talent – THE source of sustainable competitive advantage

One of our market contacts that delivers white label package treatment plants and skids recently informed us that clients are increasingly willing to accept copies of well-known water product brands produced in countries with minimal intellectual property protection.

So with intellectual property increasingly under assault as a source of competitive advantage, how can organisations survive with reasonable margin in the water industry?

It will come as no surprise to readers that in my view, talent is the only true source of competitive advantage. As long as you have an innovative R&D team in your organisation, you can keep ahead of the imitators.

With the water industry capex set to grow at around 6% year-on-year for the next five 5 years (Global Water Intelligence) the competition for that talent will remain intense.

So how do you attract and retain the best people? The good news is that most organisations are not very good at this so it is easy to outperform. The bad news is that your organisation is probably one of the bad ones.

Here are my top three tips.

1. Have a coherent strategy! 

I rarely come across a company in the water industry that has a coherent strategy which all members of the organisation are able to articulate clearly.

Smart people know that working in a company without a coherent, comprehensive strategy can be hell. Have a great story to tell…people love a great story. Make sure it makes sense from every angle because great people will see any inconsistencies.

2. Give real responsibility with accountability

 Great people want agency. You must give your star employees the room to do great things. If you have the high-level strategy in place then micro-management will be unnecessary.

3. Be generous

Reward high achievers. Give your people the best technological support available. Make their work lives comfortable. Give them access to plenty of training and development opportunities.


If you can nail these three things then you are well on the way to attracting and retaining the top people, and achieving sustainable competitive advantage.

Attracting and retaining staff in emerging markets

I have to confess to being a Harvard Business Review junkie…but for good reason. It is always packed with good quality content.

November’s issue is no exception, with a great article on retaining talent in emerging markets titled “Winning the Race for Talent in Emerging Markets”. This is highly relevant for water businesses looking to maintain or build a business in the BRIC economies.

Research shows that even strong and established international brands cannot coast on their existing brand value. This ties in with a conversation I had recently with an engineer, originally from China. He said that in China the salaries offered by local companies were now comparable to those offered by multinationals. There was not a strong financial imperative to move to a foreign firm, and staying in a domestic firm offers a lot by way of comfort, stability, and not having to do three am conference calls.

 So how can you attract these people to your business? You have to leverage all the strengths you have as a multinational business. Professionals in emerging markets feel a tremendous sense of opportunity, and to attract and retain those professionals you need to provide Brand, Purpose, Opportunity and Culture.


Your public brand must be strong enough that potential employees want to be associated with it, but your employer brand must be for providing insirational leadership, and challenging employees to excel.


You must provide a career fast-track option. Provide employees with stretch assignments and give rapid promotions to those who succeed. Remember that there is a sense of opportunity, and top employees don’t want to miss the boat.


In developing markets, your employees will have often experienced poverty and social injustice themselves. Having a higher purpose as part of your organisation’s mission is even more important than in developed economies.


Your brand must be authentic, your organisation must “walk the talk”. You must also have a meritocratic culture, where a graduate entering your business in Dalian must be able to believe they can end up in the executive suit in New York or Paris.

Of course, setting up systems and processes that allow you to deliver on these promises is costly and demanding, but promising then not delivering is disastrous…and doing nothing is not an option if you want to hire the best people.