Talent Hunt Clues

Talent Hunt Clues

This is the fourth in a series of blogs about virtuous organizations — businesses where employees model the highest aspirations of human kind. In this series, authors Graham Williams and Gerald Wagner draw on examples and insights from around the world — Brazil, USA, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey. Readers may be pleasantly surprised by how many virtuous companies already exist! The series addresses what makes these virtuous organizations tick and what practices they have in common, telling compelling stories about the power of positivity. While everyone is likely to enjoy these case studies, organizational leaders in a position to affect culture change are likely to benefit most.

Time to try a different approach?

Nasrudin, en route to market, loads bags of salt on his donkey’s back. They come to a river. Nasrudin tries to tell the donkey to cross at the shallow causeway, but the donkey chooses to cross at the deepest part. The salt dissolves in the water. The donkey trips lightly up the other bank and trots off.

Next market day, Nasrudin loads the donkey with bales of wool. Once again Nasrudin tries to tell the donkey to cross at the shallow causeway. The donkey once again chooses the deep part of the river. The wool absorbs the water. The donkey staggers up the river bank, the bags weighing heavily on his back.

Nasrudin turns to it and says, “You thought that every time you entered the river you would come off lightly, didn’t you?”1

Sometimes, in order to continue to survive and thrive, we have to ignore our ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ paradigm and find a different, better way of doing things. One such area for many organizations is to attract, engage, develop and retain the right talent. Some describe the current and intensifying situation as a war for talent. 2, 3, 4

Why? What has changed?

We can anticipate continued unsettling and challenging change in all areas of societal and business life and an accompanying need for talented staff and leadership to engage with that future.  Already competition is high.  “We have entered into a war for talent as a result of a startling talent shortage, which was once in abundance … Access to information has shifted power to the employee because it allows them to be just as knowledgeable as the employer in less time for less money … And as employees become more knowledgeable about their personal worth and companies alter their firm-specific benefits, their ability to move freely between companies increases …. Our employees used to be a bit dependent on us, but now they are free to fly …”2

Clearly organizations with the right people doing the right things in the right way at the right time will fare better than others. “Companies that outperform their peers at talent management also return significantly more value to their shareholders – around 22 percent more than the industry average.”4

And it’s not rocket science to figure out that talented members of the Millennial Generation now entering the workplace will exhibit:

  • A raised awareness of the need for the organizations they work for to have a higher purpose and to contribute meaningfully to environmental and social challenges on a much larger scale.
  • Competence at managing big data and artificial intelligence technology (and therefore require unprecedented access).
  • A need to balance high-tech with high touch (which always correlate) which includes praise and recognition.

The stakes are high. It is a brave new world.

Aldous Huxley imagined in Brave New World a society where the state manufactures different human classes, each designed to perform specific roles in a re-engineered society, in a fast-paced world of the future.5 Talent to order.

Two James Patterson novels tap into the possibilities of biotechnology and tell a story about unethical outlaw MIT scientists who genetically engineer six winged bird-children. They have massive depth of chest, large hearts, air sacs, wings, and the females are oviparous (give birth by laying eggs).6

Moving from fiction to fact, the seeds of the eugenic idea (coined by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, in 1885 in Hereditary Talent and Character) was about using hereditary strengths to build a superior race. “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent on measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!”.7  (As we know, this notion was adopted by Hitler – to the extent of baby factories where men inseminated women all chosen for their Aryan features. The babies were then left to be brought up by the STATE as perfect specimens).

In the absence of a eugenic magic wand, organizations need to find ways to engineer their talent requirements. Office bookshelves groan under the weight of a spate of talent management tomes – how you structure, design work space, develop policies and processes … and on line search results show tens of thousands of hits on the subject. We will limit ourselves to two strategy recommendations. They should be the springboard for everything else that you do during your hunt for talent.

Two Strategies for Attracting Employees Endowed With Special Abilities

1. Build a virtuous organization.8  A clear and meaningful higher purpose, supported by practiced virtues, will attract the right talent and offer an intrinsic motivational environment. (Where your people can find meaning, positive social connections, satisfaction in and at work, and a chance of (or experience of) success – an employee value proposition of note).9  Talent will come looking for you!

McKinsey & Company research with top executives to answer ‘What motivates talent?’ has shown that the number one factor denoting a great company is values and culture (58%) and the top factor denoting top jobs is freedom and autonomy (56%).3

This is not a new discovery. Chris Lowney (a former Jesuit and then a J.P.Morgan top executive)   records the phenomenal attraction, exploits and growth of the Jesuits – founded on the four core values of mindful self – awareness, resilience and agility, love, and courage in pursuit of a higher purpose.10

2. Without underplaying critically needed technical competencies, focus your recruitment, selection and people-development activities (externally and internally) on desired character virtues – the below-the surface components of the competency iceberg:11

Competency Iceberg

Skills, knowledge and experience can be trained. Desired virtues (essentially the conversion of values into consistent behaviours), if absent, cannot be compensated for by any amount of skill and knowledge. So look first for what lies beneath the surface – the deeper competencies. These are the people who will make the difference. Their behaviour and ethics are internally guided by the right values, motives, attitudes, and character traits. They have the potential to be future leaders we need. Give them wings to fly within the organisation and allow them to flock together.

Easier said than done perhaps – our own (and HR) prejudices, priming, cognition frameworks, paradigms, filters sometimes stand in the way of making the right selection, because we unconsciously look for those like ourselves, who fit our mold. This challenge becomes more acute in an ever more diverse world. ‘Appearances can deceive.’ Witness the first reactions when Susan Boyle auditioned on Britain’s Got Talent. But the cynical judges and audience were immediately won over the instant this slightly frumpy, approaching-50, socially awkward, rural Scottish lady who was affected by being starved of oxygen at birth, began performing. Within a week following her performance, over 20 million ‘hits’ were registered on YouTube!12


  1. Williams, Graham & Haarhoff, Dorian The Halo and the Noose: the power of storytelling and story listening in business life Graysonian Press 2009
  2. Black, Stewart Prof. The fall of employer and the rise of employee power June, 2013
  3. Chambers, Elizabeth G; Foulon, Mark; Handfield-Jones, Helen; Hankin, Steven M & Michaels, Edward G. III The War for Talent McKinsey Quarterly, no. 3 1998
  4. Shlomo, Ben-Hur, Prof. & Kinley, Nik Creating Talent Intelligence; citing Axelrod, E.L., Handfield-Jones, H., & Welsh, T. (2001). The War for Talent, Part Two. The McKinsey Quarterly 2, 9-11. Huselid, M.A (1995). The Impact of Human Resource Management Practices on Turnover, Productivity, and Corporate Financial Performance. Academy of Management Journal. 38(3), 635-872. Combs, J., Liu, Y., Hall, A. & Ketchen, D. (2006). How Much Do High-Performance Work Practices Matter? A Meta-Analysis of Their Effects on Organizational Performance. Personnel Psychology. 59, 501-528.
  5. Huxley, Aldous Brave New World Harper Collins 1946
  6. Patterson James When the Wind Blows & The Safe House Headline Book Publishing 2003
  7. Fernández-Armesto, Felipe Good Breeding: the idea of eugenics in Ideas that Changed the World  Dorling Kindersley Limited  2003
  8. Williams, Graham; Haarhoff, Dorian & Fox, Peter The Virtuosa Organisation: the importance of virtues for a successful business Knowledge Resources 2015
  9. McGonigal, Jane Reality is Broken Jonathan Cape, London 2011
  10. Lowney, Chris Heroic Leadership; best practices from a 450-year-old company that changed the world Loyola Press, A Jesuit Ministry Chicago 2003 http://www.chrislowney.com
  11. Derived from: Spencer,Lyle M. Jr. & Spencer, Signe M. Competence At Work: Models For Superior Performance John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1993
  12. Montgomery, Alice Susan Boyle: dreams can come true Penguin Books 2010

About the Author

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Gerald R. Wagner

Jerry began his focused interest on organizational culture for wellbeing and happiness started after he had been a Senior Scientist with The Gallup Organization and they published their landmark book — Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Although having a career as a statistician, Professor of Operations Research, and software entrepreneur, the book triggered his long time focus on positive organizations. That resulted in his starting the Institute for Employee Wellbeing at Bellevue University and then to start up the non-profit Institute for Inspired Organizational Cultures which publishes Culture ROLE MODELS that features people and organizations that practice virtuous cultures.