IBM’s War for Talent

I know several women who tell the same story. 

They graduated from a top-tier college in the early 1960’s.  Near their graduation date, they were offered an opportunity to sit for an IQ test and, based upon the results, they were immediately hired by a large insurance company to be trained as a computer programmer. (This was in the era when a “computer bug” was a moth that flew into the vacuum tubes and shut down the computer.)

To us, in 2010, The War for Talent is a term McKinsey coined and promoted in the late 1990’s and is also the title of a book by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod.  Published by Harvard Business School Press in 2001, the book has become a classic.  The authors argued that coming demographic shifts would make it harder to replace leaders in the future.  For business to succeed, they would need to

  1.  expand their understanding of the pool of potential leaders to include women and minorities, and
  2. actively develop the leadership skills of their existing and future employees.

But the War for Talent (in computer programming) was so fierce, in 1964, that my friends, with no experience with computers, were offered jobs that included training in programming.

 Which brings me full circle, to this video (click here), shown by IBM when the company won the Out & Equal Workplace Excellence Award.  The video is short and well worth your time.  A number of employees read Policy Letter #4, a half page memo signed by then IBM President, Thomas J. Watson Jr., in 1953.  The same employees then tell their name/origin and their years of employment with IBM.

So what was happening at IBM in 1953, that prompted the President of IBM write a memo which was radical for the times? Click here to read the full text, but in part it reads, “It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed.” 

What was happening in 1953?  IBM was experiencing talent acquisition challenges.  Ten years later, these same challenges to finding qualified programers would prompt large computer users (like insurance companies) to hire “people off the streets” in hopes that they could be trained in the role.  (IQ alone turned out to be a poor way to hire future computer programers. None of these friends lasted more than a month in their training program.) 

IBM has been fighting to get and keep the best people for over fifty-five years.  No wonder the company is a leader in diversity, in mentoring, in talent management and in sponsorship.  (See our September 22, 2010 blog.)

The original war for talent study was done in 1997.  The follow up study by McKinsey (War for Talent, Part Two), presented evidence that  “companies doing the best job of managing their talent deliver far better results for shareholders. Companies scoring in the top quintile of talent-management practices outperform their industry’s mean return to shareholders by a remarkable 22 percentage points.”

Mentor Resources is the premier provider of provides tools for mentoring to improve employee retention and engagement.  Because a Great Match results in a Better Mentoring Experience. 

Ask us how we can help your talent-management program.

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One Response to “IBM’s War for Talent”

  1. kare Anderson Says:

    In light of this background Elizabeth, what advice would you offer women who are working in corporations? To stay relevant, for example, are there apt ways to mutually mentor, be a mentee and/or be a mentor?

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