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Lessons on the War for Talent: The Theo Walcott syndrome

For a while now, employers have been feeling a storm coming. The laborious recovery after the crisis created some breathing space, but it seems that business leaders have to fight again to attract people. A new war for talent is coming.


For a while now, employers have been feeling a storm coming. The laborious recovery after the crisis created some breathing space, but it seems that business leaders have to fight again to attract people. A new war for talent is coming. Back from never truly being away, because some jobs have always been difficult to fill.

Fifteen years ago, an initial war raged. Many companies were confronted with unfulfilled vacancies and came up with some crazy gimmicks: computer scientists were even paid for their time just to attend an interview. Employees who introduced a new colleague received unseen bonuses. Some consultancy firms got so caught up in offering bigger and better company cars that a group of competing HR directors had to make mutual agreements in order to avoid further escalation.

Many companies enthusiastically jumped into the fight for talent, but were left with a hangover. Before your company goes to war again, it is good to draw some lessons from the past.

A strategy based purely on seducing scarce talents with high salaries is counterproductive. The emphasis on ‘dancing with the stars’ leads to more internal competition. People start comparing themselves to each other, trying to outsmart others to excel. This leads to less learning in the workplace and people who anxiously keep information to themselves.

In a war for talent, companies tend to glorify talent outside the organisation at the expense of the talent that already works within the organisation. Today, we can safely call this the Theo Walcott syndrome.

Faithful and undervalued

Theo Walcott has been a faithful but sometimes undervalued soldier in the Arsenal team for 12 seasons. Numerous new competitors were purchased at home and abroad during those 12 years. The 28-year-old amassed close to 400 appearances for Arsenal. Only Patrick Vieira has played more times under Arsene Wenger. Last year Walcott became the 18th player to score 100 goals for Arsenal. This year, he has fallen out of favour with manager Arsene Wenger and decided to leave the Gunners for Everton.[1]

Beware of the Walcott syndrome. Too much focus on external talent means that your employees, who have been loyal to their work for years, will become demotivated and will disappointedly turn their backs on you. Your effort to recruit unique talents will therefore ensure that you will just lose more talent. The grass is not always greener on the other side. As you bring in hot shots through the big gate, talent will disappear through the back door. The following three alternative football strategies may be more successful.

1. Do you actually have an overview of all the talents of your people? Use the full potential of your current employees. People sometimes do nothing more than what is expected of them and that limits your awareness of their talents, also undiscovered talents that might be invaluable to your organisation in the long run.

Youthful talent

2. Scout and develop youthful talent instead of acquiring talent on the labour market. Indeed, some applicants have no experience yet and they do not have the right diploma. But think creatively. Existing job profiles and vacancies looking for white blackbirds are too demanding. It is assumed too quickly that certain competences must be immediately employable, which makes the search for new employees more difficult. When people are recruited on the basis of learning ability, you will have a wider pool of candidates. People learn through experience. Companies can accelerate the learning process by offering challenging experiences.

3. Build long-term relationships with potential employees. Whoever you do not do recruit now, might be important later. Be respectful and give feedback to whom you reject. Dare to speak with employees about their long-term career, even though it may be temporarily with other companies.

When a top football club attracts young talented players, it is not afraid to first let these players gain some years’ experience with a satellite club, and then to regain them at full strength. This is why forward-looking companies also must try to attract a pool of potentially talented employees at an early stage, both inside and outside the company.

The war for talent may therefore be won by not fighting.

This article has been amended and translated to English. Read the original article (in Dutch) on De Tijd.

 [1]: Skysports: Theo Walcott leaves Arsenal with a sense of unfulfilled potential

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