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Learning through developing others: 2 years of working with early talent

"What advice would you give your 20 year-old self?" is a question that sometimes gets asked to those of us who have been in the world of work for a little while. After working on the development of graduates and early talent for the past couple of years, I feel that a better question to ask would be: "What advice would you like to get from your 20 year-old self?". Indeed, while my job was to find the right ways to develop our future talent pipeline, I have found that I have also gained a lot from interacting with recent graduates and students. As I transition into another role, less directly involved in early talent, I wanted to reflect on some of the key insights I take away from this experience.

A genuine force for change

When thinking about, and articulating, the purpose of our graduate programme, like many other companies, we would say that we wish to bring in a fresh and new perspective to challenge the status-quo. What I have witnessed first hand is just how much of an opportunity our graduates give us in that respect, if we are ready to walk the talk and indeed open up channels to be challenged and invite new perspectives. For example, over the last couple of years, some of our graduates organised themselves to form a group sharing a common interest in sustainability, and developed initiatives which gained momentum, now able to gather hundreds of employees on virtual events sharing not only what we do as an organisation, but more broadly educating others on the topic and the need for action. While I would love to be able to say that I was a catalyst for this initiative, this happened completely outside of our formal programme structure, through individual initiative, support from senior stakeholders, and sheer passion and drive to make a difference in this area, which this group definitely has.

And there are examples aplenty, of graduates setting up creative initiatives to support young girls getting into STEM and engineering studies, partnering with the NHS in various capacities, driving efforts to raise awareness and support for mental health related matters, or use specific technical skills for the benefit of their communities. From my perspective, these tend to surface when we look to recognise our graduates who have made a difference, and invite nominations, which often leave us overwhelmed by the energy, drive and commitment that is out there, from people who do not just focus their efforts on managing the start of their career, but also in using their skills for the greater good. With this, I feel that this also creates a responsibility for those of us in slightly more senior positions, which is to make sure we create the space for this creativity and force for change to materialise, give some guidance, to a certain extent, but mostly act as an enabler and supporter. This isn't always easy when other pressures to deliver come into play, however we all need to appreciate what there is in it for us all to gain.

A diverse mix of personalities and strengths

I spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years trying to find insights about graduates, mixes of industry data, statistics, survey results to try, like all my counterparts to do the right thing to be the most attractive to candidates, and the most supportive to people on our programmes. And I won't dispute the fact that such data and insights are helpful for consideration when shaping initiatives and policies. However, I have always found it quite risky to make sweeping statements about graduates' personalities, ambitions and expectations, as though they were all coming out of a big graduate factory and built under the same specifications. By the time people finish universities, they have already accumulated a mix of life experiences, individual backgrounds, and personal stories which have made them develop their own goals, views on life, and personal challenges. Unfortunately, we as people find it easier to make sense of phenomena by trying to establish definitive and generic views of the truth, and as such attributing characteristics to certain groups based on what is visible to us. This results in some people labelling all graduates as being, for example, extremely ambitious and wanting to run the company in a matter of years - when, for one graduate being very vocal about their high ambitions, there will be a couple more looking to either focus on developing their expertise, or just being the best at what they do, in more understated ways, with nevertheless no less dedication and commitment.

Similarly, there is a danger to pick up on widely circulated views on generational characteristics, and automatically attribute to all graduates what is often presented as being typical of gen Z. Again, there is some use in highlighting differences in generations, however I always have great concerns around anything which pretends to know somebody's personality based on a particular trait (of course, this applies to many facets of diversity). Instead, what I have experienced is a varied and complex mix of personalities, aspirations, preferences and views. After all, this is what you'd expect to find in the general population, so why should it be any different within a group of graduates - in reality, this diversity is rather reassuring and positive indeed. So, on this topic, the key for me is not to try and capture people's characteristics to adapt our programmes to them, but rather to build an environment in which any type of personality feels comfortable and valued.

A subtle mix of confidence and self-doubt

One of the key differences between graduates which I have witnessed relates to their levels of confidence, self awareness and self belief. While some people may have a perception of graduates coming in full of confidence, it is interesting to see that, when asked, many graduates report challenges with imposter syndrome. This may explain why some might have a tendency to try and over-compensate in their behaviours and how they manage their image. It's easy, after a number of years of corporate experience, to forget that developing an understanding of the corporate environment, typical behaviours, unwritten rules, etc., takes time, and learning to navigate this, when on the other hand you are expected to come in with a certain degree of knowledge to enable you to perform in a role, could equate to knowing perfectly well how to drive, yet being expected to do so through a blurry windscreen.

Self-awareness plays an important role in learning to adjust in a new environment - although the point here may well be to build an environment which does not require much adjusting! Feedback plays a key part in helping younger people to develop their self-awareness, and remains something that too often does not come naturally enough. Of course, there are formal ways for graduates to know how they perform, talk about their development, etc., however this still misses a great richness which can come from the provision of regular, unsolicited feedback, balancing strengths and areas of development ("even-better-if"), not necessarily from line managers, but from others interacting with them as part of project teams or working groups.

A wide network of committed supporters

My final reflection isn't so much about the graduates and early talent themselves, but those who look after, and care for them. One thing struck me quite rapidly after taking up the role, which was to see the passion and dedication which came through very clearly from colleagues in this area, counterparts in other organisations, industry groups and university career services. All across these groups, what I came across were people who had a great sense of purpose, and a genuine concern about supporting people in taking the first steps in their career, with a focus on making sure that no one gets left behind. To that effect, it was great to see over the last two years the growing emphasis on matters relating to diversity, equality and inclusion, as well as social mobility, and associated initiatives taken to support them. And some of these were, from my perspective at least, less obvious than others. Social mobility for example, often relates to efforts to give people from disadvantaged backgrounds to have access to higher education, with the view that this will give them better chances of employment. However, through various discussions, and research I came across as part of my studies, it has become very clear that employment opportunities post graduation remain very unequal based on socio-economical backgrounds. While this may not come as a surprise to many, the scale of the issue and the breadth of the factors influencing it has certainly been an eye opener, and something I feel still requires a great deal of attention at all levels.

With that said, it is encouraging to see the extent of the commitment many are putting in improving challenges relating to equality of opportunities. Many people within organisations are keen supporters of graduates and ready to be generous with their time and energy to provide support and guidance, and help them set them up for success. The challenge sometimes becomes to harness these offers of support, and match them up with those who need it. Mentoring programmes can help to that effect, and should be supplemented by creating more informal opportunities for people to build a support network; and there too, ensuring we foster an environment where everyone feels safe to ask for help and support.

Here we are, as I embark on my next professional challenge, I know that I will keep a close interest on our early talent, to try my best to help them in any way that I can, but also to let them help me, continue to gain more precious perspectives, and enable this great force for change, and for good, to fulfil their potential and ambitions, whatever they may be.

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