‘We became experts in grad development, but we had some learning to do along the way…’
In 2022 we collaborated with one of our long-standing partners, Marks & Spencer, to help develop their graduate intake. M&S have one of the most sought-after graduate schemes out there – a legacy programme with an impeccable reputation. However, when they realised that their long-established graduate scheme was not meeting the expectations of Generation Z, and that retention of young talent was suffering because of it, they decided to take action. They needed to review the scheme to ensure it met the very specific needs of the graduates entering their business now, whilst also protecting the kudos and prestige that the M&S brand carries. They wanted their graduates to feel that their expectations for M&S were being met, and for them to experience the M&S brilliance before, during and after the programme. As their CEO put it, they needed to ‘protect the magic and modernise the rest’.
So, we set about helping them do just that. A programme that would give these graduates the human skills that would prepare them for challenges that they might face; that would give them deep self-knowledge at the start of their career journey; and provide behavioural learning that would set the tone for the rest of their working lives. We focused on modernising their grad development offering; learning, testing and creating something that truly met the needs of the grads entering the workplace now.
Our brief was to deliver a cohesive programme that enhanced the graduates’ learning journey, built in alignment with M&S’s own core skills framework and technical expertise. This learning would be supported with 1:1 and group coaching and mentoring. It would run for the entire span of the two-year grad scheme, starting in September with each new graduate cohort.
Our initial solution included an in-person launch event during their induction week, to kick-start the momentum and fully integrate the programme as a core part of their scheme. The programme then took the shape of eight live, virtual workshops delivered over the course of the two-year scheme. Alongside this were 1:1 coaching sessions and resolution workshops that were designed to tie the learning together, giving them tangible, actionable tasks to move forward on.
Having worked with leading organisations running some of the biggest grad schemes in the world, we knew that for a programme to really land with this population, it had to be designed and delivered differently to our other leadership programmes. But running this programme, we gained some incredibly valuable insight into the very specific needs and challenges of the Gen Z grads entering the workplace now – a generation who have navigated a melting pot of huge change, and whose needs and challenges have been fundamentally shifted as a result.
We were able to observe content and exercises that have previously landed exceptionally well in populations across the board, not quite hitting the mark for this new intake. Intellectually we knew what this generation valued but, seeing it play out in action, we got to deeply understand these values. So, we brought onboard a team of generations experts, including Dr Eliza Filby, to support us in designing a solution that would really land with this population.
We feel that the insight we have gained designing and running this programme is too good not to share.
Throughout the programme’s duration, we started to notice that there was a disconnect between some of the learning, and the context that the delegates were bringing to the sessions. With only 83% of grads having had any work experience, for most this was their first ever job – which meant they had little to no real experience to connect the learning with. We know that to create real shifts in behaviour, the learning has to be grounded in the real challenges people have faced. This required a number of shifts on our part:
- We redesigned the programme to ensure that the delegates had two months of real, hands-on experience before starting their journey with us.
- We suggested a solution that was fully integrated – that combined experiential classroom training with on-demand learning to support them in the flow of work, at the moment of need, with the real challenges they were facing in the workplace.
- We also ran line manager development sessions, to upskill the grad managers on the specific needs of their population.
We have since found that for all of our graduate solutions, an integrated approach closes that gap between context and learning, immersing graduates much deeper into the content.
With 63% of grads reporting a decline in their wellbeing and mental health over the last year, and the wellbeing crisis already costing UK companies £28.3 billion, we knew that resilience and proactive wellbeing would be critical skills for this population. This learning landed brilliantly with them, and allowed us to have broader conversations around how we create cultures of wellbeing and resilience across M&S. We were also able to understand the current wellbeing narratives at play, and support line managers in optimising these, to start shifting the dial on M&S’s organisational resilience.
During masterclasses, we picked up on an underlying competitiveness between peers. Used to system of meritocracy in education – constantly striving to excel above their peers in exams, coursework, applications and interviews to get ahead – many viewed working life through the same lens. This made them hesitant to share personal examples of struggle, or ask for feedback, due to the risk of showing any vulnerability. Because of this, we found that the 1:1 coaching sessions were a resounding success. These sessions provided a safe space for them to open up in a way that they struggled to during the masterclasses. As such, we built in more coaching between each of the workshops, creating a safe space for them to be pushed, challenged and supported as they went through the steep learning curve which is inevitable in any grad scheme.
We know that Gen Zers are hugely motivated by belonging. They need to feel it amongst their peers and in the company as a whole, to inspire loyalty. In many organisations this is not being prioritised, which means that graduate retention is more likely to suffer. Understanding this taught us the importance of running graduate programmes in person rather than online. At M&S, we had started out with a virtual solution, based on our understanding that it had worked well everywhere else. But the bottom line is, graduates have had enough of online learning and we needed to respect that. We would now strongly recommend all graduate learning programmes include face-to-face elements, in order to foster that all too important sense of belonging.
Being open to learning is, for us, an essential part of how we continuously become better at what we do. We have taken everything we have learnt from working in this space, as well as from the generational experts that we consult with, from the graduates themselves, and from insights gained through coaching, to create programmes that really work. We are now proud to support some of the biggest grad recruiters with the most sought after graduate schemes across the world – working with organisations such as Lidl, Swiss Re and NatWest, to deliver transformative programmes that really work for this generation.