An Imperfect Talent Market
The talent market isn’t perfect. There are imperfections, paradoxes and dogmas both on the supply side and on the demand side. They pollute our thinking about talent. There are at least 10 talent market defects that make the talent market somewhat exclusive, limited and maybe toxic. It’s time to review them and think about how to deal with them.
Talent Market Defects
Here are the 10 defects. Each defect has different origins, different impacts and different solutions.
Talent Market Defect 1:
Labour Market Thinking
I use the word talent market instead of the more commonly used term labour market. If we talk about the labour market we focus too much on the work (labour) at hand. The demand for labour lies with the employees, freelancers, the people. The supply of labour is coming from the employers. As if the raw material of that market were the jobs, functions, the work.
The true raw material is the skills, attitudes, motivation, … that people bring to work. I wonder how that labour economic thinking came about. Probably labour markets have been dominantly seller’s markets, where the talent was abundant and the jobs (supply of labour) were scarce. And so the focus was on the work and not the talent. And the thinking got twisted around.
But today, Talent is not abundant. It’s becoming a seller’s market. Supply of Talent is dwindling. Demographics help us to understand the shortage in the markets. But increasingly organisations are fishing in a limited pool of that shrinking talent supply.
So let’s reverse thinking and argue that the supply of talent is what matters strategically.
Talent Market Defect 2:
Experience to Get Experience.
Young people who are looking for a job lack experience. That’s a fact. But many job profiles demand earlier experience. This is a vicious circle. How are people without experience to gain experience if experience is a barrier to entry?
The answer is of course that young people should acquire some experience as early as possible through student jobs, internships, dual learning, study projects. It’s about creating dots as Steve Jobs called them, as early as possible. But it’s more about life experience and maturity than it is about the acquisition of specific job-related skills.
For organisations it could be beneficiary to open up to young people more. Internships are the best way of doing that, provided that this channel is also used as a recruitment channel (and not only as a source of cheap labour).
When organisations stress the need for experience, they contribute to the tightness of the talent market. And yes, chances are that young people leave the company after a couple of years. And one could regret the “wasted investment”. But this kind of thinking is obsolete. The investment is only wasted when the talent of youngsters has been restricted. Young people can be a source of innovation, organisational learning, reverse mentoring, … Only when we treat young people like we did in the past, the investment in their talent will be wasted.
So let’s lower the barrier to entry and allow young people to yield returns.
Talent Market Defect 3:
Reading certain job descriptions and their related profiles, I can only conclude that organisations are still looking for the perfect employee. Companies want experience, knowledge of multiple languages, a degree, a strong personality, the right attitude and immediate deployability.
Also in my company it’s a daily battle to convince hiring managers that there aren’t instant ready and perfect people in the current talent market. And the question is if there has ever been. If talent is scarce, perfect talent is even more scarce. And by focussing on perfection, we exclude people with potential for the job, but without all the specs.
This also means that all companies are looking in the same, small and shrinking pool of talent. Looking for the highest standards in a market that is demographically challenged is not the best idea. Companies must distinguish between the “must haves” and the “need to acquires”. Attitudes and values, but also intelligence and social competency are must-haves in all or at least most jobs. For some jobs a (technical degree) is a must-have, but in a lot of jobs companies could let go of that.
So let’s focus on the essential criteria.
Talent Market Defect 4:
The Degree Fetish
The degree is still an important decision criterion in the process of matching talent to jobs. It is in fact overrated. I will never tell someone a degree is not important. The main reason for this is that a degree is still an entry ticket to the conservative talent market. However, it is not a residence permit. The degree loses its value very fast. The value of the knowledge or skills acquired during studies is limited.
We cannot assume that the value of a degree comes from the mere transfer of knowledge. It’s much more important to look at the way the degree has been obtained. People can get a degree (the paper) by focussing on the minimal effort. They comply to the demands of the institution that hands out the degree as a proof of academic or technical knowledge.
But, a degree can also prove that someone is engaged, persevering, creative. So unless there are legal requirements to hold a degree in a job (you need a medical degree to be a physician), organisations should drop the degree spec from their job profiles. That makes those jobs more accessible for people who do not have the right degree. The fetish of the diploma is too exclusive and organisations miss opportunities to hire excellent people.
Talent Market Defect 5:
the Hole in the Cheese.
For many hiring managers it’s almost unthinkable to hire some one who has made a mistake. That’s probably because they’ve never made a mistake (irony). It’s remarkable how recruiters search for the holes in the curriculum. Recruiters typically do not like twists, bumps and holes in a career. Holes in the cheese are not that interesting. But I would argue otherwise.
We all make mistakes. Without mistakes there is no learning. People build careers by the grace of the learning by mistakes. So the holes in the cheese are interesting, but not to disproof qualities. The holes in the cheese are sources of information about how people learn, how they deal with setbacks, how fast they bounce up.
Everything has a story, both perfection and imperfection.
Talent Market Defect 6:
The Love for the Ideal Competency vs. the Fear for Bad Attitude.
We fall in love with people with a track record. The fact that they might not bring the right attitude is too often of secondary importance. Nevertheless in my experience more people are fired because of bad attitude than because of bad performance. I haven’t found statistics on it (only many blog posts).
And the old adage of any HR professional is that bad attitude should lead to immediate dismissal. There’s more hope when bad performance is due to lack of competence. There is no remedy for bad attitude.
But when we meet someone who has the right experience, we tend to forget about attitude. Our love for competency perfection is far greater than our fear for bad attitude. And that’s because hiring managers think they can compensate for the bad attitude. They tend to overestimate the capacity for people to control their bad attitude and they underestimate the damage bad attitude causes.
The cost of a dismissal because of a bad attitude is higher than a dismissal for lack of competence. And that’s because the collateral damage of bad attitude is far greater. Bad attitude is like a venom. It slowly poisons the relationships at work.
Talent Market Defect 7:
Harvest now. Invest later.
Our view of careers is still linear: study, work, retirement. Put differently: invest, exploit and live on the proceeds of work. Who invests? The person, families, the government. Organisations are looking for people who are trained for the job. That is called “train to place”. The reluctance to invest in people, reduces the pool of talent which we can recruit from.
Can we do something else? We can place and train. And this is often more efficient. Put someone with potential on a mission, and they will learn exponentially. Put someone who is trained on a mission and chances are that they will have to unlearn.
Talent Market Defect 8:
Adaptability above Employability.
Organisations hire people for who they are and what they can do. But once hired, there’s too often a pressure to become someone else. We expect people to adapt, to blend in. “Here we do it like this. It’s not right to change it.” In many organisations resistance is futile. And people who do not get assimilated will be removed.
And so we destroy value. Every time we hire someone, there’s an opportunity for the organisation to learn and evolve. And hiring someone always causes friction. Everyone comes on with new ideas, other ways of doing things. And so every new hire should make the status quo tremble at least. This takes energy but adds value.
The focus should not be on adaptability of a person (how well do they fit?) but on employability. And to make people employable, we need to give them the space to be who they are. That’s why we hired them in the first place. It’s a kind of psychological contract. And maybe it would not be wrong to make that psychological contract explicit and to customise the job as far as possible.
Talent Market Defect 9:
The Quest for the Active Components of People.
Much of what HR does is based on the concept of competency. A competency is a characteristic (skill, trait, attitude, …) that enables someone to be successful. It discriminates between high and low performers. I call that the active components of people. Companies have developed competency dictionaries to guide recruitment, career development, employee appraisals, etc. They focus on a couple of competencies that make a difference. Very often these are generic: customer orientation, coöperation, accountability, initiative, …
Not only competency profiles are interchangeable, they are also reductionist. They give us the illusion that we can measure the active components of people and that we only need to focus on these elements.
But a person comes to work as a hole. So we need a holistic approach. The best overall question to ask during a selection process is “Who are you?”. But we ask “What can you do?”. If we hire people not only for what they can do, but also for who they are we can focus on creating a more diverse workforce. The interaction of personality and competency is much more interesting than the reductionist view on competencies. Hiring interesting people who can create value, is much richer than the quest for competencies.
Talent Market Defect 10:
Look Like Me. Conformation.
People discriminate. Let me rephrase that, they have biases. And one of those biases is that we are looking for people who look like us. I call the the conformation bias. It’s easy to hire someone who looks like me, thinks like me, works like me. But it’s rubbish. Instead we should hire people who do not look like us.
Have you ever hired someone you do not like? I have. And it is not easy. But you should not hire people because they are easy. You should hire people who can make a difference. And so you need to hire people who are different from you.
Corporate cloning is not a good idea. Hiring managers should build a diverse team. And I am not talking about diversity in terms of gender and origin. I am talking about diversity of ideas, thinking, looking at the world. Yeah yeah, you’ll say. That’s valid for creative teams, management teams. But in a factory diversity is a nuisance.
Let me tell you this. Most probably you’ll find the greatest diversity on the shop floor. The shop floor most probably reflects society the most. Only, we do not use that diversity enough. We underestimate too often the value of bringing different views together to create a meaningful value. Diversity leads to creativity, in my humble opinion.
Diversity is not easy to handle. But if you hire the same people all the time, you will never change anything. You get stuck in a fixed trail. That’s never a good idea in a disruptive world.
I have no illusions. The talent market is drenched in assumptions and biases. It’s very difficult to break through dogmas. But unless we adopt another view of the talent market, it will remain normative and exclusive. And that won’t help us. So a first step is to understand how these dogmas influence the dynamics of the talent market and our own behaviour.
If you are led by these dogmas, you might want to reconsider them and experiment. To me the business case of a more open approach towards talent is clear: a bigger pool, access to more talented and engaged people, a diversity of ideas. Think about it.
An earlier version of this blog was published in Dutch and French on www.securexblog.be. This is a reworked version.