How Cities Like Copenhagen Succeed with Talent Attraction | Interview with Morten King-Grubert

Morten King-Grubert, in charge of talent attraction at the Nordic place management consultancy Future Place Leadership, in this interview shares his experience of building a talent attraction strategy from scratch for the city of Copenhagen in Denmark.

This interview is for everyone interested in talent attraction, how Copenhagen does it, or if you want to know where we’re headed and which pitfalls cities should avoid.

Morten, as Director of Talent Attraction at the Nordic place management consultancy Future Place Leadership, advising cities and regions on how to attract and retain talent is your daily business. Do you remember the first time you came across this topic? What got you interested?

I do remember this clearly. It happened in my private life. My wife (an American) and I (a Dane) were relocating from California to Copenhagen and as such I did what we in technical terms call family reunification; seeking to get permission to have a non-EU-citizen enter our borders.

And the process was horrible! (A lot better now a decade later, thankfully). I remember being treated almost like a criminal, being threatened with deportation, honestly because the public officials had lost an unimportant document that they claimed we had not included in the application.

I struggled to understand how we could give all my life story and data way beyond acceptable GDPR [European data protection] levels in different application forms, only to show up for the first meeting with public officials (from a country claiming to be global digital frontrunners) and being asked my name and how to spell it.

Or the best joke of the experience: finding a piece of paper in the trash that my wife had thrown out, wondering why on earth did she not keep such an important letter, offering free Danish classes to a newly arrived foreigner. Then I realized the letter was in Danish, so she had not understood it.

How have your views on talent attraction and place branding changed since then?

Fundamentally, I think my views are the same. But my understanding of the complexity of how to solve the challenges has broadened significantly.

I feel that every day we as a country, metropolis or city must prove to my wife and the thousands of other international people in our region that we are worthy of their efforts. They have relocated from thousands of miles to be part of our world. They have left behind family and what they know, to explore the unknown. And if we don’t do a good job of welcoming them (and their spouses and children) into our workspace and private life, they will leave. And if they do, we will lose their great contribution to the multicultural, diverse and innovative society that we need.

What I have learned though is that this is easier said than done. You need the right legal framework, which is very tricky. You need the right multi-helix governance structure and collaboration platform between public officials in government, regional and local city level, the start-up and corporate world, universities, NGOs and support organizations / programs – from relocation and welcoming services to spouse-care, and so on.

Then, of course, this is a very crowded space. Most regions are seeking to attract the same talents, so you need to find your niche and the right approach to stand out in your attraction efforts.

Before joining FPL you built up Copenhagen Capacity’s talent attraction and retention efforts from scratch. How did you do this?

Firstly, we understood that, as an economic development board, we (Copenhagen Capacity) should only act if a) this really supports economic growth in the region and b) there is a significant market failure, where existing entities cannot solve it by themselves. This clearly was and is the case within talent attraction and retention.

Then, early on, we realized that a lot of good activities were actually happening, but they were all over the place and not strategically aligned between different municipalities. In short, the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing, and the wheel was reinvented over and over again.

We then spent a considerable amount of time understanding the target group which to us was both the universities and companies to receive the talents, and the talents themselves. We wanted a very customer-driven approach. The life cycle experience of the talent in question – from being attracted in the first place to ultimately leaving the region again – became our guideline to strategically consider how we as a region were performing on each step, what to prioritize and what to do concretely.

As for achievements, I would say the first highlight was getting a thank you note from an international student, who had stayed on in Denmark after completion of his studies. The person was down to his last dime, still had a career in Denmark as his dream scenario and finally landed a position. This was very heartwarming.

You can build a gigantic project and work on a multitude of cool things, but at the end of the day, talent attraction and place branding are about people and making an impact.

Another highlight was the moment when the talent department was recognized not as a project but a permanent fixture, and thus was added to the bylaws of the organisation.

I see so many great talent attraction initiatives which break their neck fundraising and with project development over and over again, and in the process they make short-term decisions that are not beneficial in the long run.

Why are sound talent attraction and -retention strategies so important nowadays?

Access to talent is widely recognized as a key driver for growth in the 21st Century. The demographics are clear for most economies too. Talent is becoming a scarcity. And to compete globally, local talent is not sufficient. You need the best and brightest. Period.

In the past this has solemnly been a challenge for employers. But with globalization, these employers will simply leave if the region cannot offer the right talent. At the same time:

Talents are increasingly picking the region that matches their lifestyle preferences first and then they look for the job. Thus, as a region, you need to get involved in this space. How can you make your place relevant for the talents your region needs? How can you work with employers and combine their employer brand with the brand of the place?

Place promotion agencies usually primarily focus on attracting foreign direct investment. How does talent attraction relate to attracting FDI? Where is the link?

Simply put – and this is the experience from Greater Copenhagen dating back more than a decade ago already – the foreign direct investors were becoming less and less interested in market access or a tax subsidy. The primary reason why they would select region x over region y for their next international expansion/investment was access to talent.

At the very least, as an investment promotion agency you need to have a strong emphasis on the talent pool in the region. And most likely you will find that it is not sufficient to compete among the best. Thus, you need to add talent attraction and retention on top of your FDI activities.

With more and more employers realizing the need for a strong place brand in order to attract the talent they need – how do the two interact, or overlap?

I was recently on a panel at the European Forum for New Ideas in Sopot, Poland. The topic was on employer branding and talents. The main representatives on the panel from some of the biggest employers of the country were well aware that they cannot identify and recruit the talent they need locally. They were also well aware that the further away from the HQ location they need to recruit, the more the location of the job matters, as the talent in question will relocate to a new region.

Thus the conversation was all about combining employer branding and place branding. Obviously, relocation is nothing new. But such conversation did not exist 10 years ago to the degree they do today.

When I meet international talent during my workshops, I often ask them how many Danish companies they can mention. The room typically goes quiet after 4-5 companies have been named. Sure Lego, Maersk, Carlsberg and maybe Novo Noridisk get a mention. Imagine the large pool of SMEs, or every other company in Denmark. All of the sudden they are completely unknown to the target group of future employees.

Leveraging the place brand will help in such instances. Copenhagen, Denmark, The Nordics can be a better interest and lead generator than the company itself, to be honest.

Employers are starting to adjust their branding to the values of gen Y and Z, namely trust, low hierarchy and purpose – the ability to help solve real challenges of the world. How does this influence place branding? Or, what could place branders learn from employer branding in this regard?

I am not convinced all employers have seen the light yet. But yes, I agree they should adjust their employer brand. Look, Gen Y is here now. Gen Z is coming fast and in large numbers.

  • What can you as a place offer to these people?
  • How are you making a difference in the world?
  • What is your purpose?
  • How are you working with the UN sustainable development goals?
  • To what degree does livability in your place align with the values of these new generations and the encounters they will have with your public administrators and public spaces?
  • Where is the trust, flexibility and empowerment, for example, in your own organization and city?

If you cannot answer these questions, well then your future citizens will most likely go elsewhere.

Which part of attracting and retaining talent did you find the most challenging during your time at Copenhagen Capacity?

Coming from what is often perceived as old fashioned, inefficient public sector with limited business skills, I think our biggest initial challenge was to convince employers that we could in fact create significant value for them. Not coming to them with another “project”, but rather a business solution.

Working as agile and innovative as the private sector, rather than our own public “box-thinking” was part of the solution. And then co-creation. Not presenting the finished public sector answer to the world’s problems, but working closely with the employers from the get-go to really understand the underlying issues – and to develop solutions together.

Which trends do you observe in talent attraction, and place branding more broadly? Where are we headed?

Like everybody else probably, I am excited to see where digitalization and AI will take us in the field of place branding and talent attraction. For one, a lot of admin bureaucracy and wasted resources for the talent (and the public sector) can be optimized with digital solutions. The amount of paperwork and visits to x different public entities when you relocate is insane.

Yet, at the same time, the personal connection and service is so important when a new talent arrives, that we cannot go all digital. Figuring out the right balance will be very interesting to watch.

One of my favorite topics now is moving from “war on talent” to talent mobility between regions. How can we better share talents, say between Copenhagen and Berlin or Bilbao? Can you turn “goodbye” into “let me help you get to your next adventure” and thereby, through regional partnerships, in reality foster talent sharing?

We are already talking to leading regions about this and look forward to pilot concrete initiatives soon.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Just in summary: How to get started or optimize what you are doing. This talent attraction management model, which was co-created by the pioneers in the field, can help. Take a look and get in touch for further clarification. Happy to help.

Thank you, Morten.

Connect with Morten King-Grubert on LinkedIn.


Enjoyed our interview with Morten King-Grubert on talent attraction, how Copenhagen in Denmark does it, and the broader trends and issues involved with attracting and retaining talent to cities and regions? Thanks for sharing!

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