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How to set up a TalkTalk style graduate programme

Graduates are tomorrow’s customers and as such can offer great insight and diversity of thought into how businesses can improve their service offering and remain at the forefront of their industries, in what has become an increasingly competitive global market.

On this premise, it is no surprise that organisations, such as technology company TalkTalk, are increasingly seeking out quality graduates to join their ranks. We speak to the TalkTalk Group, who share their thoughts on graduates and insight into how to go about setting up an effective graduate programme.

Taking a broader approach to talent

In 1997 McKinsey coined the term ‘war for talent’; and the war is still raging.

“There are definite talent gaps in the UK, [and as such] we absolutely still have a war for talent [to fill those gaps]. If anything it has gotten more complex in a globalised market,”

To compound the problem, the talent world has changed beyond recognition over the past decade.

Moreover the skill set TalkTalk needed three years ago is not the same skill set they are going to need in three to five years time.

The result is that organisations, such as TalkTalk, are being forced to think differently about how to acquire talent.

“We can either look at talent from a skills perspective, whereby we hire purely for skills, and as such feel the skills gap more acutely due to a shortage of skilled people to deliver our requirements,”

“Or we can look at it a different way and think: what is the capability that I need? What is the potential of the talent out there? When we do that, then the war for talent isn’t as extreme as some people say.”

Talk Talk believes in taking a broader and deeper approach to talent, which is why they are an advocate of the latter train of thought.

“[We need to think] about what capabilities we need and how we are going to acquire them. Is it through acquisition? Through new entrants? Through internal mobility? Through better succession planning? Organic growth?”

The importance of a graduate programme

Graduates are a growing part of TalkTalk’s recruitment armoury. This is because as a technology business, TalkTalk recognises the importance of driving their customers online and increasing the customer experience in a digital marketplace.

“Graduates, from a business perspective, have a role to play in achieving this aspiration,”

This is why TalkTalk invests a lot of time and money to recruit graduates.

However, having said this, while graduates are an important part of what TalkTalk does, they fit into the bigger picture of talent attraction and recruitment. This is because Talk Talk believes it is important to look at the overall talent lifecycle rather than just focus on one particular area.

“Because I think it’s short-sighted to only focus on one part of a talent pipeline.”

Why does a graduate programme have huge potential for a business?

“Because I think that at the end of the day those new entrants are our customers. It’s as simple as that. And if we don’t understand our customers, then we can’t grow.”

Talk Talk said graduates might not necessarily bring experience to the table but they most definitely bring diversity of thought, youth, a fresh pair of eyes, imagination and innovation.

What does quality look like?

To Talk Talk, quality is somebody that has the right attitude.

“It’s that sort of ambition and motivation. It’s that learning agility. It’s somebody that has maybe 70% of what you need but the [remaining] 30% is what you can really mould. They just get it.”

In other words, they hire for attitude and train for skill.

Setting up a graduate programme

Like any relatively new initiative, in order to guarantee its success, one must put a lot of thought and planning into it. It is also important, when the initiative involves attracting quality candidates, that you put yourself in their shoes and see it through their eyes.

The engagement principles of programme making and HR storytelling are one and the same, said Talk Talk. This is why when you’re telling a corporate story you have to think about it from a consumer’s perspective and what impact it has.

“Think about your audience. What do they want to think? What do they want to feel? What do you want them to do as a result of their interaction with you? And that is very similar to programme making,”.

What are graduates looking for?

The majority of today’s graduates are not looking for a career anymore, said Talk Talk.

Instead they are looking for an experience and want to understand your Corporate Social Responsibility.

“Millennials [the demographic cohort that makes up the majority of today’s graduates] want to feel as if they can give something back. That’s more important to them than the salary you are going to give them.”

Not that they are not interested in money, they are; but more regarding earning potential than anything else.

Part of this is driven by today’s celebrity culture.

“They are very, very driven by celebrity culture and what motivates that is freedom. Money gives freedom and choice,”.

Millennials are also put off joining a company if they do not have flexibility, the latest kit or a chance to grow within an organisation.

Brand names are also much more important to younger generations than older generations, although there seems to be less loyalty to brands.

“Millennials want to know that the work they will be doing is interesting and stimulating, and that they will have opportunities for growth. This is why there is a lot more job mobility and less loyalty to brands among millennials compared to Gen Y and Baby Boomers, for example,”.

Creating an experience

It is because the drivers that attract today’s graduates are so different that it is important to look at talent from more than just a skills perspective.

“The way we’re looking at it is very much as an experience. We want to create an experience while that new entrant – whether at graduate level or any other level – is here.”

It is important to TalkTalk that their candidates feel as if they are being selected for an experience.

“That we are selecting you for that personal investment… We are selecting you to make a difference… We are going to invest in you. That’s what we are committing to do in terms of our new entrants.”

If graduates join TalkTalk and then leave after two or three years, they are okay with that as long as while they are at TalkTalk they do a brilliant job and as long as TalkTalk gives them a brilliant experience.

By creating that great experience, graduates, whether they choose to stay or to leave, will forever be part of TalkTalk’s alumni and hopefully refer other candidates to the organisation or spread the word on social media.

“We are [effectively] renting the graduate from the time they work for us to the time they leave,”.

The reason they have made their peace with this temporary arrangement is because the relationship between candidates and businesses in today’s world is similar to an alliance.

The significance of forming a TalkTalk – Graduate alliance

At TalkTalk they invest in great talent and in turn great talent invests in TalkTalk’s success.

“There should be a mutually beneficial deal between two independent players [the business and new entrants] and you must be very explicit about the terms that it’s important to develop a relationship based on how [each party] can add value to the other.”

“It is more than a transactional relationship. It’s a mutual, beneficial alliance. We are telling you that we will absolutely invest in you because we believe in you, you’ve got great potential and we are going to give you a great experience. As an employee, you’re more likely to sign up for that and work hard for two or three years until you decide you’re not going to get what you need out of the relationship anymore.”

Selecting the right candidates

It is important for any organisation to look at what their capabilities are going forward and to really focus on the business need for diversity of thought, future leadership and future expertise.

This is why graduates are selected for fit and future capability rather than for particular skills, they said.

It is also why attracting the right graduate is more important than attracting a lot of graduates.

“You should make sure that getting to really know someone is more important than what you’re gleaming from an application,”

“The application is a portal to get you noticed and yes there is a huge amount of science about what organisations look for but at the end of the day the best hires I’ve made have been those people who haven’t had all of the skills and it’s been based on conversations rather than putting them through 100 million tests.”

The Talk Talk recruitment team did not monitor candidates’ social media pages such as Facebook or Twitter because they felt those networks were personal to them and that at the moment there was no real filter on them.

Managing candidates’ expectations is also key..

“Setting expectations with your candidates is critical,” including salary, timelines, what to expect from the programme etc.

“You have to be really clear so candidates can choose to opt out when they want to in the process,”

Personalising the candidate experience

It is also important to remember to personalise the graduate candidate experience and to get it right.

“You really need to work with the business and to think about how you use your brand, because your employer brand is linked [to how many graduates you attract].”

If you get the candidate experience wrong you risk being blasted over social media, with a whole host of technologies out there to speed that process up.

“Glassdoor is a perfect example of that. You can go from Hero to Zero on something like Glassdoor.”

TalkTalk actually monitors the chatter relevant to them on Glassdoor as it helps them gain a better understanding of candidates’ and employees’ opinion of them as an organisation.

Working closely with the business

The function of HR at TalkTalk is to act as a Group Resource and as such works very closely with the business on workforce, growth and budget planning.

HR has moved away from operating as a transactional, ‘point and click’, function which’s only role is to fill vacancies. Instead, HR acts as a strategy partner and actually advises the business about where to find the right talent, what the right talent pipeline looks like, building talent pools and communities, and looking at the overall employee value proposition.

[As such] the graduate programme is very closely linked to TalkTalk’s business strategy and its attraction method is skills and gap led and stems from the organisation’s talent strategy which is reviewed and built annually. The talent strategy itself is based on the organisational capability review of the business’ top 200 people.

“We look at the capability, we look at the stretch, we look at the pivotal roles, and then we produce a report for our Executive Committee, which are the direct report to the CEO, of where we think the gaps are and basically our talent strategy, of which new entrants is a part of, is built out from that.”

What does the TalkTalk graduate programme look like?

Graduates entering the business on the graduate programme are hired as a central resource for one year. The programme is split over the consumer business and the TalkTalk B2B business and involves management groups, mentor programmes, career management workshops and training days. All graduates know their salary and increment increases from the get-go, so there are no surprises. As part of the programme the graduates are asked to work on a group project and to present it to a panel made up of the Executive Board. The programme, which was launched last year and is now in its second year, is so successful that TalkTalk is considering how to extend the programme to give the highest potential graduates an extra year’s experience in the business.

“We look at our ‘as is’ state, where we are, where we want to be and what are wow factors are.”

It is important to the business to ensure the graduate programme is continually reviewed as it has huge growth potential.

They also hope that after tweaking the programme and proving proof of concept that the Business Units, which are currently working in partnership with HR on this, will take over the management of their graduates rather than have it wholly owned by HR.

With this end goal in mind, it is imperative that they always think about how to improve the programme and how to really work with the business and deliver what it needs and wants.

Recruitment channels

TalkTalk targets graduates through its company website, on campus and through social media channels.

First of all graduates tend to have short attention spans, so to attract them using your website the messages need to be short and clear. Secondly, website navigation needs to be clear and simple, and the detail also has to be simple. And finally, any hints and tips also need to be clearly visible.

Organisations sometimes forget that people are not commodities who should be happy to work for them. Instead they have to remember that people have a lot more choice, both personally and professionally, and therefore they will exercise that right to choose.

“If you’re not clear and consistent in your messaging then you’re not likely to be an employer of choice because people will see through it. People will see through a lot of garbage written on a website the minute they walk through the door and talk to one of your resourcers. That’s why you have to be authentic,”

Regarding on campus activities, events to target students include organising hakathons; forming strategic partnerships with Hyper Island, a global learning hub that offers technology programmes in collaboration with the industry and on experience-based learning; and try-before-you buy programmes (involves work experience at TalkTalk).

The on campus partnerships are tiered Gold, Silver and Bronze.

Bronze partnerships might involve a university fair, Silver partnerships might involve giving a talk at a particular university course, and Gold might involve a university wide hakathon.

“We try to grade our partnerships so that we are really sure that we are building the right strategic partnerships. Again our focus is on quality over quantity so we don’t have 20 different relationships that we can’t keep going. We’d rather have five that are driving that [graduate] pipeline,”

TalkTalk also has graduate pages on LinkedIn and Facebook, with another one being developed for its own company website.

By 2020 it is believed five generations will be working side-by-side. Is TalkTalk ready for a multigenerational workforce?
“I think that we have some way to go. I think that we definitely have diversity of thought and we definitely acknowledge that our aspirations are to be more youthful in outlook and that means that in certain areas of the business we will need to hire more graduates.”

As for their systems and processes, they still have some work to do.

“But we have at least identified where our gaps are and we are working towards that. And the fact that we have a more consolidated, well rounded graduate programme with a robust attraction strategy, deeper strategic partnerships, and are thinking about all of the touch points and mapping out the candidate experience, I think we are more ready than we have ever been.”

Looking into the future

Predicting too far into the future regarding the attraction and selection of the graduate market was impossible.

“I know where we want to be in three years time and I think that is realistic. Three to five is realistic,”

The aim is to ensure TalkTalk is an employer of choice and that for some of the graduates coming through the graduate programme to make it into senior management positions.

“I want them to be playing a really key part [in our organisation] and we can say we’ve grown them and these are our success stories. They can then help develop other new talent in the organisation,”

They want the graduate programme to become part of TalkTalk’s DNA and to “just be embedded into the way we do things here”.

I want it to be part of who we are rather than what we do. It’s just an important part of our talent attraction strategy.”

From a customer journey perspective the graduate programme is an important pre-life experience.

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