Winning the Talent War #3: Build Your Own Reserve Army

Enduring relationships with good talent can’t always be maintained through uninterrupted employment alone. What if people could leave and come back again, all the time?

My company has had the great honor over the years of working with the United States Army. One time, I was at Fort Leavenworth addressing a group of Generals about best practices in business. I was telling them how many business leaders are becoming so concerned about turnover and so intent on not losing the training investment they make in their employees that they are going to great lengths to retain people in less than traditional ways. Rather than lose people altogether, some employers are retaining people part time, flex time, as telecommuters, and in other non-traditional manners. Many employers are letting their people leave and come back. And, in some cases, employers are even saying to people, “Hey, you can go work for our competition. We’ll still welcome you back.”

I guess I wasn’t thinking about my audience. Later, one of the Generals said to me, “Son, when our employees go work for the competition, we shoot ’em.”

But I learned something that day that was extremely valuable. The Generals, I discovered, knew very well the value of the training investment they make in their soldiers, just as other employers do. The U.S. Army, however, has developed a very effective method of continuing to get a return on that investment long after soldiers finish their periods of service. The Army calls this method “the Reserves.”

Don’t Close Any Doors

Enduring relationships with good talent can’t always be maintained through uninterrupted employment alone. What if people could leave and come back again, all the time? The key to making that work is in how you handle people leaving. It doesn’t work if people are leaving angry, hurt, and disgruntled. But if you help people leave on good terms, then you haven’t closed any doors.

Imagine somebody on your team who you really value tells you he or she is thinking about leaving the organization. You might ask, “Is there anything we can do to keep you?”

“Well,” the person might say, “I no longer want to work in this city, or state, or country, or hemisphere…” Or “I no longer want to work with my boss, or coworkers, or vendors, or customers…” Or “I no longer want to work on Thursdays, or during the day, or during the night…” Or “I need to learn new things, or gain new experiences, or take a break…” Why lose the person altogether? Retain this person in your fluid talent pool—in your reserve army.

Whatever you do, don’t end the employment relationship. Keep employing that person wherever, whenever, and however he is willing to work for you. Just think, you have so much work to get done and he probably can help you, at least now and then. Sometime down the road he may return to your core group, as long as the relationship is strong and the culture of your organization or team welcomes people who come and go and come back again.

Why not borrow a staffing strategy for winning the talent wars from one of the greatest fighting forces in the history of the world? Build your own reserve army.

You won’t have the force of law to compel your former employees to return to service, but still, you can call upon your former employees (those who have left on good terms, of course) when you need them. If they are available, they might return to help you, even it’s only for one assignment…or two or three. Many managers already do this, informally and without good support systems: “Hey, I wonder what John is up to lately? I wonder if he’d be able to help us out with this project. Let’s call and see if he’s available.”

A Health-Care Example

One leader we interviewed has been using a small reserve army for several years at $1 billion health-care company where he is the chief information officer. The CIO says, “I have spent the last three years building my team to help execute what I believe is the vision of information systems in health care for the future.” To cope with the staffing challenge, the CIO has borrowed a fluid staffing practice from the nursing field and applied it to his information technology team.

“In the health-care industry, many times we keep nursing and other allied health professionals retained on an as-needed basis. These individuals may hold full-time positions at other employers and squeeze us in if they can. I have taken this concept and applied it to IT staffing as a means of desperation more than a well-thought-out strategy. It just happened to benefit our operation. If we have an employee who decides to leave us for another local job and we have had a good relationship with that individual, we may ask her to help in a pinch. This allows us to keep her on as needed and pay her for work she may do at night or weekends. Typically, her other employer has no problem. I maintain a good relationship with competitors and would not put these employees in compromising situations. This has worked out well over the last three years with about three or four individuals.”

Lean Core Groups and Pools of Fluid Talent

Your best former employees quickly can become backbones of your fluid staffing strategy. Don’t you think so? They already know how to do business in your organization. You’ve already trained them. They already know you and many of your colleagues, and probably plenty of your vendors and customers. Whose skill and performance abilities do you know better than the people who have already worked for you? When they come back, you’ll probably have to fill them in on some new developments, but it’s going to be a lot like riding a bike. Once they’re back on the bike, working with you will be almost like second nature.

Maybe in the time they’ve been gone, they’ll have discovered that the grass isn’t so much greener on the other side. In some cases, before long, they’ll be angling to get rehired again as full timers. If you are smart, you’ll let people flow back into your core group as easily as you let them flow out.

You can count on this: Successful organizations in the new economy will have strong and lean core groups, while they get more and more of the work done by tapping large robust pools of fluid talent. The key to making this work is balance and the relationship between an organization’s core group and its fluid talent pool.

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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