‘The war on terror’ is a discredited phrase and having just read an article, ‘Talent, The Holy Grail Within’ by Ian Chisholm, Bradley Chisholm and Mark Bell and I’m wondering whether the ‘war for talent’ should now be similarly discredited and dispatched to history.

The original McKinsey article [1] was written in 1997 and has since sparked a corporate focus on talent retention and talent management.

Ian, Bradley and Mark make a strong case that our current thinking about talent sets up the expectation and assumption that talent is only found in the few. If, as we often do, act on this assumption then we immediately ignore the potential of the majority. What a waste.

Source, Developing Leaders Issue 5 2011

As they say: ‘We are not short on talent; it is an inherent part of being human. What we lack is people who have a feel for the talents of others, the believers, the sensors, the inviters of talent and the designers of meaningful work that allow us to contribute our talents alongside the talents of others.’





Of course the writers are not the first to argue for the adoption of a more holistic approach, which recognises that everyone has talent that can be maximised and leveraged to create organisational competitive advantage.  For instance, alternatives to the McKinsey model include:

  1. DeLong and Vijayaraghavan, who argue that the effective development of B and C players is just as important as looking after high potential A players. [2]
  2. Jeffrey Bradach, who proposes a ‘just in time’ model of talent management, where organisations buy in talent on a short-term basis to fill gaps as when and where they arise.[3[
  3. Pfeffer and O’Reilly, who say that organisations should focus on recruiting, retaining and developing internal talent at all levels. [4]

Organisations have many choices to make when it comes to talent management and there are no easy answers or magic formula. However, meeting this challenge does present a great opportunity for organisational leaders, line managers, HR, Learning and OD practitioners to work together on talent management.

As long as nobody ever again mentions “the war for talent”!

p.s. Why do I hear the voice of Basil Faulty,  “Listen, don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.”


[1[ Chambers et al, ‘The War for Talent’, The McKinsey Quarterly, No 3 (1997) pp 44-57.

[2] Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan ‘Let’s Hear It For B Players’, Harvard Business Review (June, 2003), pp 96–102.

[3] J L Bradach, ‘Flexibility: The New Social Contract between Individuals and Firms’, Harvard Business School Working Paper(June 1997)

[4] J Pfeffer and C O’Reilly, Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).