The War for TalentAshley Cavanaghon 17 November 2021 at 5:00 pm RecruitingDaily


“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I was fortunate to work for Nielsen for a few years, and I got to listen to David Kenny, the  CEO, speak several times. He is someone I paid attention to. He’s progressive, he assumed responsibility for diversity as chief diversity officer.

He wears loafers and socks with printed pictures, he speaks inspirationally and he taught me something I didn’t like something I probably couldn’t have heard from someone else. He taught me, “business is war.” 

To be clear, I’m not a fan of war. I have an actual peace symbol tattoo. I also think what we do is as much like war as a street brawl is to an atomic detonation. However, for the sake of the point let’s talk about the part of the business war that is focused on talent. Let’s examine the lessons of war and apply them for peace. 

If you are in a war for talent and you do not know where your enemy is, how strong they are and what type they are, any “disruptive strategy” is really just a dressed-up Leeroy Jenkins. You and your team know this.

The wording manifests differently because we typically don’t think of our job in those terms. We hear things like, our strategy is “post and pray,” or “It’s a numbers game” (spoiler alert, it’s only a numbers game for the house).

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

Sun Tzu

Crossing the Delaware

When one pictures the American military, there is often an image of pristine order and cleanliness. Barracks with bunks perfectly made, boots polished, floor cleaned, uniforms perfectly uniform. But that was not always the case.

In January of 1778 Baron Von Stuben arrived from France to the campsite of the American Continental Army with the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin. George Washington put him in charge of training the army and organizing the camp. To say it was in ruins and disorder would be a grave disservice to the term “gift for understatement.”

Yelling in German and French with translation help from a handful of officers, Von Stuben began teaching the Americans how to march and shoot and fight. But more importantly, he taught the Americans how to set up camp, dig latrines, wash their hands, clean their clothes and keep the camp clean. He created the “Blue Book” for military organization. Parts of this manual are still in use by the American military today, over 200 years later.  

His troops, at first, were hesitant to take his instructions in order seriously. They did not think that learning how to set up tents in a row and wash their hands was the way to win a war. Von Stuben knew that the greatest threat to an army was not the enemy or the weather, but disease.

He taught his troops what every great coach does: You play how you practice. 

By December 1778, the army was ready. In less than a year Von Stuben turned 7,000 volunteers, living in abject squalor and disease, into a fighting force that successfully executed a sneak attack against a more experienced army. Washington may have commanded the army, but it was Baron Friedrich Vilhelm von Steuben who built it. 

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

– Sun Tzu 

With the army now trained and disciplined, on December 24, 1778 George Washington crossed the Delaware and into history.  

The Lesson

How does this relate to our situation today? It’s simple. If we are going to continue to use the analogy of war, then we need to understand the different roles. To do otherwise would be to play chess without knowing how the pieces move. 

Order of Battle

Sourcers = Special Forces
Recruiters = Infantry 
Marketing = Artillery
Labor Market Analytics = Military Intelligence
Hiring Managers = Calvary
Social Media Team = Air Force 
TA PM = Logistics 

Once we know how many and what kind of resources we have, we can now understand what our army looks like.

How well trained and equipped are your forces? 
Does your military intelligence provide you with a battlefield map, weather conditions and an update on enemy movements?
Does your infantry know how to march, move and fight together?
Can you call in the cavalry?
Do you know how and when you should? 
Do you have close air support?

Sun Tzu would call this the knowing yourself part. If you do not know yourself, you have no chance of winning a battle. If you feel like you are never winning or only winning by luck, this is why. 

The Battle of Midway: June 1942

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

-Sun Tzu

In June 1942 The American Admiral Chester Nimitz faced off against the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in what was to be a turning point in World War II.

Yamamoto was moving to invade Midway island in the Pacific. He expected little resistance. He believed the Americans had two operational aircraft carriers, while he had four. Additionally, Midway was a minor outpost with only a handful of outdated planes. It had no reason to expect an attack.

Yamamoto had been educated at Harvard, traveled throughout the U.S., and spoke English fluently. He knew his enemy well and had made his plans accordingly. Finally, his intelligence reported the remaining American carriers to be several thousand miles away. 

The truth was that the United States had broken the Japanese communications codes sometime earlier and had managed to keep that fact a secret.  

In June 1942, before the first shot had been fired, Nimitz had a massive advantage. His intelligence officers were able to read enemy communication in near real-time. He knew what Yamamoto was planning. He had also read Sun Tzu.

He knew how many and what kinds of ships he had, he knew where he was coming from and about when he would arrive.  

Nimitz sent orders and ships to make it look like he was sending his carrier fleet away from Midway. But this was a deception. Nimitz had an additional ace up his sleeve: the USS Yorktown. This aircraft carrier had been damaged in battle earlier in the war and was believed by the Japanese to be sunk. It was in fact, being repaired at the dock and would be ready for the coming battle. 

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

-Sun Tzu 

The truth was, Nimitz was sending three aircraft carriers to intercept the advancing enemy fleet. For what it’s worth, even with his intelligence, he named the rally point for his carriers Point Luck. What he had done was use his intelligence to lay a trap. 

By applying this knowledge with a smaller, less experienced, less technically advanced force he was able not only to win the battle but also destroy all of his opponent’s aircraft carriers and change the course of the war. This battle is studied around the world in military academies as an example of the importance of accurate and timely intelligence in war.  

How Is This Like What We Do Today?

Well, for the most part we aren’t there yet. But people analytics should serve the same purpose for talent acquisition that military intelligence serves for a battlefield commander. They provide information on enemy talent, location, type, strength. They report on movement.

If they get really good, they start giving you an idea of the internal communication of your enemies, I mean, your competition.

The talent map is your battlefield map. The labor market reports are the weather conditions on the battlefield. Your sourcers giving you information about layoffs that haven’t been announced is your code-breaking team. Knowing this type of information is critical to correctly apply your limited resources for maximum effect. 

Operation Neptune Spear (Seal Team Six) May 2, 2011: Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, Coordinates: 34°10′9″N 73°14′33″E 

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

– Sun Tzu 

According to, “On the night of the infiltration, two dozen SEALs flew in using two helicopters beneath the radar and varying routes to avoid detection.

“Using night-vision goggles (power on the street had been cut off), the SEALs infiltrated the compound, killing anyone who put up resistance, securing the women and children, clearing weapons stashes and barricades and taking anything that could contain secret information, including hard drives and cell phones.

“The SEALs quickly made their way up to the third floor, where they found the terrorist leader in his bedroom and killed him. …The entire operation lasted less than 45 minutes.”

That terrorist leader was Osama Bin Laden.

Special forces are employed by militaries around the world. They are designed to attack quickly, from behind and by surprise. When a sourcer reaches out to an employee at one of your competitors, it is the equivalent of a sneak attack.  

In the ancient world, ninjas were the best of special forces. They were highly trained and well-equipped but largely autonomous. They were used to conduct short-duration strikes against high-value targets. Typically, sourcers act like Ninjas. They are given a target but no real instruction or support on how they are to achieve their objectives. 

However, on the modern battlefield, special forces operate in teams. That’s given modern commanders additional ways to deploy their forces. Seal Team Six, the most widely known special forces team, and is tasked with “performing the most complex, classified and dangerous missions.” They conduct, “counterterrorism, hostage rescue, special reconnaissance, and direct action.” 

Sourcers should be the special forces of talent acquisition. They can be deployed to find niche talent, a valid use for sourcing but not the only one. They can be deployed to “hot spots,” create pipelines, build relationships with communities, nourish employee referral programs as well as provide real-time feedback on market conditions on the ground.  Sourcers are the tip of the spear; they should be made up of the elite of your talent acquisition function. 

What has to change is that the people in the field need to be empowered with not just correct information, but the ability to organize. As we move past the Great Resignation into the Great Recovery, we need to become more organized and data-driven, but with a myopic focus on data hygiene. Data hygiene is to a talent acquisition what washing hands is to an army.  

Peace In Our Time

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”

– Sun Tzu 

The most successful outcome would be to find a Nash equilibrium as we move towards the commoditization of labor. I wrote about what that means in practical terms in a previous article. In the end, the bottom line may be the thing that drives peace. War, after all, is inefficient and not profitable in the long term.

After war, reality changes. Things that were once impossible now seem inevitable. Former enemies become close allies. 

To move from the Great Resignation to the Great Recovery, talent acquisition must up its game. We must become organized, informed and methodical. We must move from the Continental army of January 1778 to the one of December of 1778. The objective of any just war must be peace. 

On the topic of peace, I leave you with the words of John F Kennedy, who spoke on the topic at length. 

“I have, therefore, chosen this time and this place to discuss a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived — yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace.

“What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

Perhaps a Sun Tsu of Talent Acquisition will lead us to a Nash Equilibrium an optimal move as the market moves toward the commoditization of labor. If you don’t know what that means, it is in your best interest to learn. After all, it was Sun Tsu who said in the end, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

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“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War… Read more
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