In 1997, in a landmark article, McKinsey declared the war for talent. The firm argued that due to demographic shifts, recruiting the “best and the brightest” was even more important than “capital, strategy, or R&D.” The report was enormously influential and continues to affect how enterprises operate even today.
Companies were urged to identify specific traits they were looking for, aggressively recruit and retain the very best performers and move quickly to weed out those who didn’t measure up. Some companies, such as General Electric, instituted a policy of stacked ranking, routinely firing the bottom 10% of their workers.
Yet in a new book, Humans Are Underrated, longtime Fortune editor Geoff Colvin challenges this notion. He argues that to compete in today’s world you don’t need the best solo performers, but the best teams. Having the “smartest guys in the room” isn’t much good if they can’t work with others effectively. We need to rethink how we approach talent.
The summer of 1963 is now recognized as a pivotal moment in history. That was when the Civil Rights Movement marched on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have A Dream”speech, which many credit as turning the tide and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet as John Lewis describes in Walking with the Wind, an equally pivotal moment occurred a few months before, in an interchange between he and Robert Kennedy. “John,” Kennedy said to Lewis, “the people, the young people of the SNCC, have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand.”
Marketers tend to like big, bold actions that grab attention and spew off metrics and the March on Washington would definitely qualify as that. Yet, all too often, we ignore the more mundane work that comes before. To market a product or an idea, you have to change minds and that’s the real lesson of the Civil Rights Movement. Marketers need to learn from it.
Successful businesses grow. Through better products and processes, they win the favor of customers, increasing their volume and margins. That success often translates into further advantages as they invest in new and better equipment, develop expertise and gain bargaining power with suppliers.
The typical story for why good firms fail is that they somehow lost their way, but as Clayton Christensen explained in The Innovator’s Dilemma, that’s not really true. Yet while he attributes the problem to disruptive innovation, the broader truth is that the likely cause of your business’s future failure is a factor in its success today. Here are 3 things to look out for:
In the early 20th century science and technology emerged as a rising force in western society. The new wonders of electricity, automobiles and telecommunication were quickly shaping how people lived, worked and thought. Empirical verification, rather than theoretical musings, rose to the fore.
It was against this backdrop that Moritz Schlick formed the Vienna Circle, which became the center of the logical positivist movement and aimed to bring a more scientific approach to human thought. Throughout the 20’s and and 30’s, the movement spread and became a symbol of the new technological age.
In time, the positivist movement came to be widely recognized as a failure, yet still it inspired no shortage of imitators. There seems to be an endless stream of thought leaders and consultants who claim to have engineered a more “scientific” approach to business. Yet they, just like the positivists, always seem to fall short. Unfortunately, the real world defies logic.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which traces its roots as far back as 1887, has long been the primary driver for medical research in not only the United States, but the world. Work at NIH has led to a host of important cures, from life saving vaccines and miracle drugs to the use of fluoride to fight tooth decay.
Over the past 20 years, research at NIH has been making slow progress against cancer, increasing survival rates by about 1% per year. Yet now, through a new initiative called 21st Century Cures Act, we can accelerate that progress, perhaps drastically, and finally cure cancer as well as other chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
As Ron DePinho, President of MD Anderson, told me, “We have a confluence of major discoveries that have occurred across a wide range of fronts, which allow us to understand life and disease at a basic level and use those insights to influence its processes. We are now able to make a decisive assault on the cancer problem, if we have the resources.”
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Institute for Advanced Study, the place where Einstein worked till his death in 1955. His arrival there was a sort of a tipping point for America—after him the trickle of leading scientists coming from Europe became a flood—and the legend of the place is still very much intertwined with his.
Of course, the Institute is much bigger than one man. Other legends, from von Neumann to Gödel to Kennan, once roamed its halls as well and today hundreds of the world’s greatest minds in fields ranging from anthropology to theoretical physics come to, as Steve Jobs would put it, make a dent in the universe.
Still, while the achievements of the Institute belong to many, its majesty belongs to Einstein alone, which is one of the things that makes it such a special place. We may live our lives in prose, but it is poetry that we live for. A compelling story can lead to narrative that inspires a shared sense of mission and sparks a long and great legacy. That’s the power of story.
Ever since the commercial Internet emerged, content has been at the center. Bill Gates, quite famously, declared that content is king and called it the “killer app” of the Internet age. Inspired, media executives and internet entrepreneurs alike sought to marry content and distribution to create the perfect business model.
The problem is, as I’ve noted before, that content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! That was some great content.” Nobody listens to content on their way to work in the morning. We never call anything that’s any good “content,” the term is a mere fantasy in the minds of business planners.
That, in essence, is why despite the predictions of digital pundits, the TV remains a great business. Through a series of disruptions—cable, DVD and now streaming video—programing continues to evolve. Now, with the cable business model starting to unravel, we can expect an explosion of creative energy that will usher in a new golden age of TV.
It’s easy to get depressed about the world these days. Watch the news for five minutes or more and you’re bound to see signs of the apocalypse. War, poverty, climate change, a new pandemic, there always seems to be new trouble arising somewhere that threatens our health and security.
And the future looks even brighter. We are, despite the headlines, making considerable progress against many of our toughest challenges. Over the next 5-10 years, it is within our reach to cure cancer, solve climate change and create new levels of prosperity. So, nostalgia for bygone days notwithstanding, the truth is that we have a lot to look forward to.
Everybody likes to operate in an environment of trust. When you deal with people you trust, things get done faster, stress is reduced and new opportunities open up. As E.M. Forster once wrote, “One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.”
And many businesses are able to do just that. McDonald’s has maintained trustful partnerships with its suppliers for decades, which gives it a competitive advantage. Even on Wall Street, most trades are done on a virtual handshake over the phone. While the lines are recorded for verification, most deals go off without a hitch.
Yet we must often deal with people we don’t trust. Sometimes we even need to work with people we intensely dislike. Still, the more trust we are able to build, the more successful we will be. Honesty is, of course, a good policy, but honesty alone won’t solve basic problems of trust. Rather, we need to identify the sources of mistrust and work to eliminate them.
Efficiency was the mantra of 20th century industry. If you could produce an equal or superior product for a lower price, chances were that you could win in the marketplace. So managers continually honed their operations to achieve maximum productivity at minimal cost.
Yet these days, success is determined, as Peter Drucker put it in The Effective Executive, not so much by doing things “right,” but by “doing the right things” and that’s a different matter altogether. The simple fact is that business models no longer last, so agility often trumps efficiency.
In Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal faced this problem in real time. Although he commanded the most effective military machine ever designed and could win any battle, he couldn’t predict where those battles would be. In his new book, Team of Teams, he describes how he reengineered his organization to not merely executive, but to continuously adapt.