Top employers look to talent exchange to enhance the employee experience

The rewards of a talent exchange outweigh the risks, say HR leaders at Vodacom and Unilever.

When Vodacom and Unilever embarked on a talent exchange programme, the objective was clear: deepen the business relationship between these leading corporates and provide a bespoke talent development opportunity for employees.

This was revealed at the CHRO Community Conversations case study, Lessons from Vodacom and Unilever’s talent exchange.

Vodacom SA’s executive HR director Njabulo Mashigo and Unilever Africa’s HR vice president Mechell Chetty shared their insights with an engaged group of attendees, with frank discussions on the benefits and challenges of their digital marketing talent exchange programme, which took place in June.

For the first time across these two organisations, two senior marketers were immersed in projects that contributed to their digital expertise and external organisational exposure while transforming their career experiences and driving a culture of lifelong learning.

“We started the initiative about three years ago with a three-month graduate exchange partnership with Dimension Data. Then Covid-19 struck and we were dealing with the consequences of that. Recently, we revisited the initiative and looked at a new experiment with more seasoned talent,” Mechell said.

As Unilever already had partnerships with Vodacom and the organisations had similar values, it was seen as an opportunity to collaborate further and enhance the relationship through a talent mobility programme.

The strengths within each organisation were also a match
Mechell said, “We looked at it in terms of the future of work, reskilling and upskilling employees as well as career development in trying to bring the outside in – to get our talent to think outside the norm of the everyday through the working environmental reality of other companies.”

Njabulo added, “For us it was a no-brainer considering the work we had already done on the EVP, which looks at breaking barriers and unconventional ways of building careers. The EVP can be seen as a branding project for recruitment purposes, but we also wanted to have current employees thinking about their career experiences, growth and innovation. From a business perspective, we are also transitioning from a pure telecoms organisation to a technology organisation, and want to work with organisations thriving in that space.”

Be intentional
Two top employers coming together through a talent exchange programme has proved to be a winning combination, for both the business and employees.

“We are keeping employees motivated with something fresh and it was an earned experience,” Mechell said. She added that it was critical to get leadership commitment and a clear understanding of objectives upfront.

“The employee experience had to carry through fully from onboarding to access to facilities and benefits like concierge services, to make it a whole experience,” Mechell said. “We were intentional about the company, the objectives, the individuals and development. It needed to be articulated into employees’ future fit development plans.”

Njabulo echoed these sentiments, adding that constant communication was another important factor for success. “It applies to the leadership teams beyond HR, with excos talking to each other. Candidates also had opportunities to share their experiences. It is interesting to have someone from another company tell you about your own company culture and how they experienced it. There were things we could bring back and start implementing immediately, from external affairs to customer experience,” she said.

Another key success factor was ensuring that there was a sponsor identified in each of the companies, to ensure that the individual had a support mechanism in place on a day-to-day basis.

Both Njabulo and Mechell highlighted poaching as a high-risk concern. “There are many reasons not to do a talent exchange programme. Poaching is always going to be a risk. It is, however, a smaller risk than not giving people experiences and opportunities to grow to step into the future world of work. That’s a small trade-off,” Mechell said.

Njabulo added, “Being scared that people are going to leave is a concern. We have to break that thinking and challenge ourselves. We had to also figure out the boundaries, and did a risk assessment, as there were also concerns about sharing information and non-disclosure agreements were in place.”

Mechell also noted that employees on the programme returned with a stronger commitment to Unilever and shared their experience with colleagues. “It is seen as an opportunity and starts to shift how people view their careers. It is important to have a clear plan, know what capabilities you want to build and be intentional about the experience,” she said.

According to Njabulo, Vodacom is now also considering rolling out the talent exchange to other categories and companies, including start-up scenarios and youth.

“We are starting up in Ethiopia and there are many companies operating in new territories already. We can do something similar as there are subject matter experts and experience we can leverage,” she said. This is a real example of where it would make sense to have these types of partnerships with the right companies.”

A poll run during the Community Conversation showed that the majority of attendees were keen to embark on a similar talent exchange journey, with a number of CHRO community members making plans for more in-depth conversations as the session came to an end.