The Age of Talent

Tom Peters

“People are everything,” proclaims the umpteenth chief executive in the umpteenth annual report. But often as not, his or her actions belie these high-sounding words.

Then there’s McKinsey & Co., the management consultants, described by Southern Methodist University Professor Richard Bettis as “an empty box that then goes out and figures what to do each time (it takes on a client).” Fashioning a business that’s perpetually reinvented into a highly profitable, billion-dollar-plus, global enterprise is possible for only one reason: McKinsey is its talent. And unlike the average industrial firm, even in 1992, it understands that and acts accordingly.

My point is not to extol McKinsey (where I hung out for seven years), but to consider it and other professional service firms as the ultimate “knowledge players.” Wise car makers, transformer manufacturers and chemical concerns must start mimicking the likes of McKinsey.

With the age of talent upon us, what should we do?

– Recognize the role of talent. Attitude and attention, ultimately, are decisive. Junior and senior staff at McKinsey spend loads of time on all aspects of nurturing talent, from recruiting to on-the-job development to courting alumni. Such effort is not seen as a distraction, but as the essence of the business.

– Take recruitment very seriously. National Basketball Association teams understand this. So do Broadway, off-Broadway and Hollywood producers. So, too, McKinsey, the accountants Arthur Andersen, and ad agency Chiat/Day. Yet most companies treat recruiting as a ho-hum affair. Show me the traditional firm that scavenges in the far corners of the globe for talent (as NBA scouts do), that continually sends out its best and most productive people—week after week—to universities to recruit, as McKinsey does. Believe it: Nothing is more strategic than recruiting.

– Look for the quirky as well as the “solid gold.” The best ballet companies, symphonies, ball teams, ad agencies, and software houses pursue offbeat, raw talent that might create something very special—as well as predictably “good,” big league caliber personnel.

– Develop talent fast. The future for all businesses lies in a project orientation. Projects are a way of life at professional service firms Arthur Andersen and EDS. Get people working on project teams—in over their heads—from day one.

– Develop talent slowly. Yes, put people in over their heads. But make sure a network of coaches is there to offer support. Evaluate project managers as meticulously for their coaching skills as for their job-completion records. For example, project managers, though under unrelenting task pressure, must nonetheless make it safe for newcomers to fail and thereby grow.

– Abandon hierarchy and induce people to develop their own networks. In an age of talent and value-through-knowledge, everyone needs ready access to experts everywhere. Fresh-caught recruits must learn to find specialized resources, within and beyond the organization, to help them get any job done, quickly. The firm must ensure that doing so is possible—with no hassles or turf objections from the higher-ups.

– Let the market prevail. The better consultants at McKinsey are in great demand and always have a juicy list of future projects to choose from. Less successful consultants aren’t in demand, sit “on the beach” (in their offices), and eventually leave. Market forces, the individual contributor’s reputation among project managers and peers, determine where talent is used and how fast it’s developed. This potent but informal mechanism for talent allocation, common among professional service firms, works much better than any formal resource-allocation technique.

– Forget lifetime employment. The peripatetic professional will symbolize the age of talent. People don’t stay on the same movie set for life, or with McKinsey or the Boston Consulting Group. Everyone understands the rules: The employer offers an extraordinary but not necessarily permanent opportunity for growth and development in return for extraordinary effort while you’re aboard.

– Invest heavily in the evaluation process. Since there’s no formal hierarchy “to look out for you,” there must be an alternative that doesn’t leave the individual clueless. While it’s up to everyone to take the initiative from the outset, members must feel the loosely linked institution will nonetheless recognize exceptional labors. The best answer is a top-notch, trustworthy evaluation process, heavily invested in by the most senior and respected members of the firm.

– Be flexible and demanding. Self-starting talent goes where it will. At the same time, professional service organizations thrive to the extent they set and adhere to uncompromising standards. These clear, sky-high expectations are the bedrock beneath the exceptional personal autonomy.

The age of talent, networks, and projects is different from the age of the vertically oriented, hierarchical companies offering lifetime sinecures. Front-burner talent development will be the hallmark of tomorrow’s business successes.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.