How to build an early talent program & how to make it last

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

  • Is an early talent program right for you?

  • How can you provide value to your early talent?v

  • Should an internship be a part of your early talent program?

  • Is an early talent rotational program right for you?

  • How should management be involved in an early talent program?

  • How do you attract early talent?

  • How do you keep early talent happy?


I can remember our first intern, Alexis Cheatham. She had her internship rescinded and so she shot my cofounder a message asking if there was anything we needed help with.


Well, of course, we had a million things we needed help with, but if we added an intern, the responsibility of providing this incredibly talented student with an internship that she would enjoy and learn from would be one of them.


The next issue: how would we pay her?


We grew up in this space and swore we would never have an unpaid internship program.


At the time, we had less than $1,000 in funding, way less than an average monthly salary for an intern in our space. Nonetheless, after confessing many of these things to Alexis, she persisted, and after realizing the potential on both sides, we launched our first internship class of 1.


Alexis was a fantastic intern, she brought a level of excitement and energy to our organization that was palpable. Luckily, we were able to scrape together some personal funds at the end of her summer to compensate her a little bit, and since our company lives in the talent space, could connect her with dozens of recruiters to ensure she was taken care of post-graduation.


Alexis re-defined a lot of our systems and how we did things, she made us look at things through another lens, and she also brought insights of the next generation (which when you live in the recruiting space, matters).




We were an organization of 2 people at the time, and based on the circumstances, an early talent program was right for us. The question is, is it right for you?



Is an early talent Program right for you?


What stage is your business in?

As long as it’s in a stage that can benefit early talent, it’s right for you. The upside for you goes without explanation. As long as you can provide one of the following, you should consider it:

  • Can afford to provide monetary compensation

  • Work in an industry where the early talent can benefit from your network

  • Have the time and resources to ensure the growth of your early talent (This one is key as the last thing you want to do is waste your time or the time of your organization)

Do you need specialized talent or a bright mind to train?

Coming from two guys who wrote the book, “Experience Over Degree’s” our belief that you need a degree or “Specialized education” to do most jobs is definitely limited. Yes, before you write to us explaining that a doctor needs formal training, we agree. So does the person building bridges and airplanes. For non-technical work where success or failure literally means life or death, we agree, a degree, and many years of schooling are very important. But, most roles, “Data Analytics”, “Analyst”, “Consultant”, etc. do not need to come with some type of technical skillset to be valuable. A bright mind with a few months of experience and can be way more valuable than a pencil pusher with a masters. Our point here is that if you don’t need true specialized talent that can’t be taught on the job then early talent can be a very good option for your growing needs.


Do you need talent in the short term or long term?

An early talent program shouldn’t be looked at like a monthly Spotify subscription. It’s not a, “Pay $7 a month” for a full functioning early talent program. To truly build a sustainable early talent program that’ll successfully fulfill your companies hiring needs, you should be planning at least a year out. There is a lot to consider, hence why this blog is so long. If your talent needs are in the short term and you can’t go without, you should not be looking at an early talent hiring program to fill your hiring needs.


If you’ve made it through the above checks:

  • You can provide value to early talent

  • You can fill your talent needs by hiring a bright mind that may not be super specialized

  • Your talent needs are for the longer term

You should continue reading on.


Otherwise, it’s been a pleasure getting to share these words with you and we look forward to chatting with you more as you check these boxes. For the rest of you who are continuing on with us here: Time to get actionable.



How to build an early talent program?


You’ve come to the conclusion that your company has a lot to gain from an early talent program and you’ve got a lot to offer your early talent.


Now what?


What are the first steps you take towards creating one?


What questions need to be answered to ensure it is well thought out?


What are the variables that change based on your organization and the industry it operates in?


Now we progress through these essential questions and many others that need to be answered.


Should an internship be a part of your early talent program?

The data is in -

According to SHRM:

“Research shows that former interns—even those who go on to work for other companies—stay longer at the company than employees who never had an internship.”


Internships are a great way to give both sides a chance to test the waters. Having an internship allows your organization to accomplish many things when planning for your early talent program such as:

  • Funneling potential young talent before graduation

  • Getting to try before you buy your early talent

  • Allowing them to get a better understanding of what life will be like working for your organization

  • Lowering your employee turnover rate

  • Energizing your company culture with bright minds

These are just a few of the many benefits of adding an internship to your early talent program.


Why should you not have an internship program?

You should not add an internship program if you don’t have the time and resources to provide them with real world experience, consistent feedback on performance, proper mentorship channels, or proper compensation.


In case you're planning a virtual internship, here's our blog about creating a virtual internship that will succeed. If this is a new concept altogether, you can learn how to make the jump towards a virtual internship here.


We won’t go into the building of an internship program here in this blog, but we do a complete and thorough breakdown of how to build your internship program here.


Is a rotational program right for you?

“94% of employees would stay with an employer longer if it invested in helping them learn”

-LinkedIn


Rotational programs can offer the following advantages:

  • Lower employee turnover

  • Provide a larger vision for how the company operates so that an employee understands the organizations’ needs

  • Provide a better employee/role fit

  • Teach employees to work with different management personas/teams

  • Foster deeper connections throughout the organization which can allow for a wider free flow of ideas

There are a few things to consider when building one out such as duration of time in each role and creating a support system to help guide them through each role.


There are many resources that cover rotational programs more in depth, like this one by training industry.



Co-Founder & CEO Rishav Khanal Participated in LinkedIn's rotational program right after school


Figure out your selection process and what your *NEED* to have’s

We touched on this up above when we decided if you need specialized talent or not but once you’ve made the decision that early talent is right for you, you must make sure you are absolutely focusing on the “Need to have’s” and not the “Nice to haves” or else you run the risk of limiting your candidate pool and excluding perfect candidates that look very different than the person you expected to need to fill the roll. Our goal here: Strip it down to the bare necessities. If it’s something that could be learned on YouTube in a couple weeks, it’s much more important to hire for things like curiosity and communication. For more advice for writing a good job description, check on this short blog by JobScore.


Involve management

Unless you have buy-in from the whole company, you are planning to fail. Early talent cares about growth, reference the LinkedIn statistic above if you need another reminder. They want to learn and gain experiences from people throughout the organizations who can pass along their experiences. The more you can get upper level management involved in interacting with the early talent, the more they will be bought in, and excited to be working towards the same goals.


Here are the steps for getting upper management involved in your early talent program:

  1. Get them involved early and ask them what their goals are for the early talent program

  2. Ask them what the top qualities they want in a candidate are

  3. Get them involved in the interviewing process.

(My co-founder, Alex, started his career at Appian, a multi billion dollar organization of around 1,000 employees at the time where the CEO would still jump into as many early talent hiring interviews as possible)


The difference that is made when upper management is involved is that it kept the CEO energized by getting to meet the fruits of your labor face to face. It keeps them reminded of the value that the early talent program brings and creates a culture where even the early talent feels listened-to, heard, and appreciated.


Figure out your USP and then get the stories/testimonials to back it up. Are you new, old, industry, people etc.

Learn about your organization’s brand and USP by talking to the people who know the most about it, your employees. Ask them:


What they enjoy?

What they don’t enjoy?

What their favorite things are about the organization?

What their least favorite thing is?


These are the questions you’ll want to start with when trying to figure out how you’re going to sell your brand to early talent and convince them to come work for you.


On top of this, there are inherent traits that come with most businesses such as:

If you’re a start up - your culture is usually sought by the youngest in the workforce for the ability to learn on a wide range of topics.


If you’re a big tech company, modern working practices are probably a strength such as remote work and a collaborative environment.


If your brand stretches into products and services used by the workforce you employ, such as Capital One or Boeing, you have the product/service as a USP in which people already know you for the work that you do. There’s a lot of inherent brand recognition which can work for you or against you depending on how you use it. In this recent blog, you can learn how to authentically pitch your company to a student.


You may not be able to fall back on one of the above, and that’s okay. It just means you’ll need to be smarter about how to build your brand. The good news: You’re starting with a clean slate. Check out our blog about developing your unique selling proposition if you're looking for more ways to stand out.


How will you make sure your early talent grows and feels included while they’re with you? Who will be responsible for the growth of your early talent?

When you give your team members an outlet for expressing themselves in an environment where they feel understood due to equal representation, they stay. As a start up it can oftentimes be difficult (due to resource constraints) to represent all members of society. How we got around this to increase our ability to be an inclusive environment for all cultures was to bring on board members that looked different than us. As two males, the first person we added to our board was a female. With this representation and voice within our ecosystem we were able to bring onboard our first intern who also happened to be a female. On our team calls, it didn't feel like an overly masculine driven conversation and the things that can go along with that such as interrupting, overly firm statements, and topics of discussion that are traditionally had mostly by males. With our board members joining our calls we were able to make it a comfortable environment for everyone to speak their mind and to have very productive conversations and hear feedback on all areas of the business from various perspectives. In summary: The more your team members feel like their perspective is valued, the more they will provide you with feedback for improvement. It's that simple, make people feel listened to, and they'll talk.


Are you throwing titles on a job board or building relationships that get you in front of the right talent?

Ambassador Program. Ambassador Program. Ambassador Program. What do Microsoft, EY, and Garmin all have in common? Long lines (pre-covid) of eager, top talent students, waiting for a chance to hand over their resume in hopes that the employer gods might choose them lucky enough for a spot. We are in a post-advertising world. Unless you're lucky or a new offering, the only way to get anyone to buy anything today is referral marketing from a trusted peer. Whether it be selling Redbull to sleep deprived college kids, or the promise of a position at a coveted employer, ambassador programs separate the companies with long lines vs. the companies with a booth covered up by someone else's. Okay, so you already knew about ambassador programs? Does your ambassador program consist of giving your interns a water bottle and t shirt as they go back to campus or do you actually have an ambassador program? D.A.R.T. is the framework you can use to develop an ambassador program that'll give you the employer brand you're looking for.


D - Define what success looks like and figure out what your exact goals are


A - Accessible Communication and training that provides the intern with direction on what to do once they're back on campus such as building partnerships with organizations and university officials


R - Return on investment tracking and making sure you're tracking the numbers that will prove the effectiveness of the program to ensure it's longevity


T - Togetherness and making sure your ambassador feels like they belong to your organizationIf you have these 4, you're set to propel your brand to the top in a novel way that most companies have attempted but failed to actualize. Companies need not rely on the ability to step foot on college campuses nor bet on the fact that the campus ambassador will. The main point here is that you're looped in to someone who knows what's going on at school, whether it be virtual or on campus


We have a whole blog dedicated to the DART framework so you can get even more actionable with the creation of your Ambassador Program.


How do you train your recruiters to be better than most?

Recruiters are an extension of the brand and oftentimes the first face that future employees will see. Little attention seems to be paid to the importance of the candidate experience and so those companies who are able to be even 1% better have all the advantage when it comes to recruiting top talent. This is also why so many companies are now investing in campus ambassador programs so they can utilize the relatable voice of a past intern to attract top talent at their campuses.


Transparency is the most important trait a recruiter can have, and even more so, a company should have with their recruiter. This means being organized at the top as the first step. Oftentimes companies lack transparency not because they're trying to hide something, but because they don't even know what the final decision will be based on. So the first step is to get organized before placing blame on a recruiter.


As a recruiting agency ourselves, we put our team through a rigorous training process which includes D&I sensitivity training, authentic storytelling, and provide them with a platform to be fully transparent with the employer and vice versa. The impact of a recruiter on employer brand can not be understated in the war for talent. They need to be empowered to have meaningful transparent conversations about the organization with the prospect.


What modern working practices will you take into consideration? Mentoring? working remotely? 80/20?


Remote work

Regardless of your industry, there are ways to make the work attractive for the next generation. COVID has already gotten most companies over the hump of accepting remote work so this one doesn’t need to be driven home too hard. Make sure you are keeping up with workplace evolution that caters towards the brightest prospects of the early talent pool.


Mentorships

Having a firm mentoring structure in place, where employees are assigned a mentor (who actively signed on to the role) to support a new employee in their first month, is a great way to support your early talent. That mentor can be responsible for ensuring that the new hire feels supported and has their concerns voiced. They can also act as a conduit for making introductions to their network within the organization.


Co-Founder Alex was given a mentor as soon as he accepted his full-time position with Appain

80/20

Some companies now allow for 20% of an employee's time to be dedicated to a personal project whether that be improving the community, heading a new initiative within the organization, or even just investing in further self development. These programs are great for keeping new hires from burning out, keeps them growing, and allows them to pursue things they’re passionate about.


The balance Careers has a great piece about Employee Benefits Packages.


These are just a few of the latest trends. Be sure to look around at what other organizations are doing to make sure their workplace is evolving to meet the needs of early talent.


Do you have a path for promotion or growth?

This one is key. We’ve seen it play out many times before. Employee X feels lost because there is no set path for expanding their career. Their boss has alluded to some future promotion but there aren’t actionable goals to hit and it’s not clear how to have any control over this progression. This is NOT where you want to be. Unsatisfied employees who don’t feel like the path is clear and don’t know what needs to be done to get to the next level of responsibility oftentimes voice their discontentedness with other employees. Pretty quickly, the culture changes and the company no longer has the reputation of being a place that supports the growth of its employees. Avoid setting arbitrary boundaries for promotion. Make sure there is a clear expectation of experiences that can be checked off, that the employee knows they can work towards. Otherwise, you’ll not only loose early talent, you’ll create a negative culture within your organization.


Do you have a plan to continuously refresh your talent hiring process/internal growth processes?

As mentioned in this HBR article on Blackrock practices, they’ve been able to draw in the top talent because they don’t take a passive approach to their early talent program. They don’t just plan their early talent program, they plan to evolve it, month after month, year after year. They know when they began that it wasn't a one time thing. It’s not a set it-and forget it. Having an early talent program means planning to review and improve it on a regular basis based on industry best practices



How to measure if your early talent program is working?


2 simple questions can be asked for you to iteratively review whether or not you’ve succeeded in the creation of your early talent program.


Have you built sustainable relationships?

Season after season, do you find it difficult to get in front of early talent? If your answer here is yes, you should think about how you’re building relationships with gatekeepers. Here, we address how to build relationships with early talent gatekeepers. Keeping it simple: Are you finding ways to consistently provide value to career services, professors, and campus organizations. You want to reach out in a way that provides value to the person you’re trying to get something from. Here’s one thing that each entity wants:


Career services - GOOD virtual events, building of the talent they oversee, high placement rates. Depending on the campus, they may be more or less willing to work with your brand but if you can show that you’re interested in more than just, “Hey send me your best students” but instead looking to uplift the whole talent pool through relevant, career growth based events and information sessions about working life instead of a “Your company - Marketing Event” you’ll be a lot more likely to get through to them.


Professors - Relevant content to the class. DO NOT just ask to sell your company for 10 minutes at the beginning of class. INSTEAD ask what content they are currently covering and find someone at the organization who can give a relevant presentation on how they are implementing what the professor is teaching in the classroom.


While working for Appian, Alex often reached out to professors with their goals in mind

Relevant Organizations - GOOD virtual events, consistent pipelining relationships, funding. Organizations, run by students, are great to partner with because year after year, they have fresh talent, oftentimes focused on growing in the industry you’re in. If you can provide them with resume-enhancing real world experience such as small projects, you immediately become front of mind for a lot of the exact early talent you’re looking for.



In this recent blog we talk about effectively building campus connections.


A final note here is also the importance of tracking. Season after season, leadership positions change, career services changes, so how are you ensuring that these contacts are getting updated month after month. Our simple advice: Keep a Google sheet with 3 tabs - one for professors, organizations, and career services. As new recruiters are added, simply add them to the sheet and remind them to update it. Although our managed service is always the best way to do this, if you’re bootstrapping this with limited resources, create a Google Sheet that gets passed down and updated regularly.


Are you retaining your skills and talent?

Are your early talent hires sticking around? If not, you may have missed an important step above such as not providing enough resources for an enjoyable work environment, providing clear expectations for achieving growth, or aren’t creating systems for including them in the organizational culture, early on enough.


Read more on our recent blog about finding out whether or not your early talent program is working



Conclusions

Alright. Take a breath. At this point you deserve it. These 4,000 or so words are a lot to take in so here is a quick summary of what we covered.


Is an early talent program right for you?

  • As long as it’s in a stage that can benefit early talent, it’s right for you.

  • If you don’t need true specialized talent that can’t be learned on the job then early talent can be a very good option for your growing needs.

  • If your talent needs are in the short term and you can’t go without, you should not be looking at an early talent hiring program to fill your hiring needs.

How do you build an early talent program?

  • Internships are a great way to give both sides a chance to test the waters.

  • Don’t add an internship program if you don’t have the time and resources to provide them with real world experience, consistent feedback on performance, proper mentorship channels, or proper compensation.

  • Rotational programs can offer the following advantages: Lower employee turnover, Provide a larger vision for how the company operates so that an employee understands the organizations needs more, better employee/role fit, Teach employees to work with different management personas/teams, Foster deeper connections throughout the organization which can allow for a wider free flow of ideas

  • Strip job requirements down to the bare necessities. If it’s something that could be learned on YouTube in a couple weeks, it’s much more important to hire for things like curiosity and communication.

  • Get upper level management involved in interacting with the early talent, the more they will be bought in, and excited to be working towards the same goals.

  • Learn about your organization’s brand by and USP by talking to the people who know the most about it, your employees

  • Find out why people gravitate towards your industry, what is it known for, and can you include that in your branding?

  • Build an ambassador program that builds meaningful relationships with stakeholders on campus and keeps your pipeline evergreen.

  • What modern practices will you include as you continue to evolve your program

  • Make sure you’re consistently evolving your program

  • Make sure the path to growth and promotion is crystal clear

How to measure if your early talent program is working?

  • At the beginning of each season are you struggling to get in front of talent?

  • Make sure to approach gatekeepers from the perspective of what they want

  • Make sure you have some sort of formal tracking, such as a google sheet so these relationships that have been built season after season don’t get lost.

In a recent podcast with Dan Black, Head of Global recruiting for EY, you can read/listen to more about winning the early talent war from one of the experts.


And with that, you’re off. Happy building!