It's hard not to be impressed by David Brooks, particularly when he agrees with you. The New York Times columnist wrote a piece today called The Talent Magnet in which he discusses the type of open, dynamic environment that attracts the best and brightest from around the world:
In this century, economic competition between countries is less like the competition between armies or sports teams (with hermetically sealed units bashing or racing against each other). It’s more like the competition between elite universities, who vie for prestige in a networked search for knowledge. It’s less: “We will crush you with our efficiency and might.” It’s more: “We have the best talent and the best values, so if you want to make the most of your own capacities, you’ll come join us.” [Emphasis Added]
The new sort of competition is all about charisma. It’s about gathering talent in one spot (in the information economy, geography matters more than ever because people are most creative when they collaborate face to face). This concentration of talent then attracts more talent, which creates more collaboration, which multiplies everybody’s skills, which attracts more talent and so on.
In one sense, I think Mr. Brooks is right. Talented people are inexorably drawn to other talented people. But, his comparison to universities hits the second ring of the bull's eye. The center target is the competition for resources that companies in the entrepreneurial space face every day: to amass the most dense collection of human talent and maximize their creative output. If he wants a model for the US government to emulate, he need drive no further than the 25 square miles around Mountain View, California or similar US venture center.
In Built for Change, we studied several companies--ones I call Transformative--who have competed for these extraordinary individuals with aplomb. For the most part, they did it in two ways. First, companies like Southwest and Zappo's fostered an irreverent corporate culture that paid no obeisance to industry conventions. Indeed, in language pre-echoing Mr. Brooks, the book notes that:
"An irreverent work environment "creates a self-reinforcing magnetic effect that attracts and retains talented people"
The second way Transformative Companies became talent magnets was with something I called non-process processes. Companies like Netflix eschewed rigid corporate rules around vacation days, face time, and policy manuals. Reviews are very simple: does the person pass the keeper test? Specifically, if they told their boss they were leaving, how hard would their boss fight to keep them? Deadlines and responsibilities are clear, how someone gets their work done is up to them.
That kind of latitude breeds a fierce loyalty, because most people realize that they won't be given such freedom elsewhere. Again, from the book:
"...Netflix now finds itself a talent magnet. Recruiting has become almost effortless...Netflix's potential employees know that this is a place that provides maximal leeway to those who are guaranteed producers."
I hope David Brooks is right and President Obama takes the steps for the US to remain a talent magnet. All our futures are riding on it.