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Sarah Mackie

Infinity Learning

Commercial Director

Read more about Sarah Mackie

Identifying the leaders of tomorrow


It’s that time of year again. The process of graduate recruitment begins and, once again, we find ourselves with mountains of CVs from the would-be leaders of tomorrow, professing great interest in a career in…oh the virtues of the Find & Replace function!

With more graduates on the market than ever before, all with a plethora of Duke of Edinburgh Awards, charity work and healthy pursuits under their belt, you may, like me, feel that all these kids have really learned is how to market themselves – not in itself a bad thing, but how do you find the real substance?
So what we need is a fool-proof set of criteria that go deeper than candidates simply being ‘red brick’ university applicants. Personally I think it’s important to start with the end in mind – what sort of leaders do we want or need? What sort of employees do we require them to be while on their journey to the top? And, what kind of people will reward us with their loyalty for our investment in them?
1 Numeracy and literacy
OK, so this may seem trite for a graduate intake – until you test them during an assessment day. In a technological world, the ability to read is greater than the ability to write and mental arithmetic is almost non-existent. It is, therefore, perfectly possible that your graduates may not be able to write a business proposal without a set of templates and style guidelines. It is also highly likely that, when sitting face-to-face with a prospect during a negotiation, they will not have the mental agility to close a profitable deal.
Top tip: Look for degrees that require both Maths and English to be tested and developed throughout the syllabus.
2 Oral communication skills
Think of an average week in your organisation and calculate roughly how many meetings, presentations, seminars and networking events you attend. Then consider how many of these face-to-face encounters are interesting, productive and informative. Clarity of thought translated into inspiring verbal presentation is at the heart of good leadership so make sure your graduates have the basics in place.
Top tip: Rather than undertake group exercises to produce presentations, put your graduates under pressure and ask them to comment on world affairs or one of your key business issues. The goal is to have them come up with a balanced argument, while giving them no more than 10 minutes alone to prepare.
3 Open to change
Many assessment days include elements of change, for example, asking applicants to compile a budget in a given timeframe and then telling them that it had been reduced by half about halfway through. This is usually met with startled looks and groans, but is nonetheless an effective way of observing behaviour in a real-world scenario.
This idea is that good leaders embrace change, but being able to do so is largely based on upbringing and past experience. So I ask applicants to talk to me about their biggest mistake, what they learned and how they now behave differently as a result.
My favourite example of this was when a guy I interviewed said that he discovered, when undertaking a summer call centre job, that he had a talent for sales. He decided to finish his education after sixth form in order to earn some money. And he did so very successfully, making and losing about £200,000 over an 18-month period.
The candidate told me that if he had invested in shares in his favourite nightclub rather than spending it on wine, women and dancing the night away, he would have made a lot more money. As a result, he decided to go to university to study business management and now had an interest in property portfolio development.
Top tip: Ask your graduates to tell you about their biggest mistake or to describe a major period of change in their life in order to try and understand how they dealt with it emotionally. If they merely adapted their expectations rather than learning from the experience, give them a wide berth – unless you want your future MD to tell shareholders that profit expectations were not met so next year the company will cut targets.
4 Lifelong learners
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. So, while I have a certain sympathy for graduates who leave university sick to death of writing essays and reading text books, I still need to know that they will take every opportunity to expand their thinking.
As a result, I always want to see demonstrations of an appetite for learning and to be shown examples of where being told something simply wasn’t enough to satisfy candidates’ hunger for knowledge. For me, it’s about learning for a given outcome rather than simply gaining a qualification because it looks good on a CV.
Top tip: Your graduates need to show self-directed development that has a clear outcome in mind. But beware lifelong academics as they rarely belong in the commercial world.
5 Enthusiastic
I know that graduates all appear enthusiastic when they come to an assessment day. But what you really want is genuine enthusiasm for what your company does and the role that they would like within it. At HMV, for example; applicants – even for Saturday jobs – must be able to demonstrate a passion for music, film or television just to make it through to interview.
So how much are these applicants likely to have done to prepare for their interview? Pointing them towards on-boarding material – short pieces of pre-induction e-learning content made available on the company website – is proving to be very effective in this context. Putting QR (Quick Response) codes on assessment day literature is also a very effective way of leading applicants on a virtual treasure hunt for information in preparation for the big day.
Top tip: The amount of work applicants have done to prepare for assessment day is a very simple indicator of their enthusiasm for your company.
6 Flexibility
The global nature of the online economy means that even the smallest of companies can now trade across continents with ease. As a result, your graduates will have to be flexible about their location and working hours. Asking an applicant whether they are prepared to work abroad just makes the role sound more exciting and is only ever likely to be met with a positive response.
But try digging a little deeper – did they ever move schools or house other than with everyone else at secondary school and sixth form? Did they have to make new friends? Was this easy or difficult? Did people treat them differently? How did they cope with being the new kid on the block?
Top tip: Ask yourself if your candidates would be able to consistently establish themselves as leaders in different locations with different groups of people?
I don’t believe that the workplace has necessarily become more demanding in the past 20 years – in many ways, employee rights have improved and employers are more willing to take into account family and work-life balance issues.
But, I do believe that the workplace is now more complex and faster paced than it ever was. This means that transparency and communication are key and the ability to perform under pressure is paramount.
It also means that the leaders of the future need to be able to think on their feet and react effectively and consistently in real-time in order to ensure that their stakeholders remain loyal. This is no mean feat. Think of Gordon Brown during the last election or Tony Hayward during the recent BP oil spill – both brilliant men in their given field, but not sufficiently rounded individuals to deliver consistently under pressure.
With this in mind, good graduates don’t necessarily become good leaders by magic – they require nurturing, investment and support. Therefore, in order to attract and breed the best talent, organisations need to build a reputation for developing their entire workforce – not just those on the fast-track.
Sarah Mackie is commercial director at learning design company, Infinity Learning.
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Sarah Mackie

Commercial Director

Read more from Sarah Mackie

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