Vodacom and Unilever HR executives unpack South Africa’s first talent exchange initiative

At the HR Indaba Online, Lisa Andrews and Terryn Palani revealed the benefits of talent swapping.

On 7 June, HR professionals attending the HR Indaba Online got exclusive insight into the world’s newest talent mobility initiative, talent exchange programmes. Lisa Andrews, Unilever Africa’s HR director of talent and organisation, and Terryn Palani, Vodacom’s group executive of talent, capability and EXX, revealed how their two organisations collaborated to create South Africa’s first talent swap.

“At Unilever and Vodacom, we are in tune with the future of work, and as like-minded organisations, we came together to think about how we can take the future of work and the future of career experiences to a new level,” Lisa said. “That’s how we came to the decision to exchange talent across the two organisations.”

She explained that while talent exchange programmes are a new concept in South Africa, it’s something that has been rolled out globally and has created boundary-less organisations.

“Talent exchange programmes are a great way to share and gain knowledge and skills from one organisation to another, as well as to upskill and develop people,” Lisa added.

Together with Vodacom, Unilever embarked on the country’s first marketing talent exchange initiative to bring diverse thinking and new digital capabilities into the organisation. “We came together with the intention to create a bespoke career experience for our talents and to maximise the opportunity of capability development between both organisations,” she said.

“The benefit of exchanging talent is that it provides us with the distinct capability that we would not necessarily have had access to before, and to be able to share those learnings back into the organisation,” Lisa said.

Terryn explained that Vodacom was interested in the way Unilever is able to infuse purpose into all of their brands, and while the telco is purpose-led, it wanted to learn how to drive that purpose through every product line and service offering, like Unilever.

“The interest level for Unilever in Vodacom was around our digital marketing expertise and capabilities,” she continued. “Because Vodacom has so much data, our CVM capability and how to understand and harness those data insights was also of interest to Unilever.”

Terryn said that the programmes taught them that the digital marketing campaigns within an FMCG environment and a telecommunications environment were very different. “In a telco, it runs through a number of teams and different areas, whereas in FMCG it’s really an end-to-end process within a function. So it was a different way of doing the same thing. That was a great learning experience.”

Sharing risks

However, any new initiative comes with its own challenges, both ladies agreed. “The challenge in our instance was that the programme only ran for a month. But, in hindsight, we learned that a month is sometimes not enough,” Terryn said.

Lisa also pointed out that both organisations had to take careful governance considerations around the exchange, including non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that ensured data protection across both organisations.

“We drafted a common NDA that was signed between the organisations’ legal teams and the participants,” Terryn explained. “Vodacom also created an email address for the participant that was built on our contractor platform, which has less permission rights than full-time employees.”

However, she added that it came down to the integrity of the individual and the trust between the two organisations. “In this instance, it was really a gentleman’s agreement.”

Lisa agreed, saying that when they embarked on this programme, it was important to find a partner that was as open to learning and sharing as Unilever was.

Swapping the right participants

Lisa told the audience that it’s important to sit down with the participants and to understand what they would like to get out of the programme and how each organisation could augment the experience.

So when choosing who they would be sending to Vodacom, Unilever made sure that the process was inclusive and fair to all the candidates. “Our marketeers are very purpose-driven, so we asked each of them to tell us why their special brand of brilliance would be beneficial to Vodacom in a pitch,” she explained. “We played them back to Vodacom so they could get an opportunity to see the calibre of the candidates and what they were passionate about.”

Vodacom took a different approach in selecting their talent, deciding to look at the high-potential candidates in the organisation and what Unilever wanted from the telco. “We narrowed it down to the individuals that had the experience and skills to be able to impart and assimilate their knowledge into Unilever.”

The leadership teams of both organisations came together to review the applications and how both of them could benefit from the exchange and the candidates they would be receiving.

The value proposition

Lisa revealed that the value proposition around talent exchange programmes like these are around the future of work and driving a more open talent economy. “This is really where the world is leading to in the long term – more gig workers, freelancer and flexible employment models – and talent exchange programmes is one of the future-of-work models that allow us to think differently about what we can do with careers.”

Terryn explained that Vodacom and Unilever wanted to bring this innovation into the talent space and build something that could not only be replicated in their organisations, but across the country and the globe. “We want employees to have the opportunity to work in other industries globally that they are interested in but who don’t necessarily want to resign from organisations where they are happy. And if that kind of thinking and framework is available to anyone to implement, we would be creating something that went beyond our two organisations.”

Following the success of the pilot talent exchange programme with Vodacom, Unilever has launched nine others like it, most recently with EY. “We gained a new set of capabilities around digital automation in finance, which is a big benefit to us at Unilever,” Lisa said.

Terryn explained that Vodacom is also looking at more talent exchange programmes, both with Unilever and new organisations.