Econet’s wily talent strategy

THE global war for talent is no fluke.

 A Harvard-bound 21 year old Zimbabwean shared with me his incredible story. How a poor boy like him got a place at the prestigious Ivy League university’s revered Law School is a lesson in the subtlety and sophistry of a global talent identification machinery run by the world’s powerful and smart think-tanks.

The US runs a masterly world-wide network of innocuous looking schools debate affiliates. The highlight of that network’s activities is the annual world debate tourney, pitting the world’s best high school and college debaters. The journey to world recognition for the then form four pupil began when his headmaster, unimpressed by the quality of written responses to a national selection questionnaire by his senior students, turned to a sharp form four pupil. Little did he know his pupil’s responses would earn first place country-wide. The pupil, with a declared first love in public speaking, who had hitherto not debated, had a face-off with 11 other top-of-the-pile Zimbabwean debaters, coming out tops each time. That won him the ticket to Washington to tussle with more than 200 teams representing the best-in-class from around the world.

To cut the long story short, his two-member team survived elimination reaching the finals, having eliminated the reigning four-time world champions from Britain in the semis, the tournament’s most-feared. He explained to me how he crafted a strategy to outwit the reigning champions — fascinating stuff that belies his age. The Zimbabweans fell to the South African team in the finals by the narrowest of margins, two points, attributed to the team-mate’s sudden collapse on stage, losing crucial points on deportment. Despite the painful loss, the young man was voted the tournament’s best speaker and for his troubles he was awarded a scholarship to enrol at the elite Harvard Law School.

The following year, the world finals were in Sweden. Guess what? The same Zimbabwe team managed to reach the finals and fell to the same team. Again our young man was voted the tournament’s best speaker. They could not give him another scholarship. Instead, he was given a sponsorship package to cover his travelling and medical expenses. Our young man, who has had a heart condition from childhood, got a serious heart-attack that needed hospitalisation and an operation. Through his second sponsorship, a jet was chartered for him to take him to one of the Asian countries for a heart operation. He has fully recovered and will be leaving for Harvard shortly.

Behind an innocent looking debate tourney is a well-orchestrated stratagem to identify global leadership talent for the future. If we thought brain-drain is about skilled professionals leaving in droves we need a rethink.
Through early identification of the world’s finest upcoming talent and ushering that talent into the world’s most influential and powerful socio-political and economic networks in what I have come to refer as the identify-an-Einstein scheme, the pool of future world leaders is growing year by year. That talent pool is within the influence and direction of the world’s prime-movers. To the extent of chartering a jet for an obscure, sick, orphaned Zimbabwean boy, we get a glimpse into the level of seriousness powerful global forces invest in nurturing premium talent. That is leadership. Leadership is not only about possibilities in projects. Equally, it is about possibilities in people.

I turned my telescope to the local skies. I could not help but try to search for a local scheme that is a faint resemblance of the wily and shrewd global scheme we have been discussing. After some hard thinking and research I had a clue. A month ago I was presenting a seminar at one of our universities. Afterwards a young man wearing a T-shirt written “JM Nkomo scholarship Fellow” came to chat with me. During our conversation I came to learn that he was a recipient of the JM Nkomo Econet-run scholarship programme. Econet, in its 2007 annual corporate report describes this scheme as part of its corporate social investment programme. A close-up look at this scheme shows that is not just corporate investment. It is part of a grand talent management strategy.

Though not stated as such, we contend that Econet is hitting two birds with one stone. Let us assume Econet has no intention of employing graduates from its scholarship scheme. If one day Econet happens to be searching for talent and one their scholarship Fellows is the most suitable, what are the chances of Econet failing to woo that talent into its fold on the basis of the strength of the almost familial bond established with its fellows? In Zimbabwe we say a good turn attracts another. The reality is that any one who employs a JM Nkomo fellow with skills needed by Econet is practically renting talent from Econet. Be warned.
Here is an excerpt from the Econet 2007 annual report, page 31. “Once selected, the Joshua Nkomo Fellows are developed by means of a focused personal development programme through a series of well-structured workshops. In addition, the Joshua Nkomo scholarship fund, in partnership with the World Vision Zimbabwe (WVZ), further exposes its fellows to community development programmes that are run by various Area Development Programmes (ADP) of the WVZ. University Level fellows serve internships with WVZ ADPs as part of a ‘Peace Corp’ model of exposure to community and personal development and the essence of dignity and labour’’.

It does not need a software engineering guru to decode that Econet’s programme is part of a well-designed talent development strategy. Who would resist such well-grounded talent academically, technically, socially and spiritually sound? That is a recruiter’s dream. 

France-based INSEAD School of Business recently crafted a strategy development model they call blue ocean strategy. In the model, “blue oceans” are contrasted with “red oceans”. Red oceans are markets where there is fierce cut-throat competition leading to “bloodbaths”, hence the red oceans. Blue oceans refer to un-entered markets where competition is absent. Blue oceans are created when strategists question existing industry boundaries or rules and set new rules of play.

Through its JM Nkomo fellowship scheme, Econet has successfully created a blue ocean for talent whether by design or default. At the time when the report was compiled a total of 107 fellows had been recruited. That is practically an uncontested talent pool, more correctly a “blue ocean pool”. It is not surprising if Econet’s future leadership at executive and board level will come from this pool.
By continually questioning the relevance of today’s industry boundaries and rules of competition HR can come up with a strategy canvas that can create blue oceans for business.

lDo you think Econet’s social responsibility programme is a subtle response to the war for talent? Feedback to brettchulu@consultant.com.

By Brest Chulu