Aiden Aiden Choles looks at the business critical issue of retaining talent, highlighting some of the mistakes that companies make when trying to manage their talent. He argues that a certain amount of churn is inevitable, and possibly even healthy if managed properly. But that requires a shift in perspective on what talent is.

Does this situation feel familiar: You receive an email from a bright young member of your team (let’s call him Brian) who wishes to have a ‘chat’. Having gone down this road before, you know the inevitability of this type of ‘chat’. After only a couple of months in your employ Brian tells you that he enjoys working in your company but feels he should spread his wings and get broader experience. Desperate to hold on to the productivity and creativity that Brian adds to your department, you dig deep into the salary coffers and offer him more money. Problem solved … for a while at least. A few months go buy, and you receive another ‘chat’ request from Brian. By now you’re running out of salary spend, have very little chance in keeping Brian and have that recurring feeling that you’ve just become a victim of the war for talent.
How does a manager recover from these talent war wounds? Will it ever end? What is it that we’re doing wrong when managing our talent? Part of the answer lies in the fact that most companies have missed the mark when it comes to understanding the nature of talent and how best to deal with talent. In fact, even the companies who seem to have their talent management down to an art are feeling the pain of not really having understood how to deal with talent. As talent management becomes an established business discipline we are now able to look back over the last decade and review the strategies and mindsets employed in winning the talent wars and how effective they have been.
Ever since the late 1990s when McKinsey & Co. consultants Ed Michaels and associates published their seminal research The War for Talent the management and human resources world has been scrambling for solutions and strategies on how to win the war. These strategies have been much like a patient scrambles for a cure to a newly diagnosed disease.
One of the virtues a newly diagnosed patient lacks is the wherewithal and patience in experimenting with various medication options as you establish the optimum regime required in combating the illness. And so, it is not surprising that organizations, in a similar vein, have in the last decade displayed little foresight and clarity in approaching talent management. Short-term solutions that draw heavily on financial reward and remuneration are indicative of this malaise.
Throwing money at proverbial headaches in organizations is not a new habit, and sometimes it works. In the short-term, offering top talent the highest salaries and financial perks worked in keeping them loyal to your company. Today however we find that organizations are now caught up in a downward spiral where top talent are demanding salaries that are way beyond their experience and wisdom level.
There are some companies that chose to take a different approach to their talent. They are companies who spotted early on the pitfalls of salary wars for talent and instead focused on aspects to talent attraction and retention that were not rooted in financial reward alone. Creating a talent-friendly environment and culture was the mantra for these companies who, in a very Google-like manner, introduced changes to the workplace environment that made it easier for talent to enjoy the environment and hence stay at the company.
In this environment, the company has worked really hard to create a brand that attracts the top talent available in the industry as well as creating a physical workspace ala Googleplex in which their Talent feel secure, happy and productive.
And so, many leaders are becoming embittered by the salary wars they are being roped into. To these leaders it seems that working on the talent environment and culture is the next viable strategy in a successful talent management strategy. There are however companies who have walked this path and who have stumbled on a rather surprising thorn in their shoe.
As I sit and listen to the companies who have done exceptional work in creating talent-friendly working environments I hear of how companies can reach a talent saturation level. Typically, in the restrictive South African labour market, leaders feel pain associated with not being able to get rid of employees who fall much lower down the talent spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, talent saturation is a pain rooted in the excesses of creating a talent-friendly environment and culture where talented and non-talented employees get so comfortable within the confines of the company that they are reluctant to leave. Many companies today do not see the impending pain when they desperately seek the reprise of spending money on culture and environment as opposed to forking out more in exorbitant salaries.
Talent saturation in a new phenomenon in the emerging connection economy. As companies are successful in keeping their talent they are beginning to face the mire of culture stagnation and high levels of churn in lower ranked positions square in the face. As the hierarchy in the totem pole is flooded with talent who are so comfortable that they do not wish to move or jump ship, talent lower down the food chain find it impossible to extend their careers and experience in a system that is so saturated.
Is this not counterintuitive you ask? Surely this is a situation that most leaders could only dream of having? How can one see a problem in having the upper echelons of your business inhabited by top talent who are happy and comfortable enough not leave?
To a certain measure I would agree. However, when one looks at talent saturation systemically and the stories of companies who are dealing with this problem one begins to see the pitfalls looming on the horizon for companies who are in the seemingly fortunate position to have reached saturation.
In order to remain healthy and resilient, human systems and hence organizations, require a balance of new employees entering the organization with a number of employees exiting at the same time. And so, in a Dead Sea-like manner, systems that reach saturation are dangerously close to one of two outcomes: stagnation or implosion.
Firstly, in relation to talent retention, the talent has no incentive to keep their talent honed and relevant once a company reaches saturation as the comfort of the environment negates the required competitive development. The bi-product is that the organization as a whole stands to lose the competitive differentiation associated with their high levels of talent retention. The law of requisite variety is well understood in ecology; if the diversity of species falls below a certain level then the ecology stagnates and dies.
Secondly, such a situation holds the risk of imploding on itself as a mass exodus of lower ranking talent thus impairing the organization from a foundational work and succession planning perspective. The problem is in the belief that organizations should achieve stability of churn with talent turnover figures being as low as possible. The notion of talent saturation presents a case in which organizations need to review their philosophy behind employee turnover.
The notion of talent saturation poses a question which we should consider as we solidify our talent strategies: to what extent do we want our talent to stay? Again, in a counter-intuitive manner, we need to really ask ourselves if keeping talent, to the extent to which we believe we should, is healthy for our business. Robertson & Abbey in their book Managing Talented People pose is similar thought in encouraging managers to be really sure that it is talent they want in their companies.
It is easy to get caught up in the hype surrounding talent and the value talent adds to your business. This hype, while helpful in essence, can result in short-sightedness and reactive solutions when dealing with the demands talent have on our business.

Aiden Choles is part of the serious talent pool known as He can be contacted at

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