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Krista Alexander, KPMG’s director of talent attraction in Toronto: ‘This generation really wants to be challenged.’


A look at what skills future business leaders need to have to tackle the challenges of an ever-shifting marketplace.

Some summer internships are the stuff of clichés: University students show up at an office eager to prove themselves, only to answer phones and run errands. But companies that want to attract exceptional talent know that's not the way to go.

Take the programs at KPMG in Canada, for example. The audit, tax and advisory firm lets interns from across the country go head to head in a competition involving a real business case with a focus on social good.

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Millennials' search for meaning in their careers is a factor business leaders must consider when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent in today's ever-shifting, highly competitive marketplace. In-house Ping-Pong tables and weekly wine receptions are pleasant perks, but to really appeal to the stars of tomorrow, their work has to matter.

KPMG launched its National Boardroom Skills Challenge a decade ago, where teams of interns present their solution to an actual business case, with winners from each region moving on to a national round. Last year, the company rebranded the initiative as Consulting for a Cause, partnering with Free the Children and the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI). Interns were tasked with finding strategies for measuring, understanding and improving the impact of MAEI's educational programs for aboriginal youth across Canada.

It proved to be a win-win-win: The students had the chance to develop and showcase their leadership abilities, presentation skills, resourcefulness, and creativity. And senior executives had the opportunity to get to know and interact with aspiring professionals. MAEI gained valuable insight and strategies, which will ultimately help improve aboriginal education levels.

"Students are really looking for meaningful work, and I think they're looking for somewhere they can have an impact on the greater world and on others," says Krista Alexander, KPMG's director of talent attraction. "What we have recognized is that this generation really wants to be challenged with important work that has meaning.

"What gets a lot of discussion in the media is having flexible work and working from home or [millennials] not wanting to work those standard business hours," she adds, "but what we find is that this generation is very committed to working hard and giving their best when they're given meaningful work."

Contributing to the greater good goes beyond the company's internship programs; community involvement is a core element of KPMG's business strategy. That kind of commitment to social change is vital to attaining and retaining talent, says Denise Lloyd, founder and chief engagement officer of Victoria's Engaged HR Inc.

"They want to make a difference," Ms. Lloyd says of those just entering the workforce. "You need to help them do that, and then they feel amazing about being a part of something. They won't want to go anywhere because they're part of something great."

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Aside from helping make the world a better place, the younger generation is looking for upward mobility. When organizations position themselves as growth platforms where people can develop faster than at the competition, retention becomes a non-issue.

LoyaltyOne Co., which builds and manages loyalty programs, offers its employees perks like paid time off to volunteer and subsidized bus passes and car-share memberships. However, at the top of new hires' wish lists is the potential to move up or change direction, says Simon Palmer, the company's chief information officer.

"What I've learned about tech talent is they're looking for a few things: They want challenging technical problems, they want a rich data environment to work in, and they want people around them who are fun and smart," Mr. Palmer says. "But the single thing I hear most often among the tech cohort that will keep them interested and keep them with our company is visibility into new paths to new and interesting work. They want a varied and ongoing range of opportunities inside a business."

To meet the demands of young talent seeking a place where they can progress, LoyaltyOne has implemented development-planning programs, where employees identify new goals on an annual basis and outline steps to meet them; they also build a relationship with their manager's manager specifically focused on career planning. The company also offers a Career Pathways centre with resources outlining job opportunities within and skills required to land them.

While such efforts go a long way to hanging on to top talent, retention is a continuing effort. Ken Hicks, managing partner at Titan Recruitment Solutions in Vancouver, says it all comes down this: effective communication.

"It seems simple, but so many people do not know what the vision of a company is or what their expectations are on a daily basis," Mr. Hicks says. "Employees need to understand what your goals and aspirations are and what you expect of them. That solves a lot of problems in keeping your staff engaged."

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He says it is all too easy, for example, for a high-performing staff member to leave because he never had any indication that a promotion was in the works. Good old-fashioned talking is the best way to keep people informed and connected.

"Sitting down face to face is the best form of communication; just having a conversation," Mr. Hicks says. "We encourage meetings, going out for lunch, going out for a beer after work, going for coffee: being face to face. You cannot hide behind e-mail, and nowadays text has become prominent and memos are common. You learn way more about someone and about the situation by talking directly rather than getting something e-mailed."

Ms. Lloyd adds that one of the most effective and often overlooked ways to maximize retention is having solid management.

"People don't leave organizations; they leave managers," she says. "Whatever you can do to create meaning and interest and give people a reason to get out of bed every morning – that keeps people engaged. But you have to pay attention and have the pulse of how people are doing in their work. It's your manager's job to be considering those things. Often what happens is managers get equally as loaded up as everyone else with their work and they don't have time to look up around them and pay attention to their team or the big picture."

Five tips for recruiting and retention

It can be challenging for companies to attract, recruit and retain top talent in today's rapidly evolving marketplace. Here, experts share a few tips for business leaders on how companies can source and hang on to promising millennials and digital natives.

1. Look to LinkedIn. "LinkedIn is a professional site that's used extensively both in job searches and in recruiting," says Denise Lloyd, founder and chief engagement officer of Victoria's Engaged HR Inc. "You can mine that for a lot of information."

2. Get social. Networking isn't just for people starting out in their careers seeking connections to move up; it's also for executives and managers to get to know who is in the talent pipeline. Industry events, meetups and "hackathons" for those in the tech sector are all worthwhile for senior-level staff members to attend. HR staff members should be out and about, too. "If you're a company that's invested in bringing in the best talent, then you have some dedicated resources on your team who are out there: They are networking, they are going to professional events where your perfect employee would be; they're not waiting behind their computer hoping the right person answers an ad."

3. Be known for how awesome you are. "People will be interested [in your company] because of the reputation you have as a company for being a great employer, for the interesting work you're doing, for the way you promote from within," Ms. Lloyd says. "That's where your competitive edge comes in: building a reputation to the point where people will leave their jobs to come to you."

4. Have a checkup. Ken Hicks, managing partner at Titan Recruitment Solutions in Vancouver, has his team do a Health Check survey once a year. It's free, anonymous, and custom-designed. He uses one from GetFeedback; Survey Monkey has a version too. "We send it out to all staff, and it's a temperature check to see how people are doing," Mr. Hicks says. "For any company it's great insight in terms of how people feel about working there; you get awesome ideas and great insights. It keeps people engaged with the company. We summarize results, write down every suggestion and what we're going to do or are not able to do about it. You have to act on it."

5. Bring in the welcome wagon. Mr. Hicks says that onboarding is an important step in the hiring process that often gets short shrift, with new staff members showing up on their first day only to sit in an office alone filling out forms. "That's a bit of a downer," he says. "We start our employees on a Friday … because it's not like a Monday where you've got so many e-mails to get through; it's more festive. We have a welcome-aboard party; typically we get everyone off the phones and off their desks and do a party at 3:30 and get everyone to meet that new employee. … We put balloons at their desk to make sure everyone knows they've started."

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