Is Your Talent Strategy Ring Ready?


Is your talent strategy of championship caliber or just a jab away from tasting canvas? Adopting these 10 tips will keep you off the ropes and in contention for a talent title.

Business leaders are fond of comparing talent acquisition and retention to physical confrontations, most notably, the war for talent. Few, however, demonstrate the dedication required to prepare their organizations for such encounters.

If you want to beat the competition to the proverbial punch, you have to put in the roadwork required to ensure your strategy is ring ready. This means more than adopting a one-size-fits-all playbook to talent management. In today’s ever-changing business environment, success requires in-depth analysis, calculated action, and the discipline to follow through on long-term objectives, even in the face of short-term adversity. In this regard, talent leaders can learn a lot from their own analogy. The following “training camp truisms”will help keep your corporate talent strategy off the ropes.

  1. Identify your objectives: Expressing an interest in victory is not enough. Everyone wants to win. Seasoned warriors identify, isolate, and attack specific targets as part of a larger strategy. Effective talent managers do the same by evaluating organizational needs and then methodically targeting key positions and skill sets by geography to support their business line leaders. If you want to win, you have to take time to clearly identify the prize. Leave your targets vague and you’ll end up punching at air.
  2. Analyze and master your surroundings: The gap between strategy and tactics is wider than most realize. To be effective, you have to consider the external forces that may affect your initial plans and adjust accordingly. On the battlefield, this equates to weather and topography. Individual combatants such as boxers and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters adapt the principle and work to obtain “ring generalship”—a term that indicates mastery over one’s surroundings. In the war for talent, it relates to market conditions, availability of resources, government regulation, and the economic environment. Understanding these factors can clarify your strategy, influence associated actions, and help you dictate the pace of the engagement.
  3. Research your opponent(s): While you shouldn’t become obsessed with the potential actions of a rival, it’s foolish to ignore readily available competitive information. Any boxer who received a pummeling after hastily accepting a fight on short notice will tell you that competitive intelligence can make the difference between an effective game plan and a face full of leather. World-class fighters perform a SWAT analysis on their opponents long before they step into the ring and then adjust their training accordingly. In the talent space, this equates to understanding your competitor’s talent needs, employee value proposition, and likely actions with regard to recruiting, compensation, training, and career management. Companies that take time to research the competition are able to make better tactical decisions such as when to attack the market, defend their resources, or even “counter-punch” with an innovative solution.
  4. Surround yourself with greatness: Strategy and research can only take you so far. To be successful, you need the right people in your corner. In the fight game, this equates to the trainer, cut man, and manager. In talent, this means the recruiter, hiring manager, and the various HR partners and specialists who help drive long-term talent management success. In either case, it’s critical for all parties to have clear roles, accountabilities, and performance standards. It’s also helpful to establish a common language so information can be relayed seamlessly amid chaos. Obtaining the right balance between personal accountability and team collaboration makes it easier to fulfill the strategy and navigate challenges when they arise.
  5. Embrace the rigors of training camp: You can’t feign fitness or fake technique. Step in the ring without a game plan, overweight, or underprepared, and you will pay the price of your laziness. Similarly, talent management isn’t something you can wing at the last minute. To avoid being outclassed by the competition you have to do the work—that means identifying specific areas to strengthen, e.g., key position role profiles, hiring practices, development plans, or promotion frameworks and then taking active steps to whip them into shape. Seasoned fighters also will work with their trainers to identify areas of strength to leverage. Talent managers should partner with their business leaders to do the same.
  6. Respect the scorecard: Most fighters would prefer to remove the judges from the equation by dealing a knockout blow, but that’s not always possible. To ensure success, you have to be mindful of the scorecard and earn points on all fronts. In boxing, the number of clean punches landed goes a long way toward winning a contest, but other factors such as effective aggressiveness, ring generalship, and quality defense play a part in the scoring process. Many a fighter has ignored one or more of these aspects and found himself on the downside of a close decision. Talent leaders would be wise to avoid that mistake by clarifying the human capital scorecard with business leaders at the start of the engagement and then operating with the total picture in mind. The war for talent is no schoolyard scrap. Success often comes from winning the war of attrition.
  7. Insist on truth in the corner: The best corner men are honest with their fighters. That means providing a clear, timely assessment of performance, coaching to improve it, and honesty as to the “potential” of winning. Too often leaders leave their key players in the dark or provide inaccurate, optimistically inclined information, subjecting them to great career peril. Sugarcoating tough messages for a high potential might seem kind, but left unchecked, the result could spell a Balboa-sized beat down. Success in most endeavors comes from having the freedom and courage to speak the truth when it is needed most.
  8. Fight your own fight: When Mixed Martial Arts first began, stand-up fighters like boxers and taekwondo practitioners routinely lost to wrestlers and Jujitsu artists. This wasn’t because one disciple was better than the other. The result came from one party being lulled into playing by the other guy’s rules. In the business world, leaders often try to bolt on “best practices” from high-profile organizations in hopes of achieving the same ROI. However, without a full understanding of the costs and associated investments involved, their efforts often do more harm than good. Continuous and varied study is always helpful as are the subtle adjustments to strategy that come from the learning. In the end, however, it’s usually better to fight your own fight.
  9. Take calculated risks: Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get it.” Despite your preparation, there occasionally comes a time when what you thought would work simply doesn’t. Your opponent is stronger, faster, or more evasive than you anticipated. When the other guy clearly has your number, adopting a new strategy or unplanned action could help shift the momentum. In talent, that could be the use of contractors, early talent, rotational assignments, expats, or key external hires. Don’t be afraid to mix it up when backed into a corner. Thoughtful change could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
  10. Mind your towel: No fighter relishes the thought of quitting, but seasoned corner men must be prepared for every eventuality and have the backbone to do what’s best for their fighters. Talent managers must display similar courage with operational leaders. For example, rather than take a beating buying talent in a certain space, it may be wiser to opt out and adopt a longer-term build strategy. Sometimes you are simply outclassed. Knowing when to throw in the towel and retool can ensure that you are around for the next contest.

Enthusiasts affectionately refer to boxing as the sweet science. Champions of the sport are crafted from methodical preparation, as well as intangibles such as style, tenacity, and the simple desire to win. Talent leaders can follow a similar path to success by developing clear goals and a ring-worthy work ethic. Still, in the end, greatness comes from embracing the art side of your science. It lets you see the holes and slip the punches. And in today’s market, those blows come in combinations.

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