· 7 min read · Features

The academy employer: View departing staff as part of an alumni network that benefits you in the long term

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HR directors can become obsessed with retaining their best talent at all costs.

Yet if employers have few qualms about proclaiming the end of the job-for-life culture, they should not be surprised if many of their best employees always have one eye on a bigger and better job elsewhere – however much training has been invested in them.

Savvy organisations have accepted this and are becoming 'academy' employers: their learning and development (L&D) strategy is robust enough to ensure workers are as engaged and productive as possible, but the bosses accept many of them will eventually 'graduate' from the 'academy' – sorry, business – and carry on their successful career somewhere else.

Large employers such as Heineken and PepsiCo already take the academy approach and, rather than seeing losing talent as a negative, they appreciate the longer-term benefits.

Someone who has been well trained within an organisation and leaves on good terms when the time is right for them can become an ambassador for their former employer.

They will hopefully recommend them to others and may choose them as a supplier. Many people who move to a rival or to a different sector may gain additional experience and qualifications – before returning to the fold a few years later, armed with new ideas and fresh thinking.

One high-profile example is Sir Stuart Rose, who first joined Marks and Spencer in 1972 as a management trainee and remained at the company for 17 years before jumping ship to retail rival, Burton Group, where he became chief executive. He made his name at Arcadia before returning to Marks and Spencer in 2004 as chief executive, to fend off a bid from Philip Green. He eventually took on the role of chairman.

Organisations adopting this so-called 'academy' approach also earn a reputation as an employer of choice for talented people starting out in a particular sector and being wooed by a number of top employers.

In IT, Hewlett-Packard (HP) has been an academy employer since the 1960s. Many of Apple's early engineers, including co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, were plucked from HP's ranks, as it became known as the place to start your career if you wanted the best IT training.

Dale Kirk, principal consultant at Thales Training and Consultancy, says Generation Y is leading this desire for more mobility in the workplace. "There is an opportunity for employers to embrace the fact that many young people don't expect a job for life, but many do want a career for life and learning and development strategies must reflect this," he says.

Kirk insists companies must create career development pathways, so individuals know, for example, that it takes five years to progress in a particular role. If they can see training mechanisms in place to help them achieve what they want, they won't feel the urge to leave too early because they no longer feel challenged.

"If the training process is clear, people will stay and be motivated and productive until they feel the time is right to spread their wings," says Kirk.

John Baker spent nine years as learning, development and HR operations director at insurance giant Legal & General and is now working as a consultant. He says there has been a massive shift in how people view careers and employers must adapt their training as a result.

"For many people, for whom this is their first recession, the way some companies have treated their staff has become a bit of a shock and the psychological contract that people have at work has been radically altered," he says. "In this new world, L&D has to acknowledge the reality that employees want to have a career. They must let staff drive their own learning and give them the tools to do that. We must move away from the supply and control approach to training, where we tell people what courses they need to go on."

Baker is adamant companies do gain long-term pluses from helping good staff to graduate from their organisation with the skills they need to have a flourishing career. "If you maintain links with these people and keep them in your network, they will continue to benefit your business, even if they are off the payroll."

It is a view echoed by William Scott-Jackson, chairman at Oxford Strategic Consulting and director at the Centre for Applied HR Research. "If someone does decide to leave, make them feel part of the family as alumni, customers or as ambassadors, because they may still be involved in joint projects. Your human capital doesn't stop at your gates," he says.

Business consultancy KPMG is one of many professional firms with a successful alumni programme, with 25,000 names in the UK. Global head of alumni, Madeleine Wright, says many people come back to the company, having gathered specific industry knowledge, and this benefits KPMG, as well as its clients.

"We recruit a lot of graduates and school-leavers and train them up to be accountants and we expect them to leave," she admits. "We are a stepping stone and many staff end up working within our clients. Notably, 7% of our new joiners in recent years have been alumni coming back to us and they already understand our culture and values."

The psychological contract Baker refers to is something employers are conscious they may need to be repairing as the economic recovery gains momentum and their best talent considers its options. The investment they make in L&D remains a major part of their side of the deal.

Hannah Stratford is head of business psychology at assessment development organisation ETS, which works with ITV, Tesco, Thomas Cook, PepsiCo and HMV. She says the 'academy' idea is an interesting model in the current financial climate when L&D budgets are being stretched. But she argues there is often only a limited amount of talent employers want to retain anyway.

"The academy approach can work for large organisations that want to build their employer brand," says Stratford. "We know that learning and development does engage people and encourage them to stay within an organisation, but the key at the moment is to target the training spend carefully to get the most productive return. This means mapping an individual's skills and training needs against the business strategy."

One company targeting and mapping its training is broadcaster ITV, where engagement director Andrea Ranyard says junior staff, managers and leaders are receiving personalised and integrated learning programmes. "ITV has an aggressive five-year business transformation plan and learning and talent are crucial to this," she says. "The content of the training programmes is being tailored to align with our strategic objectives and there is a focus on leading change."

She adds that ITV is about to launch fast-track graduate and leadership programmes.

With employees increasingly looking for careers rather than jobs, most talented people will always want to work for different employers, in order to reach their skills and earnings potential. L&D strategies need to be structured to reflect this.

As one of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in the world, Astellas employs 16,000 people globally, many of whom are extremely well qualified in research and development, therapeutic products and marketing. President and CEO of Astellas Pharma Europe, Ken Jones, says Astellas wants to be seen as an employer of choice with a track record of helping people do well while they are working there – and once they decide to move on.

"The trick is to make sure people are as employable and productive as possible while they are with you," he says. "And the type of training you do is crucial, because you will always lose some people after a period of time. Often, they are offered new responsibilities that we just cannot match."

Astellas' L&D strategy centres on helping staff understand their own competencies, not just at work, but at home too. "The training focuses on what personal individual journey someone wants to take in their life and this reflects on their professional career and how they work with us now and in the future."

It can be disruptive and frustrating to lose talented people, but if an organisation's L&D strategy is designed in such a way that it and the employee get the most they can from the working relationship - however long it lasts - then a worker's decision to leave should not be seen as the end.

Vice UK: career-focused learning

Vice began life as a Canadian magazine in 1994 and is now a global youth media company. In the UK, its staff numbers have jumped from 20 to100 in a year, with an average age of 25.

The company believes its staff are ambitious as well as talented and head of HR Ros Narden says it is inevitable they will eventually look for that next big career opportunity in the creative industries.

"Most are first-jobber graduates and some have been here for four years or more, which is unusual for this age group, but they love the brand," says Narden. "We know people will look to leave, but we want them to miss us and maybe come back eventually. Or at least work with us."

One Vice UK producer has just left after five years to join a production company. "Hopefully, we will be one of her clients. We have already seen other people who left a couple of years ago step back into the organisation after seeing just how fast we are growing."

Narden says young people expect to be trained, but the learning must be career- rather than job development-focused. "In such a creative environment, the working atmosphere must also not become too corporate," she warns.

"In the two years I have been here, I have introduced a more structured L&D strategy and introduced appraisals, so people do feel invested in."

British Gas/Centrica: retaining the best

Angela Williams, HRD at British Gas, which is part of Centrica, says the company's whole philosophy around L&D is that it wants to retain its best people. It invests a lot in its senior managers to secure the future of the business.

"We are prepared to invest in people's learning and professional development, knowing they may at some point want to go elsewhere. However, our programmes are designed to engage our people, so they feel proud and have trust in the business," says Williams. "Some may still decide to leave, but generally we have high retention rates."

The company wants to develop people so they have the skills and approach to contribute effectively and move up within British Gas, rather than leave.

British Gas's L&D strategy is focused on learning and retention. Its 'Professional Track' on-the-job training programme is role-specific and gets people ready to become team managers. There is also heavy investment in professional development within the HR and marketing functions. For senior managers who want to progress, there are the 'High Upward' and the selective 'Springboard' programmes.

"Those on Springboard tend not to leave, because they want to realise the benefits of what the business has invested in them, but when you are employing a lot of graduates, most of them will expect to move on and seek different experiences over time," says Williams.