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Spy Game (part 1): Selection-focused talent management

Some of my favourite films of my childhood were the Cold War-era spy stories that pitted agents of extraordinary skill and knowledge against each other in quiet, sometimes brutal, battles. An indispensable scene in these films was the introduction to how these super-powered would-be spies were recruited into the CIA or the KGB. In each case, thousands, tens of thousands, of the most suitable candidates were selected and given really serious, tailor-made training for the job at hand. One thing was certain in this system: the best of those selected had to be better and better. I never imagined at the time that the time would come when, thanks to competition and changes in the labour market, similar scenes would play a role in ordinary business life. The emergence of “selection-focused talent management” roughly coincides with the beginning of the conquest of the start-up world, but it is no longer only applied by one-off global companies.

We select because we can

The basic requirement for “selection-focused talent management” is to define the positions in an organisation perfectly and then assign them the appropriate soft and hard skill profiles. This information is translated clearly during the recruitment process and applied without contradiction or compromise throughout the process. Already after the global economic crisis of 2008, there was a great deal of writing and reporting about the huge labour shortages in high-skill areas, the first of which was IT, where this caused very serious problems. This is, of course, the sector where the challenge first appeared, as it is where most start-ups have made their foray. This has brought huge changes to the labour market, as the process of the most talented students wanting to work for the biggest and best multinationals has been abolished in one fell swoop. In fact, the process has been reversed, as we have reached the point where the latest generation now sees anyone who imagines a future not in a cool start-up but in an international company as a loser or, better still, a robot. And smaller companies with unique skills have further reinforced this process, as they have been able to give young people something that workers had never dreamed of before: a cool working environment, in contrast to the hard-changing multinationals. A relaxed attitude, where performance was measured not in hours worked but in concrete results put on the table. It was also the reason why the labour market entered a quasi-silence after the 2008 crisis. When professionals went to the conferences and listened to the presentations, they often got two completely contradictory pictures of the market. While the “cool” companies talked about the over-subscription and the importance of selection, the “uncool” companies complained that they simply did not have any applications for the advertised positions, let alone a selection process.

The road ahead

This trend, of course, has pushed the less cool companies spirally in the direction of hiring employees who don’t seem to be very talented, making turnover an increasingly serious problem, as the wrong kind of employee doesn’t feel comfortable in a performance-focused environment. Cool companies, on the other hand, lived in a world where a carefully selected workforce produced more and more knowledge, which of course generated more and more profits for the owners. Once a business went down one path or the other, it was very difficult to come back and extremely difficult to change. Although the multinationals tried to bring the start-up feel and approach into their own mammoth organisations, the result was often a forced, rather ridiculous, one. This trend was constantly reinforced by the emergence of the Ambitionist Generation (1985-1996) and their increasing penetration of the labour market, for whom image and self-image were more important than for any generation before them. Moreover, they wanted to earn a lot of money very quickly and went to apprenticeships in companies that gave them the space to do so. They were deceived by the glamour of the start-up world, believing that by acquiring the important skills, they would be able to start their own business very quickly, thus realising their basic expectation of being their own boss. Of course, it has now become clear that this is not the case, and this generation has been very disappointed to find that behind all the money and success, there is still hard work and extra knowledge, and that, in most cases, the two do not work without each other. In other words, there are more and more unsatisfied extra-skilled professionals in their current jobs, selected on the basis of strict ‘espionage principles’, who are redefining themselves. This may not be good news for the start-up world, but it is certainly a new opportunity for multinationals.