Winning the war for talent

Winning the war for Talent

“Our people strategy was our business strategy” stated Victoria Mellor during a fireside chat at our most recent Cog:ent meeting. She has successfully exited her business Melcrum after 19 years.

During the last 16 years of working with our clients, and through the stories we have explored with over 600 ambitious business owners, we have unearthed one element of learning that stands head and shoulders above the rest – the need to bring in to your business, and unlock the talent and potential of, people who are better than you.

It was this theme that formed the basis of exploration for our workshop on 21 January 2015 – this blog summarises some of the discussion and learning from the event.

A deliberate shift in mindset

“We had a five year strategy to change the business radically and facilitate our exit from the business. We decided what our business needed to look like in 5 years’ time and worked backwards from there. Finding good people became an absolute imperative.”

It would appear that this change in mindset, often borne through crisis, is an essential component in winning the war for talent. The desire to exit your business (or at least create a range of options) appears a helpful stimulus in this shift. It is perhaps the recognition and visualisation of a business that is not centred on you, the business owner, which begins to unlock the new behaviours.

An attractive business personality

“I used to tell people that they had the opportunity to be part of a growing, ambitious and entrepreneurial business with a real variety of work.”

Job descriptions and salary bands are all a bit boring really, aren’t they? What everyone finds more attractive and compelling is a story. The ability to describe the personality of the business (purpose, values and culture) along with the future story (ambition, opportunity and vision) appears to be a real attractive force for talent. It might seem that corporates can provide more money, more benefits and more career advancement but when people are attracted and inspired by more than just these rational factors (see Simon Sinek) it is easy to see how smaller businesses can develop a competitive edge for talent.

Drawing people in to business discussions

“We faced a real business challenge of how to exit ourselves from our publishing business. We didn’t have the answer, so we opened the challenge to people in the business. We posed the question and got them to present their thinking to the board. It really got people engaged.”

Once in a business, people generally want to feel that their contributions are being valued. Leaders who recognise that they don’t hold a monopoly on all good business ideas, reach out to the people in their business for help in solving real business problems. This process of involvement and participation appears to provide a real motivating and binding force – even when only a handful of ideas move forward and become reality. Anything that helps people feel a stronger sense of purpose, develop mastery in their role along with an appropriate degree of autonomy has been shown to have real benefit (see Dan Pink). 

Build your network

“A lot of our recruits came from our clients, when I met great people I’d say that they’d come and work for us one day. They always seemed to come back at a later date for a conversation.”

In the stories that were shared on the day, the need to develop the strength of your network is crucial. The number of great hires that were already known to the business or a direct referral continually astounds us. So, whether it is with clients, suppliers, competitors or even at the gym continue to build your network and don’t be afraid to share your story.

Modelling and leading your employee experience

“Once I got these great people on board, I had to manage how they gelled together as a team and get them to realise that it was now their job to attract and retain great people. Managing the experience and motivation of my senior team and reminding them about our strategy and values occupied the majority of my time”

What is absolutely clear is the need to deliberately model and lead your employee experience. To do this, and where we have been helping clients, requires you to:

  1. Develop a clear philosophy
  2. Adopt a people-centred talent push
  3. Create the right environment
  4. Observe real behaviour
  5. Provide everyone with a toolkit
  6. Raise self-awareness and confidence
  7. Promote your employee experience externally
  8. Celebrate successes and learning from failure quickly

That’s a lot of shared learning extracted from a 3-hour workshop and summarised in an 800-word blog! You can read the workshop booklet that we used by clicking on this link (151126 Winning the war for talent – booklet) and more on the 8 steps below.

If you would like to discuss any of this learning further and explore how this might be appropriate and relevant for your business, please contact

Eight steps to developing a strategy for talent:

  1. Develop a clear philosophy that sits comfortably with, and reinforces, your purpose and values – create your talent story. In essence, this is about your entire business, rather than just talent. There are plenty of great examples out there, but we’ve always been rather impressed by Ed Perry, founder and CEO of Cook. For inspiration, you can read more about their story and their values here.
  2. Adopt a people-centred talent push (from the individual, bottom up) rather than talent pull (top down) approach. To unlock what is inside the hearts and minds of your people, seek first to understand and then be understood. This is a case of starting with what you have got, rather than what you haven’t got. Spend time with people, explore their ambitions and how they feel they can contribute.
  3. Create the right environment by being clear on expectations (desired outcomes and business objectives) and put people in control – build projects around motivated people and give them the trust and support they need to be successful. Research shows that 71% of employees think it’s their company’s responsibility to manage their career. At the same time, 85% of managers think it’s down to the employees. Take away this ambiguity and start to put people in control.
  4. Observe real behaviour in career moments and be curious about understanding them further – Why is that person not performing? Why have you seen a sudden increase in energy from another? Why did that person really leave? Observe people in the work place and understand the emotion flows at certain ‘career moments’. We worked with a sales team in the early years of their career, where 50% of people would leave with less than one years service. By mapping their motivation levels and understanding the emotional journey, something could be done to improve the situation.
  5. Provide everyone with a toolkit that supports and embeds your desired philosophy – create the space for them to think about their career, how it relates to your business and how they might take ownership of their actions to deliver both. When learning and adopting new methods of doing things, people need guidance and prompts. We developed the Me+ toolkit, working with a large IT client who recruit and train large numbers of graduates each year. It is now used by 1000s of graduates and enables them to take control of their careers and align the objectives to the organisation that they are working for. Discover more about ME+ at
  6. Raise self-awareness and confidence (through praise, quality feedback and recognition) and resilience (by encouraging a sharing, supportive, peer to peer learning environment). Any openness to and an ability to reflect on high quality feedback accelerates learning and builds will power.
  7. Promote your employee experience externally in a manner that helps and encourages self-selection – value attitude and cultural fit over and above technical know-how. Done well, new employees will know if it’s an experience that will match their values and strengths, allowing more self-selection and reducing waste. Netflix do this particularly well (read more here).
  8. Celebrate successes and learning from failure quickly – review the employee experience regularly and be open to feedback and change. Develop a growth mindset. Individuals and companies that have a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to continually learn and grow. They enquire more deeply into the causes of failure (and success) and accelerate their learning accordingly.

If you are interested in trailing the ME+ career app and toolkit? Or just want to discuss your talent successes or challenges with us?  Send us your thoughts through the ‘Sign Up’ page at . We look forward to helping you bring the best people together to discover success.


About adampscampbell
Passionate about helping ambitious business owners to create sustainable success. For information on our work with our broader client base please feel free to look at the website To connect more with our work with ambitious business owners follow me @adampscampbell or connect at

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