As we continue our conversation about the talent war, we shift gears to discover who the real enemy in the talent war really is.

I am creating this piece on Veteran’s Day which is equally exciting and deeply meaningful. Like me, most of my neighbors are working from home right this minute, and many of them are proudly flying flags representing branches of the military. I wonder what they mean to communicate, and I wonder how whatever that is became so meaningful it inspired action today, possibly many years later.   

My father and brother were both in the US Navy and served overseas. My husband was an Air Force VietNam war veteran, specializing in operations communications at the front line.  None of them ever talked much about what they experienced, though it clearly impacted them and formed whom they became. I could see the power of the pull whenever they ran into other veterans at events, even if they had never met before.

There was an instant bond, recognition, and immediate respect for their comrade rarely extended to other people. 

My world has always been the corporate arena, and sometimes it has felt like a battlefield. I was part of the inner circle of Command Central (yes, we called it that) during organizational crises, assessing carnage, conducting a risk analysis, adjusting the strategy, and inspiring the troops. Even today, so many of my clients tell stories of feeling wounded, attacked, and left for dead by their organizations. It’s not such a stretch, this wartime analogy.

People who survive organizational warfare often develop a unique and lasting bond with each other. It may be a bond based on misery, but it is powerful and immediately recalled.   

Corporate culture matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything for better or for worse.
“Corporate culture matters. How management chooses to treat its people impacts everything for better or for worse.” ~ Simon Sinek

Inspired and curious to understand, I researched the military mindset and how soldiers develop such lasting ties. I knew this could lead me closer to identifying the real enemy in the talent war. What can our organizations learn from the military about creating this kind of community and mission focus to help us draw in and engage talent? People are not leaving the Army, not even close. In fact, retention is at a historic high, up to 86 percent. And, except for the Navy, recruitment goals are up for all branches

From my research, three things stood out about the military experience that we’re messing up in our organizations.   

1. Be clear about who the real enemy in the talent war is and win that war. 

What’s true in the military: 

Our military defends the United States and its interests against enemies that threaten our way of life. Our nation’s leaders gather intelligence about those threats and how to defend against them. Citizens learn about potential risks from the media. For example, in 2020, CNN reported that more Russian aircraft flew near US airspace off Alaska than at any time since the end of the Cold War, with multiple flights of heavy bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, and intelligence collection planes. I, for one, am glad the military is monitoring frightening activity like that. 

In simulated “war games,” military troops fight enemies with fictional names representing real threats and direct challenges based on clear evidence from real-world facts. Designated leaders oversee the exercises. There are clear mission-specific objectives and priorities, like “being able to track and then defeat” potential Russian military activity in the Arctic. 

These simulations provide pre-crisis practice in warfighting and inform military strategy.  There is a clear winner and loser, and leaders analyze the results with fearless honesty, asking, “what did we miss?” 

These simulated war games taught military leaders that sometimes the real enemy is us — our tendency to stick to what we know.

In those games, the US forces stuck to the strategy they knew and had deployed for decades. They established information dominance, “just like it was in the first Gulf War, just like it has been for the last 20 years, just like everybody in the world, including China and Russia, have watched us do for the last 30 years.” –(Businessinsider). In their arrogance, they ignored the opportunity to innovate. The “enemy” was well prepared, confounded US intelligence gathering, and presented a nimble, winning battle strategy. We’re fortunate this was a simulation.    

Who’s the REAL Enemy in the Talent War
The real enemy is external, the solution’s internal.

And our military leaders recognize that war itself is an enemy to the human spirit. LT. COL. Pete Kilner, USA RET, writes how violence and suffering are inherently dehumanizing. A natural, human response to feeling dehumanized is to dehumanize others. And so the cycle continues until, says Kilner, moral leadership intervenes to separate serving and protecting from targeting people. 

What’s true in civilian organizations:

The real enemy is external; the solution is internal. Members of FAST Company’s (March 2021) list of ten most innovative North American companies take on tough social challenges as the enemy. From standing by their stakeholder model even through the economic pressures of COVID-19 to making energy and broadband access, these ten companies triumph by rallying their troops to make a difference. 

Lately, my coaching clients tell stories of being treated like the enemy by their leaders and, sometimes, their colleagues. Leaders focus on face time rather than outcomes.  People, in general, hoard information to establish their power. Leaders will “dis-invite” influencers to strategy discussions to keep their inner circle small.   

But the ultimate weapon of destruction is TIME – not enough of it, conflicting demands for it, misuse of it, and overscheduling it knowing someone will be slighted by how it plays out.  People feel dehumanized and invisible. As you would expect in a war, they trust no one, and motives are eyed with suspicion. It has come to that. But what’s strange about this internal war is that time has always been a precious resource. There has never been enough of it, there have always been conflicting demands, and people have always felt overscheduled. What’s different now is that people feel openly assaulted and attacked. Why are we surprised when they either fight back or flee? 

Leaders want the predictable, and they want to operate in a familiar environment, with the structures that made them successful. Leaders perceive the change in employee behavior as a threat, so they double down on their old patterns and, in doing so, draw the battleline.  

We need to call a cease-fire, rally our troops and unite around the real enemies, as those on the FAST Company’s list of innovators are doing. We need to build community around a common goal and protect it with competent, responsive leadership. For ideas on how to do that, go here.

2. People will make huge sacrifices to accomplish something important. 

What’s true in the military: 

Everyone entering military service takes a powerful oath of allegiance: 

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me, God.” 

And every branch has a form of this creed. 

U.S. Soldier’s Creed 

I am an American Soldier. 

I am a Warrior and a member of a team. 

I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values. 

I will always place the mission first. 

I will never accept defeat. 

I will never quit. 

I will never leave a fallen comrade. 

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained, and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. 

I always maintain my arms, my equipment, and myself. 

I am an expert, and I am a professional. 

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America, in close combat. 

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. 

I am an American Soldier. 

Wow. Just wow. This is personal. I will prioritize my country’s needs over my own. I will do this. I know whom I am fighting and why. I will never let my comrades, my team, my leaders, or my country down. I will remain disciplined, and I will be courageous.   

What stands out to you from the oath and the creed? If you made this commitment yourself as a service member, what does it mean to you now?  

What’s true in civilian organizations: 

I remember the day I was first promoted to the executive level in a Fortune 500 company.  My boss called me into his office to give me the news and tell me exactly what I had done well to deserve this honor. An honor, that’s how he put it.  I had joined a small group of strategic decision-makers, and the company’s future depended on me showing up every day, disciplined, courageous, and loving. Not that I blindly accepted routines – challenging the status quo in constructive ways was one of the behaviors my promotion rewarded. It may sound schmaltzy, but I left the building that afternoon owning the building and everything in it, the parking lot, the landscaping, the signage. These were my people. I was responsible for their well-being and safekeeping. And I stayed loyal and aligned to that company long after I moved on, some ten years later. I’m still in touch with that boss. I still am loyal to him and he to me.   

Today about half of my coaching clients, who are leaders in your organizations, lack purpose and alignment to your vision. They wonder whether their sacrifices are worth the cost to their families, health and well-being, and careers. They do not feel cared for, and they feel defeated. And they are voting with their feet and leaving for positions that align with their own values and vision. 

How did we get so far apart?   

We need to repair the damage done to our relationships with our people. Loyalty is a two-way commitment, and we need to find a common purpose, a collective vision, and a cause worth sacrificing for.   

If you had a leadership creed, what would it say? What are you willing to say? What would it take to help your people feel they own the building, the parking lot, and the company’s future? 

And how would you treat your people if you believed they held the future of your company in the palms of their hands? 

Figure out what your people think of you and their leaders. Figure out what behaviors or priorities you are honoring when you promote people, recognize achievement, and deal with challenges. And figure out why you are still there, what inspires you, and how your people know that about you. 

3. Lead like your lives depends on each other. 

What’s true in the military: 

From top leadership down through the ranks, military service members are loyal to each other because they know their lives may depend on it. They’re devoted to people wearing the uniform, even if they have never met before. This bond is essential to military success because it promotes cohesion and effectiveness in combat situations.   

It is essential to service members, too, because loyalty to others reciprocated unconditionally, provides human connection and belonging, and clarifies what is most important in crises. It helps build confidence that they will survive, no matter what. 

Leading as if their lives depend on each other, as if their troops’ lives depend on them, as if their country depends on what they do, is undeniably central to every military leader’s creed.   

What’s true in civilian organizations: 

While civilians are not under contract to employers in the same way, military service members are. If you have ever been in an all-night, sleeves-rolled-up, all-hands-on-deck, nothing-matters-more than this, whatever-it-takes organizational crisis with your colleagues, you know this kind of life-or-death dependence. Stepping up transcends a contractual obligation. What you learn about yourself and your colleagues during those hours inspires you for years. It’s the connection created to a cohort of dedicated people, knowing you contributed your best efforts to what you built together, getting past the conflicts and tempers flaring to shore up the team with an amazing solution… it’s AWESOME. Putting the group’s needs first proves your own mettle. 

How did your team show up recently during crisis moments?

How did you show up, and what did your team learn about you?

How do you feel about your answers to those two questions? What is your confidence level that your company’s life is in good hands?

Will your people have your back, even when tempers flare or stand up and tell you when you head in the wrong direction? 

The real enemy in the Talent War is our own rigidity  in response to the unknown and unexpected.

Jeannie Duncan, Ph.D.  

The Talent War is real; it is not a simulation.

The real enemy in this war, the one that most threatens our future, is our rigidity in response to the unknown and unexpected. In our stubborn determination to resume our known ways of operating in the face of evidence that our people need something different, we have treated them like enemies threatening our way of life. We have betrayed them and lost their trust. It’s an inconvenient truth we must face.

Companies that pivot and welcome the opportunity to co-create a workplace where people can do their best work will win this war. We need the courage to lead like everyone’s livelihood depends on us doing it well — because it does. We need the honesty to admit mistakes and learn the harsh lessons to avoid future casualties.   

We need to do the work we needed to do all along.   

We can do this. We need to do it now. 

You can start right now, with me here.