Lucy Kellaway: My new rule of competition begins with a war on ‘talent’

How about using honest, honourable terms for the people who work for your company?

On the cover of the latest Harvard Business Review it says in huge letters "The New Rules of Competition". Underneath are three bullet points, highlighted in yellow for extra urgency: Be paranoid. Disrupt yourself. Go to war for talent.

I looked at the title and turned to the piece inside, written by three big names from McKinsey. At first I felt merely weary, but then irritation took over. Ever since I started following these things – more than 20 years ago – people have been claiming that the world is getting ever more competitive.

And for most of that time they have been peddling these same three “new” rules for dealing with it. If any of them were right, their lack of originality might not matter. Only they are not. All are wrong.

Tip number one – be paranoid – has been around since 1998 when Andy Grove wrote Only the Paranoid Survive. It was a great title for a book, but it is a dangerously rotten principle. I have the misfortune of knowing someone who suffers from a paranoid personality disorder – he is delusional, touchy, untrusting, and has weird, grandiose ideas about himself.


Such traits are unattractive and difficult to deal with in a human being, but in a company they are almost certain to end up in bankruptcy.

Possibly I’m being too literal: all that is meant by saying companies should be paranoid is that they should keep an eye on the competition. That is fair enough, but is too obvious to be worth saying. There has never been a time when it was not a good idea to check up on your rivals every now and then.

The next tip is to disrupt yourself. When I was a child, disruption was something everyone agreed was bad. "Lucy can be disruptive in class" was not a good report to take home to your parents. Since Clayton Christensen coined the phrase "disruptive technologies" in a 1995 article, disrupting has been taken to be axiomatically good. Now anyone hearing the word automatically starts thinking about Uber, then gets very excited indeed.

Disrupt or be disrupted is the cliché of the moment and no one dares question it. No one, apart from Jill Lepore in her brilliant New Yorker essay last year. There is nothing magic about disruption, she points out. A lot of disruptive ideas are a disaster, and a lot of companies that are successful have not disrupted anything at all. Disruption does not predict the future, or explain the past. All it does is make everyone very breathless.

War weary

But the platitude that upsets me most is the idea that we should go to war for talent. It is nearly 20 years since McKinsey renamed people “talent” and went to war for them.

Since then the whole world has followed. Human resources barely exist any more; wherever you look it is talent.

The first thing wrong with the word is that it is a lie. Most people are not talented – they are average. Yet companies routinely refer to even their dumbest workers in this disingenuous way – Walmart has opened a “Talent Center” in Dallas to train people how to push carts and stock shelves.

Far from making everyone feel great about themselves, “talent” dehumanises in the same way as “resources” did, only at least the latter did so blatantly. Third, it has the drawback of sounding vaguely indecent, in a “check out the talent” sort of way.

Stagnant pond

Yet the worst thing about it is that it leads to some shockingly dreary and inapt metaphors. Everywhere are talent pipelines and talent pools, with their unfortunate respective implications that if you turn on a tap, people will come gushing out, or that there are lots of smart people swimming about in a stagnant pond. But as a metaphor, the war for talent takes the biscuit. The thing about war is there is always an enemy, but in this case there appears not to be.

Instead of going to war for talent I am declaring war on talent instead. My enemy is everyone who uses this term and my weapons are sarcasm and rationality. I can think at once of two terrific words that would do instead, both of which are in need of rehabilitation. The first is staff. This is so terribly out of fashion that on Amazon I could find no management volumes with the word in the title. The only book was The Downton Abbey Rules for Household Staff – which may well be a marvellous publication, but was not quite what I was after.

For anyone who thinks “staff” sounds a bit fusty, I have an even better word: worker. This has lots of things going for it. It is accurate, it is clear and it is honourable. Best of all, it discourages cheesy metaphors and rules. A worker pipeline, worker pool or war for workers, anyone?

My new rule of competition goes like this: hire competent workers and look after them. My old rule of competition was exactly the same.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)