The War for Talent: It’s an Urban Myth

ExperienceOne of the biggest challenges we face in the whole human performance arena is our inability to quantify what potential really is. And, therefore, what talent really looks like. I firmly believe that there is no shortage of raw talent out there and that the “War for Talent” is largely an uninformed waste of time and resources. And most definitely a waste of talent. Contrary to popular opinion, there is actually an abundance of talent, everywhere you look. The problem is, we just cant see it.

Historically we have guided people’s careers in response to the function and industry structure that has evolved to form the bedrock of our industrialised society. As individual market favour waxes and wanes over time, so does the supply chain of that talent in response. Sometimes, these market forces outpace the response time of the labour supply, causing shortages in the supply of people with certain functional or industrial expertise. Cue much talk of the War for Talent.

These shortages only appear so acute because we are constantly looking at the supply of talent through the wrong lens – one of experience and education, two of the most common – but least reliable – criteria used in candidate selection. If we were to take experience out of the equation for a moment (We are not saying it is not important, just that it is the least reliable predictor of in job potential and performance) and dialled down expectations around education – ignoring what University they graduated from for example – we might find that looking through a different lens – one that highlights their values and motivations, their behaviours, how and how well they solve problems. etc. – opens up a whole new talent pool that would not have been considered before.

The trick of course is to know what great actually looks like for any given role, which on the face of it sounds like something that we should be able to determine quite easily. Unfortunately, many many large organisations still insist on hiring thousands of key roles on a global scale without using any solid, consistent framework against which to seek, attract, select and hire the people they need. This is so common, it is scary. It is somewhat ironic that conferences and magazines are chock full of business leaders talking about the financial impact on the business of the war for talent, yet they invest precious little in the process of attracting and hiring that talent properly. What they do spend, can often go completely to waste.

This war might seem very real for many but that’s only because of the way they are viewing the problem, not because there is an actual shortage of talented people able to do the work required. So time to break the habit. Starting today, whenever you find yourself sitting across the table from a potential hire, ask yourself the following question:

“Are you more interested in what they have achieved in the last 10 years with someone else, or what they could achieve in the next 10 years with you?”

No brainer right?! 😉


  1. My guess is that the driver for over-reliance on experience is the short-term focus of most enterprises. I suspect many believe that they don’t have time to educate someone on their industry, job or competencies. Therefore, they look for people who have done the same thing before (and whom they believe will not need a lot of training). This is a limited pool of this “talent”, and hence there is competition for their services. It’s not obvious that these short-term focuses will change, no matter how many people say that it’s a bad thing. As the longevity of executives positions continue to fall, the pressure for quick results will largely remain in my view.

    I suspect the education component is not new. Those responsible for hiring decisions hire in their own image. There is some evidence that some companies (eg, Google) have started to do proper analysis of success and found that those who add most are not those from the best universities. I am more optimistic of changes in this component.

    There is probably a war for talent in some areas where specific education and experience are deemed to be required. I would anticipate that this will continue, and perhaps get more bloody. You don’t always have to join the war however. Maybe some companies will realise that they won’t win in this war and choose not to take part? Maybe economics of supply and demand will change this pattern of behaviour? The price of the resource will undeniably rise as the demand for this talent’s services increases and the supply of their services falls or stagnates. When it rises to an unacceptable level, perhaps companies will choose the substitute product of a less experienced, less traditionally-educated talent? If you are right (and I want you to be right!), these pioneering companies will achieve better results and other companies will hire differently.

    The discussion is reminiscent of the debate in the 80s and 90s on whether you should hire intelligent graduates and train them, or hire experienced hires that someone else has trained. I think the free ride largely won that debate.

    Another great blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Julian. Thanks for commenting. As you say, it’s hard to see how things will change significantly, especially given the short term pressures you mention in your comment. It’s hard to see a way past that and there is a certain inevitability in your suggestion that things may change only when re reach a point where it is unsustainable and their hand is forced. However, I am encouraged by some signs of change, Google being a great example you mention. It’s taken a long time just to break the red brick university myth although i suspect that too will take time to wash through. Interesting times indeed, thanks for stopping by.


  3. Gareth, this is really great. I think the apparent “war on talent” has also been perpetuated by automated resume pools. With these, companies never even see what candidates have to offer because a computer deems fully qualified people as unqualified applicants. After all, many with “genius IQs” don’t have college degrees because they can’t function well in a school environment. If we remove all the geniuses from the applicant pool, though, I can see how companies would be concerned about a lack of talent. Also, the question you posed at the end is perfect. I love it!


    1. Hi Micole! Thanks for your comment. Totally agree about the automation issue, especially where this is embedded in the applicant tracking system. And also, you make such a great point about people who don’t excel at school – I’m one of those! Although I wouldn’t claim to be a genius 😉

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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