"People are everything," proclaims the umpteenth chief executive in the umpteenth annual report. But often as not, his or her actions belie these high-sounding words.
Then there's McKinsey & Co., the management consultants, described by Professor Richard Bettis of Southern Methodist University as "an empty box that then goes out and figures what to do each time" it takes on a client. Fashioning a business that's perpetually reinvented into a highly profitable, billion-dollar-plus, global enterprise is possible for only one reason: McKinsey is its talent. And unlike the average industrial firm, even in 1992, it understands that and acts accordingly.
My point is not to extol McKinsey (where I hung out for seven years) but to consider it and other professional service firms as the ultimate "knowledge players." Wise carmakers, transformer manufacturers and chemical concerns must start mimicking the likes of McKinsey.
With the age of talent upon us, what should we do?
* Recognize the role of talent. Attitude and attention, ultimately, are decisive. Junior and senior staff at McKinsey spend loads of time on all aspects of nurturing talent, from recruiting to on-the-job development to courting alumni. Such effort is not seen as a distraction but as the essence of the business.
* Take recruitment very seriously. National Basketball Association teams understand this. So do Broadway, off-Broadway and Hollywood producers. So, too, the accountants Arthur Andersen and ad agency Chiat/Day/Mojo. Yet most companies treat recruiting as a ho-hum affair.
* Look for the quirky as well as the "solid gold." The best ballet companies, symphonies, ad agencies and software houses pursue offbeat, raw talent that might create something very special -- as well as predictably "good," big-league caliber personnel.
* Develop talent fast. The future for all businesses lies in a project orientation. Projects are a way of life at professional service firms Arthur Andersen and EDS. Get people working on project teams -- in over their heads -- from day one.
* Develop talent slowly. Yes, put people in over their heads. But make sure a network of coaches is there to offer support. Evaluate project managers as meticulously for their coaching skills as for their job-completion records.
* Abandon hierarchy and induce people to develop their own networks. In an age of talent and value-through-knowledge, everyone needs ready access to experts everywhere. Fresh-caught recruits must learn to find specialized resources, within and beyond the organization, to help them get any job done, quickly.
* Let the market prevail. The better consultants at McKinsey are in great demand and always have a juicy list of future projects to choose from. Less successful consultants aren't in demand, sit "on the beach" (in their offices) and eventually leave.
* Forget lifetime employment. The peripatetic professional will symbolize the age of talent. People don't stay on the same movie set for life, or with McKinsey or the Boston Consulting Group. Everyone understands the rules: The employer offers an extraordinary, but not necessarily permanent, opportunity for growth in return for extraordinary effort while you're aboard.
* Invest heavily in the evaluation process. Since there's no formal hierarchy "to look out for you," there must be an alternative that doesn't leave the individual clueless.
* Be flexible and demanding. Self-starting talent goes where it will. At the same time, professional service organizations thrive to the extent they set and adhere to uncompromising standards.
The age of talent, networks and projects is different from the age of the vertically oriented, hierarchical companies offering lifetime sinecures. Front-burner talent development will be the hallmark of tomorrow's business successes.
(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801;  839-5600.)