By Michael Tinmouth, Editor, Entrepreneur Country

It's a shock to come to Australia from America: The antipodal air hums with the vibe of good times. Sydney bustles and booms, in considerable part because of Chinese demand for Australian natural resources.

No shock, then, that the "war for talent" is alive and well here. At a lunch hosted by CPA Australia, a big training and development organization for financial professionals, the group's head, Alex Malley, asked a score of CEOs what problem was keeping them up at night. Talent was topmost: One after another around the table, the bosses - media mogul, miner, banker, lawyer, automaker - worried that they couldn't win if they couldn't find and keep top people. Welcome to the dark side of prosperity.

Late that day I had a beer with Ross Dawson, an expert on social networks and the future of media (if any). The sunset over Darling Harbour made him look ruddier than Aussies already are. Ross sympathized with the CEOs' problem up to a point: "My definition of top talent is people who get to choose where to work." When you need the best, he meant, guess who holds the cards?

Ah, but a winning poker hand won't help if the game is bridge. Talent does rule, as Ross said, especially for high-value, highly paid knowledge work; but the value of talent is highly dependent on context. What's a trump to one employer may be a discard to another. Thinking about this in economic terms - where it appears as "friction" in markets - won the Nobel Prize for Peter Diamond of MIT.

Thinking about it in strategic terms makes you realize that there is not and never was a war for talent; instead, there's a huge opportunity to link people and strategy in ways that most companies (and most talented people) are too clueless to exploit.

Talent is contextualized in three ways. It can be limited - or amplified - by the team, the time, and the game. Here are three examples of what I mean:

The team: Harvard Business School's Boris Groysberg has documented the impact of teams on individual performance. He has shown, for example, that superstar bankers don't look so bright when lured to a rival firm. We've all seen that: the hotshot who turns out to have needed his team more than anyone - especially the hotshot - knew. Or the reverse: the ugly duckling who comes into his own in a different group.

The time: Winston Churchill was an irrelevant, boring, self-important jerk until he became the indispensible, eloquent leader of Britain and the world in its fight against fascism; then he was unceremoniously voted out of office when the war ended and his time had passed. No better example exists of what Nitin Nohria and Anthony Mayo call "zeitgeist leadership." Whether at the CEO level or anywhere else, the value of talent is radically affected by the tenor of the time. (Think, for example of the leadership vicissitudes of Hewlett Packard.)

The game: 3M and Procter & Gamble are both great innovators, but they play the game differently. At the Minnesota company, innovation starts in the lab: "Eureka - I discovered something! I wonder if we can sell it." 3M's famous 15 percent rule instructs scientists to spend plenty of time looking for ideas, regardless of the market. P&G, by contrast, likes to identify unmet consumer needs and then invent products to satisfy them; hence WhiteStrips, Swiffer, et al. I can't imagine a culture shock greater than moving from one of these innovation-nonpareils to the other.

Looked at this way, the search for talent[b] doesn't seem like combat at all. People who think they're in a war for [b]talent should put down the bazooka and, instead, think about what they need or want. What is the game 00 and what's your company's way of playing it? What industry and macroeconomic dynamics are affecting structure and profitability? And, given the answers to those questions, what capabilities will you need to win the game you're playing?

Follow Thomas A Stewart on Twitter @thomasastewart or follow his blog @ www.bnet.com/blog/strategist

Watch The Sunday Telegraph Panel Debate at Global Entrepreneurship Week 2010, hosted by Coutts & Co. Nov '10


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