How to develop a successful early career strategy

Mar 15, 2023 | How-to, Sector & policy

High performing teams create, implement and evaluate their strategies. ISE CEO Stephen Isherwood guides you through the strategic thinking basics.

From outreach with kids in school to graduate hires coming to the end of a three-year development programme, a successful early talent strategy combines breadth with depth. Marketing, attraction, assessment, selection, onboarding, training, retention, equality, diversity and inclusion, are all specialisms in their own right. But a comprehensive early talent strategy must knit together all strands of recruitment and development. This doesn’t happen by accident.

Whether recruiting 30 students or 1,000 plus interns, apprentices and graduates, high performing teams connect the end needs of their organisation to all the work their function undertakes… How do you create a good strategy?


Follow a strategic process

To develop a successful strategy that delivers over the medium to long-term take a planned approach. Firstly determine what is in-scope – is a full-scale overhaul required or do you need to create an EDI strategy. Then, set out a plan with implementation deadlines. The ISE complete guide to student recruitment and development outlines that three key stages to follow: determine your position; develop your strategy; deliver your strategy.

Use data to determine your position

Our industry has a wealth of market information on student outcomes, student behaviours, and competitor analysis. In addition, internal data can provide insights into your recruitment processes, retention rates, time and cost to hire. To benchmark your performance, compare your data to the ISE survey data. You may for example discover that your budgets are lower than the industry average, your time to hire is longer, and your offer acceptance rates are comparatively weak.

Anyone who has completed a business qualification will have used Porter’s Five Forces or the PESTLE model to analyse the business environment. Such models help you frame the climate you are operating in and force you to think about a range of internal and external factors.

Data and market analysis can identify where your organisation needs to improve performance and help develop the business case for change.


Engage your stakeholders to enhance your profile

Early talent functions do not exist in a bubble. Many line managers care deeply about their students hires – many also have strong opinions on the what, where and how of student recruitment. Whilst stakeholder engagement can be frustrating and time consuming, line managers often set workforce plans are your ‘clients’.

Stakeholder maps are a good place to start. Take a partnership approach with your stakeholders and you can create an appetite for change, cultivate a reputation for subject matter expertise, and improve business engagement and support.

Will your stakeholders give you the remit to lead a significant change project or drive improvements to existing operations? You may believe that your function requires a radical overhaul, but your leadership may have other priorities. You may need to strike a balance between what your organisation wants to do and what you want to achieve.

Large organisations have multiple stakeholders, some more influential than others. On the ISE planning your long-term student recruitment strategy course, delegates work through a manage and influence your stakeholders exercise.


Delivering your strategy

To be successful, your strategy must be implemented. In highly successful teams, the transition from strategy to implementation is seamless. Project management, resource management and operational delivery are the key considerations at this stage.

The data analysis you conducted through the review process will give you a framework to measure and evaluate how well your strategy is going. Are applications increasing? Is time to hire reducing? Are more students accepting your offers? Is retention on the way up? Data dashboards are a useful tool to monitor and communicate success.

And continue to inform and engage your stakeholders as you deliver your strategy. Implementing your strategy is an ongoing process of engagement, re-evaluation and improvement.


A strategy needs to be dynamic, not fixed.

Covid-19, the apprentice levy, Black Lives Matter, the 2008 financial crash – all are external events that caused early talent specialists to revisit their strategies. Internal events can also drive a sudden strategic rethink.

Heading into work early one morning, I heard on the business bulletin that the company I joined only two months ago was to be bought-out. That same week we cancelled all recruitment, scrapped the freshly signed-off internship programme, and reset the development programme to focus on change management and resilience skills.

But not all change forces are as dramatic. Technology has gradually changed the selection tools employers use. Many employers still embark on a ‘milkround’ of autumn campus events, but the how, where and who of presentation delivery to has changed.

If you are not alive to industry developments and student behavioral shifts then your team’s performance will deteriorate.  If you are able to continue to think strategically while change is happening all around you, you will be clearsighted in your responses. Balancing a long-term vision with an everchanging present, adjusting a strategy in real-time, is what strategic thinking is all about.


To learn how to design and implement a successful early career strategy book a place on the ISE planning your long-term student recruitment strategy course.

To find out who wins our best-of-the-best awards for the ‘Best School Leaver/Apprenticeship Strategy’ and ‘Best Overall Emerging Talent Strategy’ book a place at this year’s Student Recruitment Conference.

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