It's the talent, stupid

The global consultancy industry is on track to face a crisis of talent as the best of the best increasingly seek to find meaning beyond money through their careers, warns James Perry. 

At a recent meeting I had with the chairman of a global consultancy company… actually, before I go into what happened at that meeting, it’s worth just pausing to ask a question: what on earth is the chairman of a global consultancy company doing, meeting with me? I mean, it’s only me and this is someone accustomed to networking with the elite of the elite. Which I am most decidedly not.

I was asking myself this question as I walked towards the big glass and steel building, to what turned out to be a memorable meeting. He’d heard me pitch B Corps at a small exclusive event and approached me afterwards. He didn’t say so, but he must have a problem, and saw something in the B Corp pitch that could help him solve it. The core value proposition of his business is talent. Hiring and then contracting out superior talent. Part of the value proposition of B Corps is that the very best young talent doesn’t want to work for old fashioned, exclusive shareholder businesses – they want to work for forward looking, inclusive stakeholder businesses.

“So I’m guessing you asked for this meeting because you have a problem. Your business model is like a giant pyramid scheme for talent, where all the fresh young minds join at the bottom of the pyramid and get plugged into the matrix for 10 or 15 years. At which point, if they’re still able to function, they have risen sufficiently high up in the pyramid to share in the proceeds. The people at the top of the pyramid rely on fresh young minds joining at the bottom. But is the best of the young talent joining? Or, to be more specific, is it joining with the intention of leaving after a couple of years because it wants your brand on its CV – but has no intention of spending 15 years in a pyramid scheme?”

Or something to that effect.

Him, sitting opposite, open mouthed. Followed by a conversation of considerable energy, exploring the why and the what’s-to-be-done.

Why would the talent want to serve, and then become, another tentacle of “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”? (Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, July 2009)

These youngsters spent their formative years watching the greatest wealth transfer in history undertaken from the taxpayer to the already-wealthy – first through the bank bailouts, and then through quantitative easing. In the process, they experienced the state losing its ability to fulfil the social contract, most directly for them by being unable to continue paying for their tertiary education.

The glorious problem that is increasingly facing old fashioned, exclusive shareholder companies is that the best talent doesn’t want to work for them

So I thought I’d ask around a bit. And what should I find? A chief human resources officer of a FTSE 100 company who says that retaining talent has become a major business issue for them and is now considered one of their top risk factors. They feel like they are becoming unable to do it. The levers that used to work (money, status, trinkets etc) do not seem to have the same effect, not like they used to, and especially not on the most talented people. The CHRO is realising that in order to compete for talent, the company needs to be able to articulate some sort of purpose, some sort of usefulness to society. Creating shareholder value just doesn’t get the best of the millennials out of bed any longer.

More and more research is bearing this experience out, like toniic’s recently published ‘Millennials and Impact Investment’ Report:

“Millennials are very concerned about an eroding quality of life. As a result, their priorities include staying close to family and friends, having free time for recreation, and working in creative jobs”. This quest for balance and alignment is commented on broadly in research on millennials.

“If the financial markets are going to be volatile, the most secure thing you can do is find a life and work that you love,” says Megan Hellerer, a personal and executive coach in New York City and a former Google executive.

These priorities influence what millennials perceive as the primary roles of business: to improve society, to make profit, and to drive innovation. According to a Morgan Stanley study, millennials are three times more likely to seek employment with a company based on its stance on social and/or environmental issues (14% of millennial investors, compared to 5% of the total individual investor population). Organizations in the UK, like Finance Matters, working to put sustainability at the heart of finance, and Escape the City, a platform to connect job seekers with purposeful career opportunities, are responding to the growing demand from millennials to find value alignment in their financial careers.

The glorious problem that is increasingly facing old fashioned, exclusive shareholder companies is that the best talent doesn’t want to work for them. More and more, emerging leaders are abandoning these lumbering monoliths with their moribund corporate cultures and making the decision to live free. Either by working for forward-looking, inclusive stakeholder companies or by working for themselves.

A couple of years ago on these pages, I celebrated the coming Dawn of the Civil Economy. We are increasingly able to ‘vote’ for the world we want to live in through our savings decisions and our consumption decisions. This, in our age of dysfunctional government, arguably has a greater impact on the world than our actual vote. In making this point, I missed perhaps the most profound ‘vote’ we have – our decision as to who gets to benefit from our talent. Do we offer it to the vampire squid? Or do we use it to “improve society, make profit, and drive innovation”?

The business case for taking an inclusive, stakeholder approach is strengthening by the month. Attracting the best talent is the coup de grace for that business case.

I have no idea whether the global consultancy company will figure out their problem. The solution for them, I suspect, is to put the improvement of society at the heart of their business. Not in the too-often patronising, window-dressing, power/ego, cringe-worthy way that they sometimes do. But truly, madly, deeply. With all of their considerable brains. And in all of their consultancy work. All. Of. It.

If they don’t someone else will and whoever does will win – because that’s where the best talent will be found, and where the greatest value will be being created.