Why There's No Such Thing As a "Talent War"

Here are three examples of what I mean:

Late that day I had a beer with Ross Dawson, an expert on social networks and the future of media (if any). He has shown, for example, that superstar bankers don't look so bright when lured to a rival firm. At the Minnesota company, innovation starts in the lab: "Eureka -- I discovered something! I wonder if we can sell it." 3M's famous 15 percent rule instructs scientists to spend plenty of time looking for ideas, regardless of the market. All Rights Reserved.

Ah, but a winning poker hand won't help if the game is bridge. People who think they're in a war for talent should put down the bazooka and, instead, think about what they need or want.

The time: Winston Churchill was an irrelevant, boring, self-important jerk until he became the indispensible, eloquent leader of Britain and the world in its fight against fascism; then he was unceremoniously voted out of office when the war ended and his time had passed. What's a trump to one employer may be a discard to another. It can be limited -- or amplified -- by the team, the time, and the game. Talent does rule, as Ross said, especially for high-value, highly paid knowledge work; but the value of talent is highly dependent on context. The sunset over Darling Harbour made him look ruddier than Aussies already are. (Think, for example of the leadership vicissitudes of Hewlett Packard.)

Image courtsey Flickr user Dave_B_, CC 2.0

No shock, then, that the "war for talent" is alive and well here. I can't imagine a culture shock greater than moving from one of these innovation-nonpareils to the other.

The team: Harvard Business School's Boris Groysberg has documented the impact of teams on individual performance. Sydney bustles and booms, in considerable part because of Chinese demand for Australian natural resources.

2010 CBS Interactive Inc.. Or the reverse: the ugly duckling who comes into his own in a different group.

Thinking about it in strategic terms makes you realize that there is not and never was a war for talent; instead, there's a huge opportunity to link people and strategy in ways that most companies (and most talented people) are too clueless to exploit.

Looked at this way, the search for talent doesn't seem like combat at all. Thinking about this in economic terms -- where it appears as "friction" in markets -- won the Nobel Prize for Peter Diamond of MIT.

. P&G, by contrast, likes to identify unmet consumer needs and then invent products to satisfy them; hence WhiteStrips, Swiffer, et al. What is the game 00 and what's your company's way of playing it? What industry and macroeconomic dynamics are affecting structure and profitability? And, given the answers to those questions, what capabilities will you need to win the game you're playing?

Last Updated Oct 25, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

Talent is contextualized in three ways. No better example exists of what Nitin Nohria and Anthony Mayo call "zeitgeist leadership." Whether at the CEO level or anywhere else, the value of talent is radically affected by the tenor of the time. Talent was topmost: One after another around the table, the bosses -- media mogul, miner, banker, lawyer, automaker -- worried that they couldn't win if they couldn't find and keep top people. We've all seen that: the hotshot who turns out to have needed his team more than anyone -- especially the hotshot -- knew. Welcome to the dark side of prosperity.

The game: 3M and Procter & Gamble are both great innovators, but they play the game differently. Ross sympathized with the CEOs' problem up to a point: "My definition of top talent is people who get to choose where to work." When you need the best, he meant, guess who holds the cards?

It's a shock to come to Australia from America: The antipodal air hums with Leadership Talent the vibe of good times. At a lunch hosted by CPA Australia, a big training and development organization for financial professionals, the group's head, Alex Malley, asked a score of CEOs what problem was keeping them up at night