Tim London: "Don't hope for the talent you want - build it!"

Not getting the talent you want? Engage the universities, says UCT Graduate School of Business's Tim London.

Tim London, senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business has had extensive experience developing workers for organisations. He says that some of the learning shortfalls that employers and employees face are entirely of their own making, and suggests a process of engagement with educational programmes to rectify this. 

Most of my academic career has been spent working in the post-experience space. In other words, this means either working with corporate/organisational clients to develop training for their workers (often referred to as executive education) or with graduate students (MBA, MSc, MPhil) who have already been working for a number of years.

This has given me a great deal of insight into some of the most common issues facing real-world organisations and workers; it has also made abundantly clear that some of the challenges facing both groups are, to some extent, of their own making. 

In an environment where most workers are saying they need to learn something new every year just to stay competent in their own job, and where we know some common jobs of 2025 probably don’t even exist yet, this makes it imperative that organisations (and their people) understand what they need and are proactive about developing it.

For those in the position of hiring graduates for their organisations, there are two main issues that arise on a regular basis. The first is that, no matter what the universities are teaching students (and these organisations’ present and future employees), it’s never exactly what the leaders of these organisations want. This is, of course, true! There is simply no way for any program or course to offer learning that will meet the needs of every single employer, particularly when we’re talking about programs like the MBA which will have many students from different countries, industries, and previous experience. 

The second, and related, issue is that those leaders are not seeing enough impact on their employees’ behaviors once they’re back at work. Both of these are, obviously, legitimate concerns; they’re both relatively easy to solve, however, with some targeted proactivity.

If you are having trouble finding the talent you want, go and speak with the universities that are training your potential recruits and tell them what you need. This is the first step, but then you also need to step up with clear commitments to contributing to partnering with them to meet those needs. You can’t expect a university to change its MBA program just to suit you, but if you need more people with certain skills or mindsets, there are likely ways to build learning experiences around those issues into an existing programme.

Don’t expect the program to simply do that for you, however, as it is likely to be a case where you can work with them to develop content, events, or learning experiences with them that can address these needs.

Most universities would be happy to find ways to incorporate real-world practices into their programmes. This can be done with guest lectures, site visits, panel discussions, speaking events, internships, or offering your actual challenges up to be analysed by students. In other words, if you proactively approach universities, there is a high likelihood that you will be able to partner with them to develop graduates with skills that you need. 

This is a win-win for everyone involved, but it does require a change in your own mindset to not assume the programs will give their students everything you want and need from the programme’s graduates. This clarity around just what you want potential employees to take away from a program also speaks to the need for students to be crystal clear about what they want from their studies, as well.

For students who are studying on longer programs (like MBAs or other similar degrees), it is imperative that they go into them with a clear understanding of precisely what they want to take away from the programme. 

If the only thing they are hoping to walk away with is the diploma and the letters (MBA, MA, MPhil), it’s unlikely that they will get the maximum value from their studies. Students who have clarity around what strengths they want to build on, or weaknesses they want to address, will be better able to work towards these needs while also being on the lookout for how the learning process towards those goals can be improved.

For example, many students on an MBA programme are looking to change from technical roles to leadership roles that would cut across functional areas. While they understand that as a general outcome, they may not be as clear about the specifics involved in it. Those that just imagine that the programme they’re on will automatically give that to them can be quite disillusioned if they graduate and feel like something is missing. 

On the other hand, those students who are clear about what they want to achieve from the start are not only more effective at appreciating and engaging with learning experiences that will enhance those outcomes, they’re also more effective at advocating for them. 

In other words, students who are unclear about what they want from a programme will often simply take whatever is offered to them; students with a clear sense of what they want can constructively engage with fellow students, staff, and faculty to make crucial connections or build in additional opportunities that provide value adds to achieving their goals.

Finally, it’s essential that both students and employers understand that courses and programs offered by universities are only going to make an impact if there is a shared commitment to learning back in the workplace. While we certainly hope that students learn a lot from us while they’re on their programme, if they can’t actually put these new learnings into practice back at work, much of that learning will be wasted. 

For employers, that puts an onus on actively debriefing learners (either when they start or while they’re already working with you) to ensure that the organisation is benefiting from these new learnings and also able to make the necessary changes to support the learner in making changes. For students, there is a similar need to be proactive in approaching key people back at work with new learnings so that they can see the value in having the student apply their new learnings for the benefit of the organisation.