Who Are We?

Image courtesy of Flickr/Beatnik Photos

I’ve read a lot recently about the need to improve recruitment and retention. Companies are searching for the most effective methods for gaining an advantage in thelabor market. 

Yet when I reflect on what is behind this need, I am taken back to earlier times when we had the same problems. Interestingly enough, the problems companies face today aren’t all that different from the problems dealt with many years ago.

People often react as though the world just started when they arrived, and anything that occurred yesterday is irrelevant. I’ve been in the human resources business through enough cycles to assure you that at the basic level there is nothing new. Today’s issues are simply dressed differently.

Over the past 40 years, the world economy has waxed and waned. Coming out of World War II, the U. S. had a stranglehold on the world market, as most otherdeveloped countries had been devastated by the war.

But as Europe and Asia recovered in the 1950s, we began to lose our hegemony. Simply put, we had to compete and we weren’t prepared for it. By the 1980s, products like Volkswagen Beetles and Sony Walkmans pressured us to respond. We had to find or develop qualified workers for new products or continue to lose markets.

In some cases, we did lose and never recovered. By the 1980s, the quality movement was again a response to foreign and, in some cases, domestic competition. Massive layoffs in 1990 were followed by the recruitment fever of the dot-com bubble.

Companies that had been paragons in their industry tried to respond. Some failed. New electronic firms came and went. Executives who didn’t understand the new logistics world drove their companies into mediocrity.

There is no end to examples of companies that couldn’t build and maintain a qualified labor force. Their problem, however, was not that they didn’t know the processes of recruitment and retention. What these companies lost was sight of who they were as it related to their markets and customers.

When we don’t understand what makes our company unique and better than the competition, we are, by definition, average. Average companies attract average employees. Average companies cannot retain excellent people. In the end, it’s not about our processes as it is about knowing who we are.

What is it about your enterprise that should give you an edge? What are you better at than most of your competitors? Do you excel in innovation, production, marketing, distribution or service? If you don’t have a lead in at least one of those, how can you expect to find and keep talent? What separates Apple, Amazon, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, Samsung, Starbucks and Wal-Mart?

I submit that the defining factor is that each company’s leaders pay close attention to what it is that has made them a leader in their respective industries. They know who they are and they strive to build on that.  

What happened to General Motors,  Hewlett-Packard and Motorola? These firms were once leaders in their respective industries and lost their waybecause they mistook what it was that originally put them in the lead.

You don’t have to be a Facebook or a Google to succeed. You can be a manufacturer of consumer products and still lead. You just have to pay attention to who you are. 

One of the great lessons in life is understanding who you are as a person. That also applies to the enterprise.

“Know thyself” is a statement attributed to Socrates, yet that piece of seminal wisdom goes back before him. The Oracle of Delphi is credited with the admonition: “I am not yet able … to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.” 

So who are we? If you ask that question of your executives, you will probably get a quizzical look. But if they or you can do that, now you have the formula for recruiting and retaining exceptional talent.