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HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
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Jonathan Kwan

Here's why graduate leadership programs are broken

BY JONATHAN KWAN

Structured training programs for newly graduated undergraduates and post-graduates are quickly replacing the standard on-boarding orientation for new hires.

Here in Singapore, virtually every large multi-national comes to campus pitching their fancy program, whether they're called a Management Associate (MA), Management Trainee (MT), or Graduate Leadership Development Program (LDP).

These programs take the standard new hire orientation and training, and super-size it by extending it over one to two years. Those that are deemed talented enough to enter these exclusive programs are typically rotated through multiple functions of the business every four to eight months, some even rotate geographies and offices.

Most importantly, these chosen few are given the high-potential label and provided extra mentoring, training, and visibility throughout the organisation, with the hope that one day they will fast-track to become future leaders.

But are these programs actually working? Having surveyed over 200 people who've participated in LDPs, along with the fact that operational costs of these programs continue to rise, and the retention rates of organisations going in the opposite direction, it's our hypothesis that these LDPs are failing.

Today, the LDPs in Singapore can be generally classified in three buckets.

1. The company took a mature version of an LDP from either the US or Europe and then tried to "Asia-fy" it.

2. They tried to build a program from scratch, but with HR capabilities in the region quite immature, most HR practitioners didn't really know what they were doing.

3. The company has an LDP, but only for marketing and recruiting, because if you don't have one of these programs today, who's going to join you?

So, regardless of the program you have, why isn't it working? Well, here are three potential reasons:

1. Company loyalty is dead

Since LDPs in Singapore are a fairly new concept, those that have gone through them are almost all from Generation Y. And those of you that are in this generation or have interacted with this "special" group already know how different they are from the rest.

As Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) mentions in his book The Alliance, people in this generation no longer think of their employers as family, and they don't want this type of relationship anymore. The average length of stay of surveyed participants was less than three years (35 months including their program).

Employers are also guilty, as the disturbing trend of offering short-term contract roles continues to rise. So, do you think just because you've given your young high-potentials this special tag they will feel obligated to stay longer? Some employers may even think they are catering to their young talent, but are they really giving their future leaders what they want?

2. Expectations vs. realities

After all the hype and marketing during the on-campus recruiting process, high-potentials enter LDPs with extremely high expectations of what these fast-track programs will deliver, but start to get a different picture once things begin. 67% of participants who dropped out of their program before completion cited unmet expectations as their number one reason for doing so.

Rotations are a common part of LDPs where expectations are not always aligned. In geographic rotations, when high potentials who might be top performers in Singapore are sent into countries they know little about (e.g. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam), and with no support, frustrations start to set in, for both the employee and employer.

Current business needs tend to be the key driver on how rotations and assignments are structured. Little tailoring is done based on a particular person's skills and development needs.

And a final source of frustration typically occurs when the official program ends. What happens next isn't communicated in a fully transparent manner, culminating in a series of unmet expectations finally turning into disappointment.

3. People don't leave companies, they leave managers

Managing people is difficult, period. Managing Gen Y high potentials can be even more of a challenge. However, in most companies, very few people managers would admit to being inadequate in this area and raise their hand for help.

The constant emphasis on bottom line results seems to always overshadow the need to improve these all-important soft skills, despite the fact that 75% of participants rated managers as important or very important in their program experience.

Very few people managers have KPIs related to the retention of their staff, so there is little incentive to change. These day-to-day people frustrations rarely get noticed by HR until it's too late.

With YOLO (You Only Live Once) being one of the mottos of the Gen Ys, many top performers already have one foot out the door before their actual program finishes.

Do you agree? Have you experienced something similar or something better? If you've completed a graduate leadership development program and would like to participate in our research, we'd love to hear from you.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Jonathan Kwan

Jonathan Kwan

Jonathan Kwan is a career coach & Gen Y expert focused on developing next generation talent. He is the Managing Director and founder of Kwantum Leap.

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