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It's time to end the war on talent, and begin collaboration for talent

Craig Zelizer

March 22, 2017

Bob Spoer

citizen sector talent herder, inventor, social entrepreneur (full bio is below)

Collaboration Story
Almost four years ago to the day, I was invited to the White House by Todd Park, US CTO, for a round table discussion about how to attract the country's best technical talent for the newly launched Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program. They faced the same challenges in hiring for diversity and hard-to-find technical skills as all tech companies do. Only worse since it was government and DC.

They sought advice on messaging and best practices. I told them I could give them advice but it would do no good. The problem wasn’t the messaging, it was the messenger. The messenger (the government) was not in the best position to ask and attract people to apply. The solution: I volunteered to do the outreach, focusing on technologists from diverse backgrounds. Given my role as a NGO partner, I could serve as an unbiased, trusted advocate and coach. They projects were amazing. They ranged from stopping asteroids from hitting the earth, to improving the US census; from creating smart cities to improve quality of life, to using data to improve veterans health care.

It worked!

3X the women and minorities subsequently became PIFs. It wasn’t easy. The approach was so novel, one of the selected Fellows responded to my outreach asking, “Is this spam?” Once prospective Fellow candidates realized LIFG had no skin in the game other than the opportunity to serve a greater good, there was higher level of interest. Having all three sectors, NGO, public, and private, working together helped the initiative scale up better. On Friday last week, President Obama signed the bipartisan Talent Act making the Presidential Innovation Fellows permanent.

The New Paradigm

Collaboration for the greater good is growing. This is no accident. An unprecedented and fundamental shift has taken place. In one lifetime, we went from the “industrial & information age” defined by routine, order, favoring knowledge and specialty to the “accelerating change age” defined by constant disruption, instability, favoring rapid learning without bias and breadth. Capitalism thrives on the new and novel, and technology is making it easy to change big things fast. To prevent a machine leads world, a new paradigm for leadership has emerged modeled by leading social entrepreneurs, outlined in a post by Ashoka's Diana Wells (@dianawells) and Supriya Sankaran (@supriyasankaran) to create a culture of changemaking at our schools, work, and communiities.

There are big stakes. We have no time to waste and need to get it right. A new mindset orientation towards compassionate teamwork and everyone leading for the common good is needed for success in the 21st century. Based on Google research on great teams, “Who’s on the team matters less than how they work together, structure their work and view their contributions.” According to Forbes, 88% of millennials, who now make up the majority of our workforce, prefer collaboration over competition.

The Old Paradigm

While the world has shifted, how we approach hiring hasn’t changed. Sure, there's been amazing technology advances in the field. But the system is largely centered on organizations acquiring the best people. Technology is enforcing the old paradigm, master-supplicant relationship between employer and candidate. In 1997, a group of McKinsey consultants proclaimed a "war for talent". Last year, McKinsey proclaimed a "new war for talent" thanks to digital. While correlation is not causation, the results over the last 20 years show that the "war for talent" mentality has not served any of us well:

  • According to a report from Gallup, worldwide only 13% of employees working for an organization are engaged. Nothing has changed much over the past 20 years
  • CEB study cites 50% of all new hires fail
  • In the last 15 years, 52% of the Fortune 500 companies have disappeared
  • Social networking is increasing used in waging "war for talent" yet research finds it breeds network inequality. People stay in their e-tribes. Since your network is increasingly your net worth, this is alarming.
  • NY Times reports fewer CEOs are women than are named David. Time reported high tech gender and ethnic diversity is embarrassingly low and not increasing much
  • Despite the banking system collapse, talent practices haven't changed in the industry-- which drives poor behaviors like we saw at Wells Fargo
  • White House Council of Economic Advisors reported the odds at 83% that low income workers will lose their job to a machine, and 31% for middle class jobs will be replaced. While other jobs will pick up the slack, will machines decide who gets them?

Evolution for the next generation

Is this the working world we want our kids to face?

According to my collaborator on this post, Ashoka Fellow, Chris Balme, CEO, (@chrisbalme) CoFounder and Head of School at the Millennium School, "In the information economy, the focus was on increasing competition - now someone in India could do your job, so you better watch out and get better or more aggressive. There's a fear-based reaction. We work harder because someone will take things away from us otherwise (extrinsic motivation). We have an ambiguous but pervasive fear that our kids will suffer as a result of how things are changing. However, we're reaching the point where more competition does not improve outcomes, and collaboration does. Where the best thing to do for your kid is not push them to memorize more vocabulary words to beat the kid in India but actually encourage them to find what they care about, so that their purpose will drive their unique contribution (intrinsic motivation). When people act from purpose they naturally seek collaboration to get better.

"I believe this evolution ideally begins with how we educate kids. We need to be preparing them not for a "war" in which their winning requires another person losing. Instead, we create a culture in which helping each other find their purpose and the right spot in society to express it is one of the highest values -- thus a culture of access, sharing and collaboration that invites more personal authenticity. And this is not something that one just hopes will happen, but actually a specific set of skills, e.g. empathy, and more broadly, EQ, that can be taught, and Millennium will hopefully serve as a laboratory to develop better and better ways of doing that."

We need to abandon this war for talent and scale collaboration for talent. But how?

Bright spots and trends

We need to flip the system from helping organizations hire the best talent to helping individuals find the most meaningful and impactful work at which they can be successful.

Chris: "The trend towards fluidity of labor, gigs and revenue streams not jobs, is already upon us, affecting up to 40% of workers. In this kind of world, there is still competition for talent, but it's more natural to collaborate because millennials don't feel bound to one employer and aren't necessarily full-time or "permanent"; offering a reference to another employer doesn't necessarily remove a resource from your network (and may add to that person's skills and experience for your future benefit).   Downside is whether the gigs are meaningful and purposeful since they tend to more about leveraging defined skills than purpose."

Innovators from the business and social impact world such as Impact Business Leaders, PCDN, Linkedin's Recruiting for Good, Talents4Good, and RippleWorks are a few great examples of the emerging "good for all", person-first talent solutions that are changing the talent landscape, and helping "for profit" professionals find meaningful career paths in the social sector. One of the takeaways was that the value to the volunteers was equal to the value for NGOs and the individuals involved. With respect to the Recruiting for Good teams, many of the participating recruiters rose to top of their regular teams as a result of their experience.

Building on the success of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the Federal Government has expanded its fellowship programs in new directions. An executive fellows program, the Presidential Executive Fellows (PEx), has recruited proven leaders from industry to advise cabinet-level agencies on challenges of national importance like biosecurity, cyber defense, and service to veterans. Among their many successes, executive fellows have raised over $20B from the private sector for US infrastructure and rural development. The PEx team is now planning to “double down” on infrastructure, recruiting a new class of experts from finance, engineering, and local government to create the public-private partnerships necessary to rebuild the US water and transportation systems.

New Idea and Next Steps

The call to action to flip the talent system has been around for a number of years but there hasn't been a system solution to advance it. Until now. Leading social sector accelerators, in partnership with LinkedIn and Jobvite, are working to make "collaboration for talent" a reality. The key innovation involves re-purposing existing products (LinkedIn Elevate, Referrals and Jobvite) which were design as in-house only solutions but can now be leveraged by non-employees who share common interests and goals. This is not practical in the private sector yet given continued talent wars. I wouldn't see someone at SAP recommending someone to Oracle in this manner. It would be viewed upon with suspicion. But in the social sector it makes too much sense. Ashoka's Collaboration for Talent (ACT) solution enables great candidate referral suggestions for every and any eligible economic opportunity (jobs, fellowships, pro bono consultant) at scale.

We believe this can work for three reasons:

1.      Shared goals. (i.e., enabling citizen agency, and achieving UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals) and vision for the “good of all”. Our problems are too interconnected, complex and large to take a brand-first approach. Everyone acts like a stakeholder because they are.

2.      Shared values. Everyone can use abundant thinking and care to ensure that their connection is referred to the opportunity most suitable for them. No more making promises you can't keep; when you can check the system and refer the candidate to the role at a partner organization that more closely matches their passion. If they happen to inform you they are looking for a role in the environmental space, and your organization isn't, check the system and refer them to a hiring partner who is. If for some reason the role isn't quite at the right level, they can still join yours for a tour of duty. If you interview three candidates and can only hire one, you can offer to introduce them to their dream role found in the system. Yes we can!

3.     Trusted insights upfront. The biggest reason 50% of hires fail is both parties have blind spots, and offer bilateral asymmetric information in the scarcity-driven, war for talent mentality. Instead, when the opportunity is first shared with a trusted third party this creates a triangle of trust effect where the nominator who knows both parties can highlight any causes for concern when there is the least pressure bearing down on the decision. Put yourself in the hiring manager or candidates' shoes. How would you ideally want to learn about a person or job opportunity? In other words, it takes two to tango and three to hire!

Finally, the person-first approach extends beyond hiring someone new. It favors the trend towards training over hiring, the emerging "team of teams" open and fluid new way of organizing, and diversity as a benefit where everyone contributes over domination/competition (the main reason tech has a hard time attracting minorities and women IMHO). It’s impossible to have everyone lead on a team where everyone is the same. You need diversity and inclusion to enable the leadership that gets breakthroughs.

Bob Spoer is Chief Entrepreneur for People at Ashoka, the world’s leading network of social entrepreneurs.
A veteran of Silicon Valley search Spoer has recruited business and technical innovators globally for a number of Silicon Valley companies.  In addition to LinkedIn, he led global recruiting at Trimble and Teknekron.  He began his search career with Spencer Stuart based in Hong Kong.   Bob is the co -founder of “Recruiting for Good” (RFG)at Linkedin, which does probono searches for ngos globally, leveraging the Linkedin platform.  Pro bono clients have included the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows (RFG was the primary outside recruiting partner), Playworks,  Global Network Initiative and Ashoka.    Thanks in part to RFG’s recruiting success at the outset of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, President Obama signed the bipartisan Talent Act making the Presidential Innovation Fellows program permanent.

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