Brain Food: Speaking out - Gavin Neath, chairman, Unilever UK

'How to attract, retain and develop top talent' is a bit of an old chestnut at management conferences. Usually, speakers ignore the title and say what they want to say. Not so Gavin Neath. He stuck to the brief from the organisers of 'MT Lessons from Britain's Most Admired Companies' as he began a clear and precise speech. 'Companies of our size all have access to the same marketing data; we all have access to the same consultants.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's only the people we attract and develop that makes the difference.' He used a Dilbert cartoon to show how important it is to have the people at the coalface to deliver a dose of reality to top management's vision.

Neath was clever enough to adopt a humble approach. 'Too often, conference speakers give the impression that they are paragons. I should point out that while Unilever aspires to excellence, we don't always achieve it.' Getting a graduate traineeship at Unilever is tough - 4,000 apply and are whittled down to just 250, who get two days of grilling before the company selects the lucky 50 who get a job. But the selection process must be working. The average length of stay for graduate entrants in most firms is three and a half years: at Unilever it's seven; many stay much longer. Neath ruefully pointed out he had been there man and boy - over 30 years. Apparently, staff retention boils down to three factors: variety, opportunity and flexibility. 'We grow you; you grow the business' is the Unilever mantra. More companies should adopt it.

Key moment: The disclosure that graduates regard the civil service as offering a highly attractive career.

Key lesson: Sticking to the advertised subject matter is not a bad policy.

Silver tongue or foot in mouth? ... Silver tongue.

- Khalid Aziz, a visiting professor of business communications at Southampton University, chairs the Aziz Corporation - khalid@azizcorp.com.

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