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How well have leaders really been supported during the pandemic?

Alex Duff - Not A Duff word

“Intense. That’s the word I’d use to describe the last year,” says Denise Shillito, an HR business leader with over 15 years’ experience.  “It’s been tough for so many on so many levels, but it’s really taken a toll on young people. When you’re embarking on your career it can be overwhelming; doing exams; trying to secure the first step on your career path and competing against your peers; with the pandemic on top of all of that, well, it’s been intense for them.”

Denise has worked in corporate HR roles her entire career and one of her priorities has always been to attract young people who are starting out in their career to join the respective business.  That’s why, when she heard about a free-to-attend virtual group coaching school for students, Denise wanted to get involved and help out.

“I’ve known the initiative’s organiser, Susan Room, for many years.  We did our executive coach training together and she’s now also my coach because she challenges me and brings a lot of experience. When I heard about her student schools I just thought: ‘This is brilliant, exactly what we need for young people. Giving students access to coaching, which is usually the preserve of senior executives, is really powerful. We’re often taught, ‘what to think’ but we’re not taught ‘how to think’ at university or school.  This coaching helps students better understand themselves and tap into how they think.  It provides them with the tools to excel – it’s why I, and others, bring coaching into the workplace.”

Susan invited Denise to join her Winter School that combines voice and executive coaching to help young people feel, look and sound more confident. ‘Come along, listen in, and offer any advice you can about what you see when recruiting for a graduate or from your wider business experiences that would be useful to the students,’ was the gist of their conversation – so that’s what Denise did.

“I don’t usually have the privilege to sit down with students until they get to interview stage. Having listened to their stories, what surfaced quickly is that these young people are feeling overwhelmed. Understandably, they are feeling alone because they aren’t getting the support from their networks that they would normally get when mixing at university.”

Denise admits to being ‘blown away’ by the experience from the very first session.  “I was so impressed by their courage.  They were openly sharing their own lockdown stories with students from other universities – people they’d never met and didn’t know.  I think that’s a real testament to them in bringing themselves fully to the workshops.”

The first session is all about mindset, something that leaders the world-over understand either propels you or holds you back.  And what Susan’s student schools are highlighting is that these learnings, around self-awareness, are fundamentally missing from schools and universities.  “It’s a shame you have to wait until much later in your career, when you might have the privilege to get your own coach, to learn these critical skills,” says Denise.

Denise describes that first session’s sharing experience as profound.  “It was an ‘aha’ moment for the students as they realised ‘Ah, thank goodness, I’m not the only one who is feeling like this.’” But Denise realised this wasn’t only an ‘aha’ moment for the students, but for her too.

“When you are in business, especially a large organisation recruiting a lot of grads, you’re looking for effective and efficient ways to streamline that process.  That’s understandable as you want to find those who are a great fit for your organisation as soon as possible.  But hearing these student stories made me stop and think about the hidden impacts some approaches to recruitment may be having during this pandemic.” The students often felt deflated by the recruitment experience from many organisations and a lack of support. It’s not only about attracting the talent, we also need to think about our employee value proposition and what we’re doing to support the young leaders of today.

Denise is referring to stories like Emma Boyle’s, a bright, articulate, young woman, studying International Business Management with Marketing at Heriot-Watt University. Emma’s due to graduate next summer and was keen to attend Winter School to get a head start developing the skills she knows will benefit her so much in the future.

“I’ve done five or six of these internship interviews online and I haven’t done one yet with a person at the other end.   You are just filming yourself,” says Emma.  “That’s weird, speaking to yourself, because you’re not getting that back and forth with the conversation.  These interviews put you under enormous time pressure because you only have so long to give your answer and you don’t want to miss an important point.  That’s a completely different skill set.  It’s got nothing to do with my academic or technical ability.  I love my university and my course, but I just don’t feel we’re given all the tools we need to succeed at university to enter the world of work.  These virtual interviews also really take away from the experience.  Five or six interviews and I haven’t heard anything yet from a real person.  If things do gradually go back to normal, maybe if grad jobs start going back to being face-to-face, I feel like the jump back to that format means I’m really going to be struggling.”

Without these necessary soft skills, without their usual support networks, without that connection to business, is it really any wonder we’re seeing young people’s anxiety skyrocketing and resilience plummeting?

Denise responds: “That’s why this student school was a powerful learning experience by helping the students upgrade their skills. Hearing the stories of these young people and then seeing their bravery has made me think: We need to take a more candidate-centric approach to attracting young talent to the business by understanding what skills will set them up for success. I question how businesses are making this a more positive experience for student candidates. I believe that’s something businesses have a responsibility for now.  As businesses, leaders, and professionals, we all need to be asking ourselves:  How are we supporting our future leaders during this pandemic?”

And what Susan’s student school experience reinforced for Denise is that “we need to do more” and that this programme is a great place to start.

“Organisations need to create a compelling employee-value proposition (EVP) to attract and retain students.  If your EVP is strong, that’s key in winning the talent war.  Cultivating an experience which makes you stand out is why I was impressed and passionate about the Make Your Mark Summer and Winter Schools.  Providing students with the opportunity to develop their skills and making it available at a time when they need it most.  That’s what makes this programme so powerful. Businesses that are committed to developing the next generation of business leaders should consider running such programmes.”

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