such, particularly in the marketing sector, human resource, or talent is the key factor in organisational performance.

The expected growth in jobs and the emergence of new roles (who knew what programmatic was 6 years ago?) within the marketing sector is likely to cause increased competition for the best talent. The war will intensify! Without doubt, this will place increased pressure and scrutiny on the ways that companies manage their acquisition and retention of talent.

What is talent?

During my recent research into talent management I worked specifically with marketing agencies to discover what talent management philosophies are adopted and why.

First, I had to define what SME marketing agencies meant when they refer to talent.

The common views are that talent is either your people – which is called a ‘subject approach’ or the characteristics of your people, widely referred to as the ‘object approach’.

Taking the object approach, scholars’ question whether talent is innate and thus should be enabled, or whether it is learned and developed over time using repeatable practice and learning from mistakes to reach talented performance levels.

Those that adopt a subject (people) perspective, suggests two contrasting philosophies; one that includes all employees in its talent management process (inclusive), the second that sees talent as an elite sub group or ‘A’ team that holds key, strategic roles and who have the biggest impact on an organisation’s growth and success.  

I use these academic descriptions, of object, subject, inclusive and exclusive, because my findings from working with a number of marketing agencies was that they all adopted an inclusive approach- the focus of their talent management was on each individual within an organisation, and as part of wider, more generic HR practices of recruitment and development.

While this approach mirrored the common findings in popular talent management studies of SMEs it was not however the approach advocated by researchers for best results.

SMEs are generally informal in their approach to HR and this has been identified as a source of competitive advantage. Given the importance of an informal management style to company culture, many SMEs prefer to adopt an informal approach to talent management and do not formally identify talent as separate from other employees.

This contrasts with the ideas of strategic positions and exclusive “high potential” talent, which are dominant in larger organisations. But can formal and ‘exclusive’ approaches adopted by larger organisations fit the culture and teamwork in SMEs without damaging the morale of those not in the “A “team?

Time to be exclusive?

With limited financial and appropriately trained human resource specialists in house, SMEs are generally unable to adopt the more sophisticated and socially responsive approaches to talent management and HR practices seen in larger organisations. And as SME marketing agencies grow sporadically, it becomes harder to identify key positions and so developing a suitable talent pool to fill these positions is difficult.

But, in a bid for competitive advantage, SME marketing agencies seek employees who add the most value and therefore, a robust candidate attraction and selection processes is a key factor in determining how effective its talent will perform going forward.

Having identified that an inclusive talent management philosophy is adopted by SMEs in the sector, I recommend that each business gains a greater understanding of talent management. With limited budgets, spread wide and thin, this knowledge, will enable them to become more proactive in their approach to talent management, to separate it from more general workforce planning and by taking a strategic view, increase performance of employees that can be effectively measured.

Understanding which employees have the largest strategic impact on the business can also enable the adoption of an exclusive approach, where employees are perhaps treated differently. The treatment of these employees does not necessarily have to impact on culture and motivation, if the importance they have in the delivery of organisational objectives is communicated clearly. However, I recognise this is a delicate balance that requires careful consideration and management.

Due to the relative size of the organisation, the links between effective on-boarding and quality of line-management with performance in an SME marketing agency is stronger than in a larger organisation, so the effective utilisation of training budget for the development of future leaders could solve a main issue with mid management. However, I do recognise that this approach would again require an understanding of the exclusive approach and how to best manage this to maintain a status quo within the wider organisational culture.

Becoming exclusive may be difficult for SME marketing agencies, but with more than 11 years’ experience, our success comes down to building meaningful relationships with clients and candidates, which includes having difficult conversations.

We offer support on all talent management issues and can help our clients to map their future requirements.

If you would like to know more about our free, no obligation talent review, contact John Austin