It’s time to stop waging the ‘war for talent’

It’s been nearly 30 years since McKinsey coined the term and it’s time for a rethink. Here, executive coach Douglas Board explores why the four-day week might offer a new way of thinking and what Timothée Chalamet can teach us about talent

How to tackle the war for talent

In 1997, management consultancy McKinsey first coined the term the “war for talent”, an expression which many have taken as gospel when it comes to discussing the workforce. The term is not immune to criticism, however. 

In August 2009, workplace think-tank Tomorrow’s Company tried to call time on a bad idea. Citing the organisation’s research, an article in Personnel Today pointed out that “it’s an astonishing 12 years since McKinsey coined the phrase ‘war for talent’, a concept that has guided the philosophy that talent is hard to find and companies must compete to nurture it.”

That 12-year-old ‘war’ is now nearly 30, a member of generation Z in its own right. Unabashed by criticism of its aggressive language and divisive concept (‘talent’ refers to a minority of an organisation’s employees), McKinsey doubled down. In a 2017 article, senior partners Scott Keller and Mary Meaney said companies needed to focus on being attractive to “the 5% [of employees] who deliver 95% of the value”. 

The following year, Dominic Barton, the firm’s global boss, co-authored Talent Wins, a book claiming that it is not 5% but 2% of your payroll that creates most of the value. (Perhaps ironically, rather than let 98% of its own workforce go, in the past decade McKinsey has increased its global headcount by two-thirds.) 

Even in 2023, the McKinsey Global Institute presents the war for talent as an immutable reality: firms need to secure “key advantages as businesses face economic headwinds and a war for talent”.

Manufacturing talent: lessons from Hollywood

To better understand the ‘war for talent’, think about the war for Timothée Chalamet. Currently Chalamet is a scarce, must-have resource – top talent personified. But much of the scarcity is manufactured. There is no global shortage of highly gifted, hard-working actors with the sensitivity and sensuality to move us. Many new names would be box office draws if promoted sufficiently and allowed to shine. But scarcity can be created by certain anointing figures. In Chalamet’s case, Dune director Dennis Villeneuve declared that the actor was his “first and only” choice for the part.

This exposes an unconscious circular process which is as true for talent management as it is for film-casting. By discerning exquisite talent, the anointer raises their own status by establishing themselves as one who can identify exceptional talent. It’s no surprise that Talent Wins encourages CEOs to roam their organisations like film directors, using their special powers to spot their 2%. This sort of magical process is how the glass ceiling is built, as I explore in my book Elites

The language of war can be persuasive when we talk about talent because of the relentless struggle of organisations to fill key positions. Every day, good candidates prove hard to attract and then drop out in favour of competitors. I lived this struggle as an executive recruiter. But, when a war lasts 27 years, it’s useful to take a step back. Is it time for a different tactic?

Could a four-day week help get the best out of top talent?

The accumulating data on four-day weeks suggests a good experiment. In 2022, the UK conducted one of the largest trials in which employees delivered 100% of their usual output in four working days rather than five. One year on, more than half of the organisations which took part have made the change permanent (31 of the 61 who did the trial). This suggests not only higher productivity but a net benefit for employers. Nearly 3,000 employees took part across a diverse set of industries. Many of these were people in senior, managerial and professional roles – including the top talent on which McKinsey is so fixated.

My own experience of moving to a four-day week in a senior, client-facing role in executive search supports this surprising result: not only did my productivity go up, but also my total output (work sold and delivered). Organisations looking to get the most out of their employees would do well to embrace solutions which could boost the productivity of the whole workforce, rather than focus all their efforts on attracting and retaining the top 2%.

When skills are short in a real war, organisations are up for trying things which are culturally uncomfortable but which may work. A good example is the landmark change in women’s place in work and society from the First World War. If it could make a scarce resource go further, trialling four-day weeks for top talent would be a business priority, however strange it might feel. Instead, many C-suites remain stuck in six- or even seven-day weeks, unable to take other possibilities seriously.

The casualties of war 

The consequences of the “war for talent” go beyond eye-wateringly high pay for a few unduly narrow leadership groups. They even go beyond missing out on the brilliance of teams. Systemically undervaluing 95% of your workforce has implications for their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Economic inactivity due to sickness in the UK, a long-running issue, has recently jumped by 42% among those aged 25 to 35. Instead of warring with competitors over so-called top performers, leaders could do with looking within their organisations to find new ways to engage the talent already there. There are plenty of bodies on the battlefield, if we care to look. 

Douglas Board is an executive coach and a visiting professor at the University of Chichester. His book “Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?” (Eye Books 2021) was described by the Financial Times as ‘profound’, ‘subversive’ and ‘often very funny’.