David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Fat Smoker principles: Update on the war for talent

post # 437 — September 25, 2007 — a Managing, Strategy and the Fat Smoker post

Yesterday’s WSJ had a great column by Carol Hymowitz entitled” “Best Way to Save: Analyze Why Talent Is Going Out The Door”.

The lessons weren’t new: turnover costs a lot; people quit because they don’t feel well treated by those immediately above them; people seek opportunities to learn and grow; you should analyze who’s leaving and why.

The fact that this wisdom is not new doesn’t detract from its truth, but it does bring us back to the challenge of why organizations don’t act on it. If we know there’s a shortage of talent, why haven’t we changed as much as we know we should in adapting to that marketplace reality?

In my consulting work, this is a common topic. A few themes tend to emerge:

a) It’s still true that professional organizations are trying to attract, motivate and retain those they recruit through “add-on” programs like HR, flex-time, paying people more, etc. These are all good ideas, but none of them get to the core of actually improving how people are managed day to day by senior people.

b) Senior people feel they are still subject to the same measures and systems as before (ie a focus on revenues and client service) and good people management, in spite of what firms say to them, is still a weak thrid priority.

c) What is more, senior people continue to avoid and even resent the need to “manage” more. They weren’t mentored, coached or supervised well on THEIR way up the ladder, and they haven’t really internalized the need to treat the next generation differently.

d) There is a widespread misunderstanding that good management means being “soft.” In fact, holding on to the best and the brightest is NOT about making the firm less demanding: it is about making sure that the organization provides fast-track learning opportunties and (as Ms. Hymowitz pointed out) opportunities for people to take on lots of extra responsibility early. That DOESN’T challenge the business model of the firm (as some senior people fear) but it DOES challenge the security of the senior people. It means they must be willing to delegate more, and keep moving on to new things themselves, so that they are not the bottleneck to achievement.

I find that discussing point (d) is difficult, but is the key to bringing about real changes of behavior in managing people.


robert fligel said:

What a great post. There is so much publicity about recruiting and retaining good people and the talent shortage and this went right to the heart of the matter. I believe that the ability to create and maintain an exceptional work environment is the single most important factor here. All of the add ons in the world ie flex time, concierge services and the like don’t mean a thing if the opportunity to do challenging work is not available and if there is not an open and communicative culture. This all starts and ends at the very top. The CEO or Managing Partner must have the vision and the ability to sell and infuse it among the different levels of leadership. Top leadership must also have the strength to challenge and, if necessary, replace, those who don’t buy into the vision. The best talent in the market will quickly see through superficial things like slogans and mission statements negating the best efforts to keep them . Please visit my blog also at http://rf-resources.com/index.php?/site/blog/

posted on September 25, 2007

Jim Stroup said:

This is a terrific commentary on Carol Hymowitz’s column, and your 4 observations on it are well made.

I think your suggestion that senior managers resent having to do more managing or mentoring than was done on their behalf points to a key gap that needs to be closed. The most important level at which management training and support must be conducted is in the early stages of a manager’s career, yet this, for a wide range of reasons including the one you note, tends to receive the most superficial attention.

My vote for the best line is: “There is a widespread misunderstanding that good management means being “soft.” ” This is a subject that warrants a good deal of emphasis – there is too much attention being paid to managerial attributes of secondary relevance the value of which can’t be accounted for. Good points, here.

Thanks for an excellent piece!

posted on September 25, 2007

Joseph Heyison said:

We have pyramidal business structures. 50% to 95% of the junior professionals are not going to stay with the firm. It’s often difficult to identify the 10% the firm wants to stay, and more difficult to target them without destroying morale. Thus, a firm-wide “fast-track learning experience” is economically irrational, requiring senior professionals to invest large amounts of non-billable time into programs to train professionals for competitors or clients or spend on trainers. Only the largest firms can afford it, and only as a recruiting tool.

Add-ons make sense. Target women, if they have child-rearing issues, with flex-time, part-time and concierge services. Attract the nerds with a video game room and free caffeinated sodas. Pay a bonus for extra billables. Fund a pro bono program.

Face it. If the core structure of the firm is set up to throw most of the good people out of the building, you don’t need a real retention program; you’re just trying to enhance your return by delaying the departures for a bit longer. And that’s all add-ons do.

posted on September 26, 2007

david (maister) said:

Joseph, you really are the ultimate pragmatist. Does that mean that, in your view, firms AND associates should now stop pretending that the apprenticeship model is in effect, and should assume that the best on offer is a “while it lasts” “at will” employment contract?

Does anoyone else think this where we are and/or that this is economically rational?

posted on September 26, 2007

Jim Stroup said:

THe observation Joseph makes that businesses are typically designed to offer fewer opportunities the higher up the structure one goes is, of course, true, as is the consequent fact that any firm will therefor lose a lot of quality people in whom it has invested much effort.

On the other hand, I don’t think it rises to the level of inevitability that calls for us to throw our hands up in resignation over the issue. While I agree that “fast-track” programs and other efforts to pre-identify putative management stars are riddled with practical and conceptual problems, it nevertheless remains a high-level management task to create the conditions in the firm that will generate the development and retention of high-quality talent.

The issue of a retention program, however, isn’t – or shouldn’t be – in and of itself simply to keep people on the payroll, but to create or modify the structure so we have fewer occasions to regret the departure of people that we do need and should have been able to keep.

As for those good people that do go, as long as they are not leaving due to shortcomings of the organization or its management, but only because of a realistic assessment of their chances as the pyramid narrows, then you probably don’t have a talent retention problem; you have a quality talent development program.

posted on September 27, 2007