Recruiting for the Death Star

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Posted by Matt Rivera

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June 17, 2010

I recently attended a "Star Wars" weekend with my family at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. An underlying theme to the weekend was the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the release of "The Empire Strikes Back." It was pretty cool. And if you grew up with "Star Wars" like I did, it's hard to believe it's been 30 years since that sequel came out (no comment on how old that makes me feel).

When I returned from my trip, I started thinking about where the Empire was at the end of that movie. A bunch of teenagers had blown up the first Death Star. They pursued and almost caught them, but eventually, they all got away (well, with the exception of the one they froze in carbonite).

So you have to figure that by then, word had gotten out that the Empire might not be the best place to work. There was no corporate headquarters, the leaders were secretive and wore a lot of black, and termination of personnel was literal. How do you rebound from that?

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies today find themselves in a similar situation. Hopefully not to quite the same extent, but the fact is, many companies were decimated by the recession. And as they rebuild, the question becomes how and where to invest first.

My answer to that: talent. My guess is that the Empire didn't put a lot of thought into hiring and retaining talent. And although many of their problems were caused by their zeal to rule the universe, many companies today have similar issues:

  • Top performers leaving. You have to think that after the first Death Star exploded, anyone left in management at the Empire started shooting their resumes out at warp speed (pun intended). And the management training program probably took a big hit when Darth Vader started choking and promoting people on the spot. Suddenly, everyone wanted to work in remote outposts.

  • Loss of intellectual capital. OK, so if you happen to be the one person on this planet who hasn't seen the third (actually, the last) "Star Wars" movie, "Return of the Jedi," I'm going to spoil it for you. They made the same mistake. They rebuilt the Death Star with flaws that could be exploited by small fighters. By not retaining employees and the knowledge they had regarding the first Death Star, they left themselves open to repeating the same mistakes.

  • Management not engaging employees. I could be wrong, but I don't imagine they had a sensitivity training program or a big human resources department on the Death Star. But it was made clear by the guards in the red helmets and capes that management didn't have an open door policy. And you know what happened to the one guy who did speak up in that board meeting in the first (fourth) "Star Wars," right?

  • No employment brand. Beyond issues retaining workers, how in the world could they recruit anyone new? Can you imagine the interview when the candidate asks, "What happened to the guy who previously held this position on the Death Star?" Without missing a beat, the recruiter probably said, "Well, he was fired." I don't care how good the benefits plan is, if the name of your headquarters has death in the title, and the company is so unstable that the work location literally moves around the universe, no one is going to take the job.

In each of these cases, talent and the ability to attract and retain that talent, is critical. Companies today  have an opportunity to make improvements to talent management processes to put themselves in a better post-recession position to combat these issues (and the competition). Those companies that can capitalize on this will not only be in a better competitive position, they will likely be able to endure whatever the universe throws at them.

It's doubtful that even if the Empire had made some changes and invested in their talent there would have been a different outcome. Their problems were likely more centered at the top. However, I'm certain that they might at least have made different mistakes or gone in a different direction, such as outsourcing their security systems.

Or, maybe someone could have convinced them to focus on their strengths and branch out into real estate as a corporation that builds portable, round, self-contained housing. Darth Vader could have been the next Donald Trump (with asthma jokes in place of the hair jokes).

One last observation. If you haven't watched "The Empire Strikes Back," there's one very important reason it's considered one of the best sequels ever made and arguably, the best of the "Star Wars" movies. George Lucas decided not to direct. He didn't try to be all things to all people, and instead, outsourced an area to assure it got the focus it required -- a decision worthy of a Jedi master.

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