The War for Talent

Written by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod. Published by Harvard Business School Press

The three authors of The War for Talent, each a human resources expert from the legendary consulting firm McKinsey & Co., had a stroke of very bad luck when their book was first published. The hard work of their five-year study finally came to fruition in early 2001. Ed Michaels was a recently retired director at McKinsey in Atlanta, Helen Handfield-Jones was a senior leader in Toronto, and Beth Axelrod was a principal in Connecticut. The three authorities on talent issues had spent years studying and encapsulating the best practices from several of the biggest and most profitable companies at the turn of the 21st century. Together, they weaved the results of their massive research project into a solid talent guidebook filled with better ways to attract, develop and retain the best of the best managers. Their talent management strategies and tips reveal many bright insights about people and performance. But the timing of their book ended up being anything but optimal.

Only one month after The War for Talent was published, the authors had the unfortunate experience of reading about the demise of one of their primary case studies. This company and its people were elevated throughout the book to depict a high performance company whose standards and practices others should emulate. Each of the book's authors must have been horrified to read that Jeff Skilling, the former McKinsey consultant and Enron CEO whose advice they feature throughout their book, had unexpectedly retired. Before the end of the year, his company, Enron, filed for bankruptcy protection, became embroiled in a notorious accounting and insider trading scandal, and thousands of employees lost their jobs and retirement funds. Today, Skilling is serving a 24-year-and-four-month sentence in a federal prison for felonies related to those events.

Despite the very bad timing of the Enron debacle, The War for Talent offers many smart perspectives on hiring and developing talent that can benefit managers of companies seeking to outperform their competition. Many of the lessons and tips shared throughout the book come from much more reputable experts at General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, The Home Depot, Amgen and other top companies.

The authors found five points of focus that talent managers must consider when battling for great employees. First, all managers must believe that better talent is vital to outperforming competitors. Second, the authors explain that the best managers of talent develop a unique "employee value proposition" that describes why talented managers should join and stay with the company. Third, the authors write that companies must also fundamentally rethink and rewrite their strategies for recruiting top talent. This is because they have found that top companies are always hunting for new talent, even before vacancies appear. The authors write that the best recruiters are the company's high-performing line managers.

The author's fourth principle for winning The War for Talent is making development a priority within the company. Going beyond simple training, high-performance development comes in the form of advanced training, stretch jobs, coaching and mentoring. And finally, the fifth principle for beating the competition through a better talent strategy is systematically identifying your most talented employees, rewarding them with fast-track growth and better pay, helping middle performers improve their skills, and removing the people who don't measure up.

By reading around the parts of The War for Talent that extol the virtues of Enron and its top leaders, any manager can use the book's many other insights to improve employee strategies that help bring in and keep the best people. Call it gallows humor, but the historically bad timing of this book might even makes it a little more interesting today than when it was published.

Review by Chris Lauer, senior editor, SEBS