What Can We Expect in the Other War?

by James Heskett

In light of the outset of the war on terrorism, how does this affect what has been called the war for talent? A book by the same name 1 has recently characterized this as an "endless journey" to address the enduring challenge to provide winning employees value proposition around the things that talented managers seek: exciting work, personal development, a balanced lifestyle, a great company, and recognition and rewards for individual contributions. It is a war led by top management, but carried out at all levels in an organization. The research providing these findings was carried out in a sample of large U.S. for-profit organizations.

The implication is that winners in the war for talent create more value than "merely good" competitors. One organization that has been a consistent winner has been Southwest Airlines 2, the only major airline not announcing layoffs and one which has at times in the last month had a market value greater than all other major airlines combined, two phenomena that may not be coincidental.

Since September 11, however, I have heard countless friends, associates, and people in the news talk about reassessing their lives to decide what is really important to them. The implication is that this will lead to different behaviors and perhaps even different endeavors in the future. The first impulse for many has been to vow to spend more time with family and activities that are personally significant. This raises a number of questions. The first is: Are these transitory feelings that may fade in intensity with progress in the war on terrorism?

Let's assume instead that what we may experience is an intensification of trends in personal lifestyles already noticeable prior to September 11. What does this mean, particularly for the large, traditional form of organization and workplace? Will both have to be adapted to a need that some talented people may feel for safer, more comfortable "cocoons" in which to work? Will the daily reminders of the need for increased security in large, less personal organizations drive the most sensitive and talented prospects away? Will work groups be broken into increasingly smaller sizes, typical of the philosophy on which Nucor Steel was built—when a plant reaches a size of roughly two hundred employees, it's time to build a new one? Or, conversely, will the attractiveness of large organizations increase as surrogates in meeting the increased needs for a sense of community that many may feel?

What new demands will be placed on managers on the front line of "the other war?" What will you, as a manager, do differently? Will more time, for example, have to be spent dealing with the personal concerns of employees? Will more attention have to be given to "community building?" Will, in fact, the war on terrorism prompt managers to engage in behaviors necessary for success in the war for talent? What do you think?

    • Lou Palecki
    • Director of Technology, Assurance Technology Corporation

    Clearly, many things have changed in our world since September 11. But most issues in developing a management philosophy suitable to this new time have not. [One of the founders of humanistic psychology] Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs' provides a good framework for understanding the problems we will face in the coming years. Our charges will be facing real and perceived challenges to their basic needs—health, security and social stability that need to be addressed in the workplace. Most of these challenges will be external to the work environment, so we can expect to see good companies reaching further into the social and family fabrics of their employees in order to support excellence at work. The form of these programs is unclear—we now see psychological counseling, flexible hours, sensitivity to travel fears through the use of telepresence systems, and other reactionary activities. These support and coping mechanisms will adapt as the external environment changes. The only really clear window on this situation will be the need to reevaluate our relationships with all our stakeholders and have an open communication about what the needs and problems are to reach accommodations that can support sustained excellence.