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How companies attract and retain employees in the digital age.


„The term “war for talents” is 22 years old, but today it is more relevant than ever. HR professionals need to discover their sales talent, create meaningful activities and make onboarding more attractive. But how?“

Digital change poses enormous challenges for human resources management. More than ever before, HR managers are being asked to break through familiar thought patterns and to acquire new skills.

In 1997, the term “war for talents” was first used in a study by management consultants McKinsey. Since then, it has become a household word. More than twenty years later, many companies are still asking themselves how they can attract and retain young talent. The only difference to the past is that today we are in the midst of a digital transformation process. And there is no end in sight.

To be able to clearly position ourselves in the competitive arena in the future, we need more talent than the market can currently offer. In the MINT sector (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology) in particular, the shortage of well-trained specialists is particularly great and is increasing exponentially. The MINT Spring Report 2018 of the Institute for German Economic Research talks about 1.2 million vacancies. Personnel who are needed to meet the challenges of digitization. So what can companies do to ensure that they can attract the employees they need so urgently?


„While in the past a company’s brand attracted young high potentials, Generation Y is now questioning the purpose of every company.“

Honesty lasts longest.

First and foremost, companies should embody what they promise to the outside world through employer branding. A communication strategy can be created quickly and professionally by appropriate experts. It is essential to live this strategy in practice. Because false promises regarding agile working methods, self-responsibility and transparency lead to new recruits leaving the company quickly.

Human Resources has an existential role to play in this context. Knowing the traditional tools of the trade in human resources (HR) is not enough any more. Nowadays, HR managers need to be able to sell their company, tasks and areas of responsibility to new employees. Moreover, they should serve as sparring partners for managers and support them in modern leadership so that transformation is also understood as an inner attitude. The HR function is being transformed from an administrative service provider to a professional salesperson. What sales employees have already learned in training sessions should become the standard for successful recruitment in the HR area.

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The changing values of future generations.

Let’s take a look at the employee level. Employees are a company’s most important asset. Everything that constitutes a company is only achieved by its employees. Because let’s be honest. At the end of the day, it is not the corporate strategy that makes a company so successful, but always the way it is structured and the extent to which employees identify with it. This is precisely the reason why it is so important to hire the right people.

While in the past a company’s brand attracted young high potentials, Generation Y is now questioning the purpose of every company. What is the overall scope of action? What is the purpose of my work? Questions about social commitment, sustainability and ecological awareness, as well as about esteem and diversity, are increasingly becoming a central focus for applicants. Companies need to be able to credibly communicate these aspects to interested candidates. After all, employees with in-demand digital know-how are well aware that they can find alternative offers in no time at all.

Managers therefore need new strategies to ensure that employees remain in the company for as long as possible. First and foremost there needs to be a rethink at management level. The increase in complexity for business decisions cannot be left to the sole decision-making power of a company director. Tesla is currently the prime example. Even a visionary such as Elon Musk, who is terrifying world market leaders in the automotive industry, is failing because of the the increasing complexity of the successful Tesla brand. As an executive, he has increasingly distanced himself from his leadership team.

Motivation instead of fluctuation.

Transformations function only through an adapted cultural change. The more disruptively a company changes, the greater the need for a quality of leadership that creates loyalty among employees. Wanting to achieve something great together that would not be possible on their own. This characteristic can prove to be an essential success factor for a team. In this respect, business leaders can learn from football coaches. The German national team demonstrated this brilliantly at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They developed a team spirit that was second to none. An environment was created in which everyone felt comfortable and which offered ample scope for development. Cultural aspects, which can easily be applied to the corporate landscape.

Attractive employers are therefore not only characterized by a great brand, unique products and services, but in particular by leaders who treat their employees with great respect and the necessary esteem. Meeting their team members at eye level and helping them to recognize and develop their potential. Assessing performance is important, but this should not only be achieved through disciplinary action or reward. In times of greatest transformation, the companies that win are those whose leaders not only set clear goals but also inspire their teams through their own example. Managers who involve employees in their decisions and help them to improve. Who establish a culture of networking without rigid silo-thinking. Who demonstrate an openness to ideas, even if they differ from their own.

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A different kind of onboarding.

Once the right candidate has been found, it will be important to keep the induction period as short as possible. During onboarding, new employees are often passed on to experts in the company on an hourly schedule basis. This is done in the hope that they will internalize all processes and internal rules as quickly as possible. Well-intentioned, but counterproductive. This concentrated transfer of knowledge tends to discourage newcomers and ties up resources. In addition, what has been learnt cannot be directly translated into day-to-day work before the employee is already active in his or her new role.

Mentors or “Buddies” are more effective – established employees with a similar level of responsibility. In this way, newcomers can learn from insiders while developing their own style. This only happens when, alongside cognitive comprehension, the new recruit enjoys emotionally positive experiences. If both aspects occur simultaneously, an inner attitude is formed that is decisive for future decisions. In the best case, onboarding should be fun for the new employee. This paves the way for being able to confidently meet new challenges and to develop individual potential as productively as possible. Then suddenly the new employee is transformed from being a source with specific abilities into a valuable employee who, alongside his or her new responsibilities, experiences a sense of both belonging and of autonomy.

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Harald Smolak, Director and HR Director at globalise company Atreus

Harald focuses on the fields of mindful leadership, coaching top management executives, conflict management, organisational and team development and enterprise transformations. In his work he advises and assists clients from the IT, telecommunication, services, electronics, medical technology and insurance industries. He has more than 25 years of experience in general management, marketing & sales, human resources and consulting. Before hiring on at Atreus, he held several executive positions in leading telecommunications companies, including Senior Vice President Sales Americas at Siemens AG and Head of Human Resources Marketing & Sales at Nokia.