Winning the Talent War #1: Create a Broad Network of Talent

The initial success of the talent network without boundaries has led one public relations firm to start including non-employees, quasi-employees, and plenty of outside niche firms in its “best teams.”

One of the first things I noticed when I started consulting to one of the leading professional services firms in the PR industry was that the number of employees technically working for the firm is deceptive. The firm seeks to employ just about every talented person in the PR industry. I mean everybody. But not as employees.

“The power of the firm is our broad talent network,” the CEO says confidently. “We no longer need to own talent to have control over the quality and consistency of the work. We just need to forge relationships, whether it’s through using freelancers or alliances and joint ventures with other firms. Overall, the goal is to enlarge our network as much as possible so we have access to as wide a range of services as possible. It’s just an amazing pool of resources we can deploy to meet the needs of our clients in ways we never would have been able to before.”

When a new piece of business comes into the firm, the first step is an assessment of the work to be done. It doesn’t matter whether the client is in St. Louis or San Francisco or Frankfurt, all the resources of the firm’s talent network throughout the world can be called upon to staff the project, from any of the firm’s different practice areas. Every element of the project is assigned to the very best person for that particular assignment—that is, the person with the most relevant skills and experience who happens to be available.

Let’s say a global company in the high-tech sector comes in with a need to communicate its new health-care plan to all of its employees. The account executive might pull together a team from the high-tech practice in Silicon Valley and the health-care practice in New York and the corporate communications practice in London. It all depends on the particulars of the project. If the health-care plan itself still needs shaping, somebody with deep knowledge of corporate benefits packages might be needed. Or maybe the policy is settled, but it needs to be clearly articulated, so the team will need a good technical writer. Or maybe the plan is to be communicated in as many different media as possible, so the team will need experts in audio, video, print, and Web-based communication, and the firm would draw from its resources around the world. Perhaps the policy already has been written up and published, but the client’s employees are responding badly. The team will need someone with experience in employee relations. And so on. Whatever roles need to be filled, they will be filled as necessary with the best person available from anywhere in the firm’s talent network, whether those people are traditional employees or not.

The Best Teams Strategy

The firm calls this approach its “Best Teams” strategy. What does your best teams strategy look like?

This approach is a clear departure for the firm and from the standard operating procedure of most professional services firms. Typically, when a client comes to a professional services firm with a piece of business, the particular practice group in the particular office where the client walked in the door would tend to be proprietary about the project. “That’s our client. That’s our business.” And because rewards were allocated based on office billings, that made a lot of sense in terms of each individual’s self-interest.

Not anymore at this firm, and more and more other professional services firms are following suit. The local offices of the firm are still the gateways into the firm for clients, but every office is as great as all the resources in the firm’s talent network. Says the CEO, “When we started removing the boundaries of the office and the practice group, our value proposition became simply our ability to access and deploy talent from any source in the firm and bring it to bear on our client’s needs.”

The initial success of the talent network without boundaries now has led the firm to start including non-employees, quasi-employees, and plenty of outside niche firms in its “best teams.” And once it did that, the floodgates were open for new kinds of relationships with traditional employees too. “This approach gives employees the opportunity to move in an out of the firm (and back in if they want) more freely,” the CEO notes. “They can leave and still be as much a part of the firm as they were when they were account supervisors because they are still part of the talent network as a service provider. We have access to them, but in a different way. We’ve invested so much in them and they in us, it just makes sense to keep working together.”

The talent network/best teams approach also facilitates the career customization needs of today’s ambitious free agents. It is easy to move people from one role to another, from one geography to another, from one practice group to another. This gives the firm the ability to retain people they might otherwise lose. “We can’t meet every single need,” the CEO says, “but it is much easier to do it now.”

Another executive with the firm adds, “We created this as a way to better service our clients, and what we found out is it has been a tremendous asset as far as attracting and retaining the best people, as well. It gives people access to continuous challenges. We can open a new practice area to them, or a new geography to them. When we recruit, we talk about that a lot. We say, ‘We are hiring you into this job, but we can move you into other jobs along the way.’ Some people want more balance in their work, but others just want more work. It also depends on what their passion is. And whatever it is, we have a multiplicity of opportunity for them.”

As a result of the firm’s fluid structure, its turnover is consistently less than the industry average, but that figure is deceptive, as well, because the firm is redefining turnover. Even when people leave as full-time employees, they often return again, largely because even when they leave, through the talent network, they never stop working for the firm.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,


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