The War for Talent is Back

What A Difference A Decade Makes

When I left my corporate high tech HR role a decade ago, and opened up my own consulting practice, employers showed little interest in improving strategies to manage their people,  designed to attract and motivate talent. The reason was simple. With unemployment high, heavy layoffs and job scarcity, the economic downturn gave employers all the power. If an employee was not working out, there were numerous equally qualified replacements. For employees, if you were not fully engaged or satisfied, it was ok – you were paying the bills, you could not take chances. In such an economy you just stayed put, and were grateful to have a regular paycheck. You had little power and few choices.

Wow, what a difference a decade makes. In today’s thriving economy, there is a shortage of skills and experience, not a shortage of jobs. The rate of unemployment is at an all time low, and the rate of voluntary resignations is climbing.  Demand outstrips supply, so employers can no longer call all the shots. Leverage has shifted to employees and candidates.

The war for talent is back.

It is time for employers to pay greater attention to what they need to do to compete in attracting and developing talent.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the ever changing, rapidly evolving, global Israeli economy.  “Companies seem hesitant to dismiss employees, while the latter are more inclined to change jobs. The period is characterized by a higher rate of voluntary resignations, together with a notable decrease in dismissal rates, both demonstrating the shift in power from employers to employees”.

While this quote applies to the tech sector, the Israel Innovation Authority also states “the tech sector is the main potential driver of the growth of the Israeli economy for the next decade”

Source: Human Capital Survey Report 2018,  Israel Innovation Authority

I grew up in high tech for over 2 decades, but have spent the last several years focused on applying people strategies to other sectors, primarily education and non-profit. Although some customization and tailoring to a specific organizational culture is absolutely necessary - people strategy is people strategy.

The techniques and strategies used to attract, motivate and engage productive employees have not substantially transformed over time. 20 years ago, the buzz words were about embracing a talent mindset, building an EVP (employee value proposition), robust succession planning and differentiated development (some have more talent than others). I would credit today’s terms as more nuanced to incorporate the psychology of motivation: engagement initiatives, employment branding, employer of choice, and the latest one hitting my inbox is creating “the employee experience”. Looking beneath the surface, the terms have changed but the critical essence of focusing on motivating people has not. This is the timeless wisdom for leaders. It is time to place people management on the front burner.

I have always been passionate about helping people sort through what is going on in their professional lives. Throughout my more than 30 year career, I have followed the research, utilized multiple evaluation tools and surveys, and had countless conversations with employees. In my experience, those conversations have taught me the most about what employees are desperately seeking. My career conversation data can be summarized with some version of “my boss … a jerk”.

There are many global survey databases on engagement of employees. No matter which one I quote, (the most well known global one is Gallup’s) they all back up my career conversation insights. So, a few front burner thoughts for you:

  • There is simply no replacement for a good manager.  Your managers ARE your employment brand.

  • Good managers aren’t typically born that way

  • You can’t just say “don’t be a jerk”… There are very clear, teachable skills and effective behaviors – it’s not rocket science

  • Employees don’t need you to motivate them, they do that for themselves.  

  • Managers however, can create the conditions and control the day-to-day environment where employees can thrive and become motivated

  • Managers have far more leverage and influence than they realize

Far too many management teams find out about the front burner the hard way;  they lose a valued employee when it is too late.

Did you notice what word I did not use?

Everyone talks about retention. I do not.

I talk about developing, motivating, attracting, engaging. This is not meant to suggest ignoring reducing attrition, which can be very useful as an analysis when real reasons for voluntary resignations are understood.   However, beyond such specific analysis, pure retention is an outdated and dangerous metric to aspire to.    If you do not have employee commitment - minds and hearts - do you really want to retain them? The ones who “quit yet stay”?  It is a myth that disengaged employees leave. They often stay and poison your culture. It is nice to give years of service awards, but it is more motivating to differentiate deserved recognition and rewards for contribution.   

What if the goal were redefined as high quality productivity while your employees are with you, where dedicated employees choose to give to their organizations “above and beyond the call of duty” and “go the extra mile”?

This is not to to suggest pushing people to the extent of burnout – you can be exhausted from great effort, but if you are engaged – you will recharge and maintain enthusiasm for your work.

Rather than an overly narrow goal to hold on to employees by primarily measuring time and tenure, focus on enabling people to do their motivated best.

As an employer, seek a mindset to inspire peak performance rather than pure retention.  

If terms like motivate, engage and drive employees to peak performance still sound somewhat intangible,  here are several well known ingredients for success in actionable, managerial behaviors: set clear expectations, monitor and coach progress, invest in career development support, deliver candid, practical feedback,  demonstrate how valued they are, make sure they feel heard, kept in the loop, appreciated, recognized, consulted.

These may not sound like the latest ideas because they are not.  But they ARE STILL the playbook. I have never met a manager who did not want to be a better one. Invest in your managers and you will position your organization to distinguish itself in today’s increasingly competitive landscape.

Ilana Meskin