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Where Has All the Talent Gone?

In a recent leadership round-table, we worked with a group of business executives to understand and challenge businesses’ most critical issue: where has all the talent gone?

In just the past 11 years, the pool of leadership talent has transitioned from a buyer’s to a seller’s market.

  • A critically ill economy has now recovered, and it’s vibrant.

  • This economy’s demand for great leaders has all but drained the pool of available leadership talent.

  • Our businesses have been victimized by the demographic challenge we’ve foreseen for decades. The explosive birth rate of the late 1940s and early 1950s produced what has now become today’s bumper crop of retirees. They’re exiting the workforce at an average of 10,000 retirees daily.

  • Tightened immigration rules have crimped the inflow of talent.

  • Employers have actively initiated well-constructed retention initiatives to keep their best people in their companies, and out of the labor market.

We’re experiencing the emergence of economic inevitability: Increased demand + reduced supply = scarcity!

The long-term remedies are many. The short-term solutions are few.

To address the long-term, we have the availability of accessible and increased education and training, strategic hiring, organization planning, disciplined mentoring, stretch assignments and career pathing.

The short-term solutions are tougher, and we don’t have the luxury of time. Most business leaders are challenged to find the right talent to fill key roles – now!

How can you do that?

  1. Objectively assess the talent you have and stretch those with both personal and professional potential. With proper oversight, begin to make stretch assignments that will favorably impact business results.

  2. Consider modifying the requirements and expected outcomes of structured positions to leverage the talents and preferences of the people you have.

  3. Steal shamelessly. Aggressively recruit known or discoverable external talent. Note that only 20% of the right people may be active job seekers with just an added 20% passively perusing postings. Those firms that are only waiting for posting responses are fishing in just 40% of the pool. The need to be more aggressive is clear.

  4. Don’t limit your search to your own industry. There are other industries that have or had similar challenges requiring similar skills and leadership demands. In addition to helping secure the talent you need, strategic recruits also bring new perspectives to help differentiate your business from your competitors.

  5. Be on guard. Your competitors would love to entice your talent. Give your good people every reason to stay by providing them with job challenge, career opportunity, recognition / reward, a sense of belonging – and a good boss to make it all happen.

  6. You’re looking for the right people. Know in advance what they’ll need to look like.

  7. Pay attention to what current and former employees are posting about your company online. These comments can impact recruitment, and provide some clues for retention.

  8. Be able to positively answer your own question: “Would you want to work for you?

And don’t ignore your gut instinct!

The frenetic hunt for great leaders is creating a market for even mediocre candidates who will, at best, generate mediocre results. Unfortunately, compared to an empty chair, they may look pretty good. In your external recruitment, screen for people who’ll bring a solid track record and the right chemistry. Regardless of industry, good leaders will be able to explain and quantify what they did, why they did it, and how they got it done. Among other critical attributes, look for attitude, chemistry, interest and integrity.

The War for Talent* was declared in 1997, recognizing that the war could rage on for another two decades – and it has. Standish Executive Search continues to work with companies across industry sectors to address these issues and to attract the right candidates for key positions.

*The War for Talent, Harvard Business School Press, McKinsey and Company, 2001


Stan Davis is the Founding Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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