We are on the precipice of a talent revolution and business leaders are ill-equipped to face it


If you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance even less.

General Eric Shinsek.

The working generation have never lived through chaos like that wreaked by COVID-19. In 18 months, the pandemic has upended organisations which seemed infallible and forced business leaders to pivot in previously unimaginable ways. It has disproved the validity of management models which have stood for decades and forced people to re-assess the fundamental constructs of the relationship with their employers, their career trajectories, and their work/life balance.

Or so it seems – but beneath the pre-pandemic veneer, much of the economy was already subtly morphing. Technology has been freeing business and employment models from their out-dated shackles for years, moving business models from B2C to individual, consumer ‘gigs’. Business leaders in B2B industries observed the David and Goliath combat between Uber and their employees, safe behind the barricades of established hierarchies. Thanks to COVID, David is on a winning streak, and business leaders need to listen up.

COVID and technology have turned the tables. Office-bound commuters have proved they can work productively from home. They demonstrated beyond doubt, during months of combining home schooling and work, that they can work flexibly. Any attempt to revert to paternalistic micro-management of those who have succeeded – despite being collectively imprisoned, with limited fresh air, empty super-market shelves, and having to communicate with elderly relatives through windows – is a futile fight.

People yearned to ‘go back to normal’, but now top talent has changed its tune, and so has the power to call the shots. Fast forward 18 months and tolerance of controlling employment practices, or unimaginative leadership skills has evaporated. Only a handful are happy to commute full time or travel extensively. Those who have excelled during the pandemic will at the very least expect to have meaningful conversations with their employers about the practicalities of their role in this brave new world.

But these are just that, the practicalities, and, with a little imagination, finding a solution which suits both parties should be relatively straight forward. But what is the secret to holding onto your talent when the crisis dissipates?

It is unlikely to be a simple answer. What is clear is that defining ‘success’ in purely financial terms is no longer aspirational. High salaries may no longer buy business leaders uncompromised commitment or negate poor leadership.

So the struggle for talent is about to happen under very different rules. Never have so many employees across so many sectors and so many roles had so much collective power simultaneously.

What can business leaders do to solidify the bonds with those who are most valued, given that they are likely to be able to heavily influence their location, hours, and compensation? Most talent has relatively transferrable skills, so why would they choose to stay, or to apply to your business?

‘We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest,’ says Paul Polman of Unilever. And maybe this is the key.

COVID has shown the power of collective action, restored a sense of community to many, and reminded us all that doing well and doing good do not have to be mutually exclusive. That does not mean every business has to become a social enterprise, but it does mean that having a purpose over and above shareholder value creation, and a culture and leadership team who are inspiring and inclusive, matters. The top talent is looking for purposeful social interaction and the euphoria of collective achievement to blow away months of monotony and toil.

So what do business leaders need to do?

Organisations are going to have to shake up four key areas to retain and attract the talent they need to remain viable, let alone be successful. Talent used to consider roles based on what the role entailed, how the practicalities worked, who they worked with, and why the business existed, in that order. The hiatus of the last 18 months has re-ordered their preferences to why, who, what, and how.

·         The Why: Employer Brand is key. Create an authentic purpose and employer brand which fires the imagination and contributes to society – and mean it. Don’t fall foul to the BrewDog disaster. Make sure your purpose is woven through your people practices and has longevity.

·         The Who: Post-pandemic Leaders need to demonstrate agility, confidence, and humility to rebuild teams who have been through trauma. Moreover, through their actions, they need to convince talent with transferable skills that their business and the compromises it demands is the right choice.

·         The What: Managers need to think critically about how crucial roles are designed. Those with transferable skills need roles which are stimulating, create opportunities to succeed, and are clearly valued.

·         The How: Be flexible on location and hours – others will be. Enable top talent to maintain a realistic work/life balance. Do not assume that one size will fit all.

This is going to take courage, an ability to really listen, and the capacity to change. Top employees are already leaving employers, in significant numbers, to create a portfolio of interesting work across brands they admire.

Written by
Meg Headley, Co-Founder at Atticus