Aon’s 2011 Global Risk Management Survey, conducted with a group of 1 000 business professionals in 58 countries, recently revealed that failure to attract and retain top talent ranks as the seventh highest risk in business today.


As many as 60 percent of respondents reported that they do not have a plan in place to handle this risk and only 4 percent shared that they are seeking outside support for recruitment and retention strategies.

Natalie Maroun, chief strategist and senior partner of LRMG, believes that in the South African workplace, talent will continue to climb the risk list as a result of the growing Talent War both locally and internationally. Maroun says there are a number of factors contributing to this, including globalisation and migration, the ‘moving target’ nature of talent, gender inequality and the difficulties around defining talent.

In terms of ‘globalisation and migration’, it is a common perception in South Africa that the white population makes up the majority of our brain drain. However, the national BratTrax study in 2010, conducted by Youth Dynamix, showed that 42 percent of black teenagers between 13 and 15 are disillusioned and plan to leave as soon as they can. Only 33 percent of white and Indian youth plan to leave. Major reasons contributing to this desire to leave include the lack of employment opportunities in South Africa, high crime rates and according to 73 percent of respondents in the BratTrax study, the government not living up to its promises. “Since our youth are the future of our country, we should be alarmed by these statistics,” says Maroun.

The question is what do we do about this impending crisis? Maroun believes that it is both up to government and the private sector to encourage South African talent to remain in the country.

She says government needs to improve existing policies and reforms that encourage business opportunities and possibilities. “Government’s responsibility is not to create jobs, but rather to facilitate a climate in which businesses can grow and thrive,” she says. In terms of the private sector’s responsibility, Maroun believes that it’s the role of companies to create jobs. “The private sector should create opportunities for our youth and should be able to assist in career stability and progression for experienced and talented workers. If we are to halt the movement of top talent out of our country then government and private sector should be held accountable for delivering on their role expectations,” says Maroun.

A further issue contributing to the movement of top talent is gender inequity. This will remain a reality in South Africa as long as highly capable women are treated differently to their male counterparts in behaviour and compensation. Because of this, many women feel forced to move to areas where they are treated more equally and fairly. “We need to address gender inequity seriously and immediately otherwise it will continue to create instability in talent retention if left unaddressed.”

Apart from the increase in talent migration, what adds to the risk of losing talent is the changing definition of talent. According to Maroun, what is considered talent today may very well be outdated tomorrow. What this means is that organisations need to be building robust approaches to attracting and developing talent that stands the test of time. Talent of the future will be truly diverse; leadership styles that worked in the past will no longer be as effective in the future. They will need to be digitally confident integrators who can manage diversity of thought and work styles, and who have the ability to craft a higher purpose and build sustainable and inclusive models of growth for the business. Managers and leaders who have the foresight to see this and adapt their styles will be the ones who will be successful in the future.

She says it’s time for a change in strategy. “Organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain specialised talent as knowledge and industry are changing so rapidly. Leaders should be focussed on attracting knowledge workers who are capable of rapidly acquiring knowledge and skill, and converting it into meaningful performance. Once the business has attracted these people, it needs to ensure that it keeps its finger on the pulse in terms of understanding what it takes to retain them at all cost.”

The final contributor is that talent as a concept is difficult to define. This causes instability and confusion in Human Capital Management departments that are tasked with attracting and retaining top talent. “How can they fulfil this task if they don’t know what talent is to begin with?” Maroun asks.

According to Maroun, a solid departure point in terms of defining what talent is, is Marcus Buckingham and Curt W. Coffman’s excerpt on how great managers see talent. In their book First, Break All the Rules, they state that talent [is] a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied. And, therefore, every role performed at excellence requires talent because every role performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour.

“While there is no silver bullet or quick fix that will see our talent risk corrected overnight, we will experience a vast improvement should government and the public sector begin to work together to stabilise the environment and create job opportunities. In addition, if we can get gender equity right and find ways to define what our talent is, we will make significant progress in attracting and retaining it.

If we don’t do anything, we can expect to see talent attraction and retention risks remaining as is, or even becoming worse in South Africa – a country that is filled with some of the most highly talented, motivated and skilled people in the world,” she concludes.