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How to Win the Battle for Talent

A sign that says help wanted on a glass door.

​The job market is still hot—for now.

While there are signs of a slowdown in some industries and Federal Reserve policy could dampen the good times for workers, CEOs, CHROs and COOs recognize that it remains an employees' market.

Job openings hit 11.4 million at the end of April, a decrease from the record 11.9 million openings in March but still near all-time highs, according to the U.S. Labor Department. There were 1.9 job openings for every unemployed person in April, down slightly from almost 2 per person the month prior.

Hence, the challenge to attract and keep talent persists, especially after the pandemic showed workers the importance of work/life balance, the need for flexibility and the reality that working at home rather than at the worksite didn't diminish—and sometimes increased—productivity.

When the Pew Research Center this past February polled a nationally representative sample, most of the 695 respondents who left a job by choice cited low pay, no chance for advancement and feeling disrespected as reasons for leaving.

All of those issues—and others that bug U.S. workers—can be addressed with the right talent strategy, experts say.

Flexibility Is Key

The workforce and work styles have changed—permanently, said John Wilson, CEO of Wilson HCG, a global talent solutions firm based in Tampa, Fla. About 80 percent of his clients are launching or already have in place hybrid work plans, as well as other flexible work options, he said.

"Companies requiring people to go back to the office 100 percent of the time are going to lose," he remarked. "Employees who have worked virtually [during the pandemic] and are ordered back into the office [full time] are going to feel like they are trusted less."

The stigma that was once attached to remote work has disappeared, he said, beginning at the top.

"Quite a few of my peers are working from home two to three days a week," he said. "We probably have fewer than 200 people currently in our global offices out of an employee headcount of 2,000 to 3,000."

Besides offering flexibility, company leaders should acknowledge that people have lives outside of work, Wilson said. Remember early in the pandemic when someone's dog or kid wandered behind a speaker on a Zoom call? It was funny, he said, but also enlightening because it became clear that people can work from home, tend to the tasks of their lives and still be productive. (On cue, Wilson's goldendoodle wandered into screen view during this interview.)

Another important message, according to Wilson: "It's OK for employees to know you. The pandemic showed everyone that there is a human behind the job title. If you're a CEO or part of the C-suite, be authentic and show people the real you."

Wilson does this by hosting regular town hall meetings, then opening them up to sky's-the-limit questions. "I've been asked all sorts of questions, from how the company is doing financially to whether we have another acquisition planned and what's in my fridge! It's the nonwork questions that I like best, as it gives people the chance to get to know the real me."

Look Inward

Most employees will say it's easier to find a job outside their company than internally, said Edie Goldberg, founder and CEO of E.L. Goldberg, a future work and talent management and organization effectiveness firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

She believes it's time for a change. "The concept of internal talent mobility has really been taking off like a rocket," said Goldberg, who is also chair-elect of the SHRM Foundation Board of Directors. "Executives know that an internal employee can adapt much more quickly when in a new role compared to someone from outside who is an unknown cultural fit."

In the book The Inside Gig: How Sharing Talent Across Boundaries Unleashes Organizational Capacity (LifeTree Media, 2020), Goldberg and co-author Kelley Steven-Waiss propose that leveraging the talent within the company—with a focus on thinking about projects, not jobs—can also help employees gain new experience. This approach, they contend, is "a completely under-optimized strategy for helping companies both attract and retain talent."

The strategy not only helps employees try out new roles and learn new skills, but also allows CEOs and others to spread talent around the organization. Rather than saying, "You are in this job, and it's the only thing you can do," the new approach would encourage an employee in IT who is interested in branding, for instance, to transfer to marketing and see if her interest might develop into a career shift, Goldberg said.

The biggest obstacle to this approach? Some managers' tendency to hoard talent, Goldberg said. To combat that, CEOs must explain that managers will loan out talent but also get talent in return. And, she said, when the workers come back, they are often more energized. "It reduces turnover, it reduces costs, and you don't have to go outside the company and hire." CEOs should also stress that the approach requires a "company" rather than a "my team" mindset, she said.

Among the companies that leverage internal talent effectively, Goldberg said, are Unilever and PepsiCo.

Care, Not Compensation

Emily Field, an associate partner at New York City-based global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said C-level executives who talk to her about retaining their workforces often tell her that increased pay is the solution. She disagrees and tells them, "People are leaving because they don't feel cared for."

A CEO, she said, should make sure managers have in their job descriptions the importance of connecting with their direct reports. "Their job is to care for and know their direct reports, rather than just focusing on the tasks at hand." CEOs and other executives need to start by role modeling. "They need to do this with their own management team." And they can't just do it once, she said; they need to hold regular check-ins with employees.

One large tech retail company made connection part of everyone's job description, including managers', she said. When managers and executives come to the office, she tells them "that does not mean you put on the headphones and crank out the work." Rather, the calendar must be redesigned to allow for moments of connection that will build community, Field said.

This, Too, Won't Pass

The Great Resignation is not a transient trend, Field said. In a recent McKinsey poll of 600 workers who voluntarily quit without another job lined up, 47 percent did return to the workforce in either traditional or non-traditional jobs. However, 25 percent said they were likely to leave again in three to six months.

When CEOs tell Field that workers will come back once their stimulus and unemployment funds run out, she tells them: "They will, but don't assume they will come back to you. And if they come back, don't assume they are going to stay."

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance journalist in Burbank, Calif.


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