Author: Jonathan Evans, CEO, Discovery

Initially, this may seem like a ridiculous statement, and I’m sure that most people’s instant response would be to answer ‘no’ to this question: a 21-year-old is unlikely to have the skills, commercial acumen, life experience, or just general experience and knowledge to undertake one of these roles. But instead of just answering no, consider how you could say ‘yes’, and more importantly, ‘how do we create the roadmap to success so they can?’.

Today’s talent is very different from 20 years ago. Not only are Universities producing more graduates, but in many cases, they have different skillsets that we need to harness to drive our businesses forward for the next 20 years.

When I review the careers of graduates that we’ve placed over the last 18 years, it’s impressive to see how far many of them have gone on to have incredibly successful careers. A significant number of them are in executive-level roles for some of the finest brands in the world, and some have started their own equally successful businesses. Yet, when these people first walked through our doors all those years ago to actively compete for their first jobs, all they had at this point was their education and potential. Over the years, I’ve also noticed that the time it takes for graduates to progress within a company is becoming shorter. The Management sector sits within the Top 10 most popular sectors for graduates in the UK.

Hiring graduates has many benefits. The right graduates for your business will bring fresh ideas, and with them, a desire to achieve. Harnessing this relatively undeveloped talent can reap dividends for businesses. You can capitalise on their education, their analytical mindsets, and the basic knowledge of the role/industry. Industrial placements, work experience, and internships are common practices for students; with many Universities offering a ‘year in industry’ as part of their course. As such, students aren’t necessarily starting from scratch, but they are still malleable to your company’s way of doing things, without having to undo too many ‘bad habits’.

Although University provides the basic preparation for a graduate role, you should consider – ‘what skills does this graduate need to progress in the company in the next three, five, or seven years?’. As a graduate learns new skills, they become a much more valuable asset – not only for your company but to your competitors too. So how do you retain and grow this talent to make them your next ‘Head of’, MD or CEO?

There are a number of contributing factors to this:

1. Company ethos and values are becoming more and more important to early career talent when they are choosing which companies to join.

During an interview with some of our recently placed graduates, many of them highlighted that one of the most important things about the company they had joined was how the company made them feel valued. One graduate commented that: “You’re not just another cog in the machine that can be replaced tomorrow, everyone is remembered and you’re appreciated for who you are, rather than just your skillset”.

Discovery takes a diagnostic approach to truly understand the company we are partnering with, and get a clear understanding of ‘what good looks like’ for a role – what are you comparing your potential hires to? We see many companies that recruit graduates extremely well, and the returns are well deserved. Unfortunately, we see a bigger proportion of companies who don’t do it well – they hire for the immediate requirement with little consideration for the long term.

It isn’t uncommon for some organisations to invest more time and resources in hiring their executives and senior hires, they can be considered to be more ‘business critical’ and harder to get right. I find this to be counterintuitive; the hiring process should be consistent and balanced across every role in a company with all routes leading to the heart of your business values and culture. After all, if you recruit your graduate hires well, they will become your senior talent of the future. As a business leader making critical decisions on a daily basis, why put your business at risk by creating a ticking time bomb further down in your matrix?

To remove this risk, we always recommend building benchmarks that link the role to your overall business strategy, which in turn are measured and evidenced through an assessment centre process. We’re not just talking about competencies – the values, behaviours and relative organisational pace all have to be considered when building an effective benchmark. Equally, to ensure that you can attract talent with the ‘stretch’ you need, your benchmark needs to look beyond the requirements of your business now. What will you need in 5-10 years’ time?

2. You need to have a proper plan for your graduate(s) – what are they going to be doing or learning in the first six months, one year or two years? What progression routes are there for them in the company? If you don’t outline a plan for them, they can (and will) take the skills you‘ve taught them to a company that does have this plan. Apart from being good practice for growing your own talent, this will succession-proof your organisation and allow you to plan future hires in advance to reduce reactive hiring and your overall total cost of ownership.

3. One of the most important, but often overlooked, things that you need to consider is providing graduates with the support they require. Helping them with day-to-day work and acquiring the skills to complete tasks isn’t enough; going from University to work is a big jump – only 52% of UK employers think University prepares graduates for the world of work [The TEFL Academy]. We recognised this many years ago and introduced The Discovery Graduate OPEN Programme (which has now expanded into two programmes for Aspiring and Emerging Leaders) to bridge the gap between academic life and the workplace. Investing this time in a graduate enables them to become self-aware, more stimulated, more productive, and fully equipped to become a genuine asset to your organisation. This is a crucial time for graduate hires; the foundations that are built during this time will affect their future career and their ultimate success with you. It’s important to teach them skills outside of those required for their current job, teaching them about the wider business and helping them become more self-aware will facilitate their learning and growth as a professional.

When I’m hiring people, I try to remember the advice one of my managers gave me – always hire someone better than yourself. This doesn’t mean that they could do your job now, but it does mean that they have the potential to. What’s the difference between a graduate and someone who’s been in the role for a year? Experience and knowledge. What’s the difference between a graduate and a ‘Head of’, MD or CEO? Experience and knowledge. We were all 21 once, after all.

So, I’ll ask you again, could you hire a 21-year-old to be your next ‘Head of’, MD or CEO?

We’ve helped thousands of employers reach, attract and recruit the best graduates, aided through our long-established networks and university partnerships. You can get in touch with the Discovery team here.