We are grateful to Sally Waterston, Co-Chairman, Susan Bell, Chief Executive Officer, and Michael Stirrup, Finance Director, of Waterstons Ltd, an IT services business, for the generous amount of time they gave GradStart on Thursday 4 June 2015 at their Durham offices.
During the course of our conversation, it became apparent that Waterstons not only has a well-developed process for bringing new graduate recruits into the business, but also that this process is a direct consequence of, and an essential component of, its enlightened approach to the people in the business.
Waterstons prefers to take on paid interns after their second year and give them one year’s experience in the business before they complete their final year.
This allows the company to identify and develop talented young individuals to whom they can then offer permanent employment once they graduate. Taking them on early enables Waterstons to assess the interns and make employment offers to the best of them, which avoids the need to compete for graduates at the end of their third year.
Many of the interns express the view that the technical skills they learn and the experiences they have in their time at Waterstons enthuse them for the world of work though, of course, it is necessary from them to complete their degree before fulltime employment
Waterstons had previously used traditional careers fairs, but had found it a less successful method for finding potential candidates with relevant degrees and skills sets for a career in IT.
Waterstons has appointed a manager to be responsible for engaging with the universities, and this is proved beneficial in developing a proactive productive relationship.
Given its location in the North East, the company likes to target local universities: Newcastle, Teesside, Northumbria and Durham, as well as specific departments, for instance computer science.
Waterstons’ directors and staff lecture at universities. For example, Sally Waterston has lectured to 200+ undergraduates on entrepreneurship: what is it like running a business, and so on. Colleagues have run technical and project management sessions relevant to the business.
Waterstons sponsors awards for best performance in specific course modules. These awards can include cash prizes and laptops. Undergraduates who show the most potential are offered paid work at their offices during their spare term time and during holidays. This means they gain practical relevant experience and, as paid work, represents a far more useful experience for students than would working in a bar.
When attending university events, Waterstons’ people always take a selection of graduate brochures with them so that those interested can find out more about the business and approach it for work experience, internships and jobs.
Having gone to some trouble to find potential employees with the technical abilities and aptitudes the business needs, Waterstons is then able to choose from this pool those people with suitable attitudes and ethos.
The company is looking for youth, vigour and energy, with a ‘can do’ attitude from its applicants.
Waterstons conducts selection days using DISC profiling to back up interviews in which they are looking for those with an ethos and personality that will fit with the company. Sally said she was looking for values of honesty, integrity, trust and inquisitiveness, and Michael added characteristics of Intellectual breadth and an ability to develop good working relationships.
When new graduate employees join they go through an induction programme which includes the following activities:
This induction process is reviewed following feedback from the interns, recent graduates, colleagues and managers involved in the onboarding process.
Each new member of staff is given a ‘buddy’ from within their own team to support them; and a mentor, who is neither their manager nor from their department, is also available, if needed. The mentor’s role is to understand and support their career objectives, and help them through any challenges that may arise during their progress in the company.
Feedback is given on what employees do well and advice on what needs to be improved.
Whilst much of the training is on the job and technical, there is some soft skills training. For example, it was found that some staff felt they didn’t have the skills to resolve conflicts. Employees felt ill-equipped when encountering and handling them when they arose outside the company. Waterstons designed a Managing conflict and difficult situations workshop with an external trainer.
As part of its ethos towards its staff (see below), Waterstons holds a number of events. Although we suspect these are not designed to increase the chance of good staff staying with the business, the inevitable consequence is, of course, that they do.
1 Every quarter, a hack day is held. This is an opportunity to create something—anything. Some of the ideas are very ‘left field’, but almost always there is some relevance to Waterstons’ activities, for instance, developing integration skills for the ‘internet of things’.
2 Every second Friday there is a seminar to which clients are invited (If they can’t attend then they are able to watch online). A seminar includes a ‘Lunch ‘n’ Learn’ knowledge share, presented by an employee, including recent graduates. Clients are told that they graduates may come across as a bit unpolished due to their inexperience but, it turns out, clients are very supportive. This becomes a great way for the graduates to develop and refine their presentation skills in a constructive environment.
3 ‘Friday beers’ sessions are held to enable staff to keep up to date with the business. These include a ‘grok’ talk where a speaker, chosen at random, who can talk on a topic of his or choice. This helps staff to get to know each other better by giving an insight into individuals’ interests outside work.
Waterstons has strong family-orientated values: “the business and its ethos belong to the staff and we hope to expand and continue this”, says Sally Waterston. It has a liberal attitude so that, for example, there are no fixed working hours nor holidays. One might say this is more like an adult attitude which sees the people in the business as responsible individuals who are capable of getting their job done without someone standing over them.
If an employee needs to leave to collect children from school or to stay at home to look after a sick child, then not only does the time not come from annual leave, but their employer expects them to do this.
Waterstons recognises that it is very hard for people to switch off their concerns about family issues when they are at work, so the company encourages them to discuss their concerns with management so that they can be supported.
In general, employees are genuinely empowered (rather that just lip service being paid to the idea).
Sally Waterston described it is a “privilege” to be able to employ the young people who join the business. The company is truly grateful that they have joined it.
As a consequence of such positive attitudes to their employees:
Waterstons has received two gold Investors in People awards.
It is abundantly clear that not only does Waterstons have an exceptional adult and progressive approach to all aspects of employee relationships but that, this is naturally reflected in the company’s approach to recruiting graduates (and, we are sure, other staff).
At the end of our meeting we were shown a book the company had produced following the death of one of its staff last year. The number of testimonies included from staff and clients—to say nothing of the depth of feeling that was expressed by them—was an exceptional testament both the esteem in which the individual was held and to the effect this sad event had on the business.
The book is not just a keepsake for the individual, but also a reminder of the compassion, authenticity and consistency which are essential for a really successful business.
by Jeremy Marchant . © 2015 Akonia Ltd . uploaded 17 november 2015 . image: Waterstons
This article was written for Akonia Ltd
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