Young Talent

Last night, I was invited to speak at the latest Geek dinner, a collection of fresh entrepreneurs, technologists, and new media people. They meet every so often to eat, drink, and have a chat, and On this particular occasion, the Open Finance Coffee Club also brought its members. A similar crowd, but with a specific interest in financial services. .

This is a group that is also, predominantly, young. The next generation of leaders that'll be running our enterprises and build the technologies we will all rely on next. I felt old just being with them.

Actually,  I am not that old, but there is just such substantive difference in the behaviour and capability.

For starters, when it got to questions, there were lots. Now, when speaking to corporate audiences, you normally have to drag the questions out by hook or by crook. Not so here. There were questions, and there were challenges. It was so refreshing.

And then there was the discussion during the dinner itself. How to get your start-up on various important sites to get that initial surge of traffic. The relative merits of each, compared with the growth stage of the company. And whether some traffic is not worth having at all.

I cannot imagine today's senior leaders even thinking about such things, much less doing something about them. But these guys were expert.

And speaking of expert, the financial accumen in this group is very impressive. I was speaking of an internal innovation we are doing here (and about which I'll write more  in the future), where we model certain innovative behaviours using a prediction market. And the audience wanted to know how we managed speculators with long and short selling, was our market efficient, and might the set of econometric factors we'd set up lead to an internal “bubble”.

There are people with decades of experience who work inside banks who are less expert than this lot.

But I also overheard something that made my eyes open. This guy was talking about his present employment. He explained, in hushed tones as if it were something to be ashamed of, that he was working in a big company, but didn't expect to be there long. “It isn't where I'd want to end up”, he said, implying that anyone who did anything other than be their own boss was somehow missing the point.

And this was a theme that came out on multiple occasions during the evening. The aristocracy of talent was all that mattered here, and why on earth would you put up with the potential of someone less talented than you telling you what to do?

In fact, as one person put it during the dinner “you can't even get the talented people to work in a startup. The best ones only want to work on their own ideas”.

The brightest, most talented people aren't coming to big companies any more. We've always had an advantage on our side: we have resources, so if you wanted to do something impactful, you had few choices but to go to a big player.

But now, with the democratisation of the tools of production (and, increasingly of capital), you don't need big company resources any more. You can be impactful yourself. And with the barriers so low, if your first great plan doesn't work, its easy to dump it and start something new.

The “War for Talent” is a constant theme when you go to corporate events and hear what large companies are doing to compete. But that's missing something very vital: the real talent isn't available to large companies in the first place.

Because the fact of the matter is, the ones we'd really like to hire serve themselves and their dreams first. They don't need, or want, any other master.

5 Responses to“Young Talent”

  1. November 19, 2008 at 6:26 pm #

    James, I think a lot of employers are looking at “young talent” with a bit of trepidation, dread and dismay: did you read the WSJ article a couple weeks ago about Gen Y’s “entitlement”? Some pretty deep generational angst, powered by some misunderstandings and a lack of communication between generations. A lot of what Boomers and Gen X employers see as “entitlement” is really a Gen Y’s very different way of thinking about career meaning and progression.
    And I think it strikes at the heart of what you’re talking about: the chance and opportunities for a lot of young employees in large companies just aren’t there. Why?
    If young employees were trusted to use the resources of big companies and given the opportunity to prove themselves, I think theyd be attracted to large companies. Not everyone’s dream is to serve themselves and their dreams first.

  2. November 20, 2008 at 3:42 am #

    @Taylor: Ah, but that is the problem! The oldies have a powerbase in large corporations which is based on their control of resources. Their “experience” entitles them to such control. It doesn’t matter how talented the young ones are, because it isn’t about talent. At least not to them.
    I suspect this is something that will last only one more generation tho.

  3. November 20, 2008 at 1:29 pm #

    A lot of generational angst comes from older managers expecting behaviour that was sensible when the way to get where they are now was to start as a “task worker” and head upwards from there. That’s not really possible with modern HR management.
    Experience is an interesting one. Most of the people James met, were very smart people who’d not got on the City/fast-track management train, so they’ve knocked around for long enough to develop broad skill sets and the confidence to use them.
    On the flip-side, I could show you terrifyingly conformant 23-yr olds. There are people my age who’ve worked in KPMG IT delivery their whole lives, and only understand how to spec things up for outsourcers (which is harder than you’d think). They could potentially gain decades of IT “experience” without being able to install an office router.
    Perhaps big firms should do a catch-and-release scheme 🙂
    I’m not sure how much control “the oldies” really have. So many “flagship” firms have aggressively hollowed themselves out since the 80s. (And the people they outsourced to have a habit of cutting them out in the long-term.)

  4. Chris White
    November 25, 2008 at 11:35 am #

    So whats new. I joined a major clearing bank in the late 1960’s in the first flush of graduates from the new universities. The bank and its staff where totally unprepared to handle a group of people who questioned why things operated the way they did. Consequently, within two years, 90% had left, many to follow their own dream.

  5. January 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    No wonder companies like P&G have programs like Idea Net.
    You make very good points. I think this insight is percolating in the corporate world too.
    I keep seeing posts on “Talent Crunch” and how to work with “Generation Y” etc.

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