MT Skills Special: Leadership in the workplace

How are the top graduate recruiters developing higher-level skills at the coalface? MT talks to Unilever, home to one of the UK's best-regarded schemes.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

Previously in this series, we've looked at how reform of the education system is the key to providing UK plc with more of the highly-skilled workers it will desperately need in the coming years - and at how innovative third sector organisations are helping to bridge the current skills gap. But how is UK plc addressing the problem in the short term? Which organisations are doing the best job of turning callow graduates into the corporate leaders of tomorrow?

There are lots of very good graduate schemes around, so it's a bit unfair to pick out a specific one. But they don't come much more prestigious or well-regarded than that of Unilever. In MT's 'Britain's Most Admired Companies' awards last year, Unilever didn't just take home the overall prize - it also came out top in the 'attracting, developing and retaining top talent' category, which the consumer goods giant would presumably argue is no coincidence.

And although it does bring in senior hires from outside the business, developing its own talent through the graduate scheme (whose alumni include current UK and Ireland chairman Amanda Sourry) is an 'absolutely fundamental' part of that process, according to UK HR director Alan Walters. Every year, it gets thousands of applications for the 30-40 places up for grabs.

So what's so good about it? 'We just think it's a great place for people at this stage of their career,' Walters tells MT. 'There's a very structured development path. And they get the chance to do real work from day one.' In other words, this isn't just classroom-based learning (although there are elements of that too). Graduates on the Future Leaders scheme are thrown straight into the business - possibly even onto the factory floor itself, or somewhere in the supply chain - as part of a cross-functional team. So they get to see very quickly how the nuts and bolts of the business work. Where appropriate, they'll also be supported in gaining professional qualifications; Walters says this provides trainees with 'other external stimuli about their function'.

What's also interesting is that the scheme is evolving, just as Unilever itself is evolving. For a start, the company has a publicly stated aim of doubling the size of the business while at the same time reducing its environmental impact - which affects the kind of graduates it hires. 'We need creative minds who can come up with new ways to help the business grow like that, and graduates are a critical part of that,' says Walters.

Another key area of focus is trying to boost graduates' commercial savvy - not because they're getting worse, but because the challenges are getting harder. 'The business world is much more competitive these days, and much more demanding. So our leaders need to be much more aware, and competent, and capable'. Unilever's also much more international in its outlook these days - to the extent that it has now standardised its graduate recruitment across all its countries of operation (allowing grads to move more easily around the 'Unilever world').

When graduates complete their two-year programme, they go straight into a leadership role. But their training isn't finished there; they're pushed to build their leadership and management skills through an individual development plan, supported by coaching and senior mentors from elsewhere in the business. Judging by their victory in Most Admired, this ‘overall learning culture’, as Walters calls it, seems to be paying dividends...

Unilever CEO Paul Polman is the subject of this month's MT interview, which you can read online HERE. And to find out exactly why the company was voted by its peers as Britain's Most Admired in 2010, you can also read our feature HERE.

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