Ok this is more of a negative, ‘what you’re doing wrong’ kind of post. So apologies about that, but I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about poor experiences on graduate programs that I felt a need to share what I’ve learnt. Future leadership roles are intended to be filled by the graduate group, and so the purpose of this article is to provide advice on retaining those future leaders and not turning them away.
A word of caution – I’m not implying grads must have it “handed to them on a plate” or be given extra-special treatment. I’m talking about good retention and development strategies that will see the organisation succeed through competent future leaders.
- Overstuffing with development
Feedback from graduates in many programs about how they think the program is going is often done very well (both public and private sectors in my experience). Asked frequently to rate how the program is going and what can be done better, there is often a tendency to focus on the performance of service providers rather than reflection on actual individual development to perform a role at an organisation competently. The result is that graduate program managers consume a lot of energy on providing a veritable menu of development choices. Graduates themselves tend to get lost and lose focus in such an environment. The best approach is to get very clear on purpose. Then use external providers or other advice to provide a fresh perspective as a means to help achieve that purpose. But leave most of the actual learning to take place at work. And that doesn’t mean just getting the odd executive to show up at a development program. It means co-designing a graduate development program that makes the best use of experiences at work – as a graduate, development is the work and the work is development.
- Poor design of the program itself
A graduate program is a system unto itself and requires a capable person to design it. Too often, the design of a program is work done at a specialist level of the organisation and not integrated with other organisational systems. System design is manager work, the system itself must be sitting at a level that can be integrated and take account of other organisational systems like on-boarding, promotions, benefits and succession.
But far and away – the most important thing to get right in any graduate program is a shared understanding of the purpose. What is the graduate program actually for? If you haven’t critically considered this for a while in your organisation, it’s nearly always worthwhile to review the purpose and see how the graduate program outcomes measure up.
- ‘Reading the news’ rotations
This is a common one. We all know about the stress associated with having too much to do. But what about when there’s not enough to do? It’s an absolute killer of joy – as well as your graduates’ engagement in their work and the organisation. I’ve often heard the retort – well graduates should be more ‘pro-active’. Maybe. But a well-designed role with real work and on-going feedback by a manager always short-circuits this. The manager now has a graduate as a member of their team – developing a productive culture that supports that graduate to achieve their best is the manager’s work.
- No feedback
As I talked about, most graduate programs are generally great at getting feedback on the performance of the program itself. But what about the performance of a graduate? Some do this very well but where you see this falling down is in setting expectations. Those in charge of a team find this the toughest skill to do well and consistently, and it’s no surprise that feedback for grads in a rotation gets put on the back-burner. The trick is to establish a habit of feedback very early on that has elements of what’s done well and what could be better. Ideally, it becomes a positive experience that both the graduate and manager look forward to.
- Too much authority
This is rarer but can happen where a grad is put in a rotation where the team is under a lot of pressure. Maybe someone leaves suddenly or the workload just ramps up unexpectedly. And the graduate is told – over some protesting – just make some calls and get it done. The development of graduates is actually a fairly delicate process – graduates are making judgements all the time about whether they are cut out for this job. Doubt as they say is an essential part of faith. It would be a tragedy if that doubt became overwhelming and inhibiting to a grad’s development if they were suddenly dealing directly with the CEO and made a crucial mistake. It’s also poor leadership to allow that to happen.
For those in charge of graduate programs or those who’ve been on them, what other mistakes would you add to this list?