Marc is Founder & CEO of HRN, HR Tech World, disruptHR and iRecruit.

Recently, I interviewed Eric Van Delden at Education First (EF) in Switzerland. A massive THANK YOU Eric for taking the time to talk to us and for sharing with our members some really interesting perspective and insight into life at EF. EF is the world’s largest private education company with +40,000 employees worldwide and Eric Van Delden is Director of Recruitment and Development.

Q&A with Eric Van Delden – Education First

Eric Van Delden - EF

July 17, 2012

[Marc Coleman] Please give us a snapshot of organization design, HR, recruitment and retention at EF?

[Eric Van Delden] Hmmm, this is sort of a tough one to answer, since we don’t have org charts at EF… EF is a group of 17 businesses focused on delivering travel or educational services (or a combination of both).  Sometimes these businesses operate very closely – and the entire structure is aligned – and other times they are completely independent.  Normally we encourage each business (or “product”) to behave as decentralized as possible – and only ask for more aligned cooperation when it makes sense (such as for global branding).

The culture at EF is pretty straight forward, and can be summarized as such:

First, we create an environment that nurtures the “intrapreneurial spirit”.  Everyone at EF should act and make decisions as though it were they own company – when deciding how to spend money or who to hire – they should make choices as if the company were their own. We underscore this culture with strong pillars of trust, freedom, and support.

On top of this, the core values we value in everyone who works at EF are as follows: Presence.  Decisiveness.  Antennae.  Creativity.  Killer Instinct.  Humility.

From the “CFO Perspective”, perhaps EF is “recession proof” – insomuch as Education is the first thing people spend money on as they come into money, and the last thing they give up as that money starts to vanish.  People tend to invest in themselves when they can’t find a job, and again when they are working.

That being said, recessions generally don’t really impact good companies – in fact they are often opportunities to grow stronger.  They affect companies that spend foolishly, hold too much debt, and are not flexible.  Companies that are well run during good times face fewer challenges when times get tough – the culture is such that staff understand cost-cutting measures, and seek additional ways to help trim operations.

People join EF because they want to make a difference.  They want to do good in the world, and they are very passionate about it.  This can be an advantage as well as a disadvantage for both recruitment and retention.  You may come across people who really (really) want to work at EF, but are under qualified – as well as finding highly qualified people who never really gave much thought to work at an Education company.

In terms of retention, EF Staff are very passionate about our mission statement (to break down barriers of geography, culture, and language) and become far too engaged in far too many details – leading to a very unhealthy work/life balance.  It’s nice working at a company doing good in the world – but it’s dangerous when people throw themselves into this work 24/7.

[Marc Coleman] How do people shape their careers at EF?

[Eric Van Delden] This is a bit tough to answer as well – of course we have a strong culture at EF where staff “own” their career and should really play a strong role in deciding what they want to do, and where they want to go.  But, I think and should really play a strong role in deciding what they want to do, and where they want to go. But, I think this is true for talented people at all companies.

A lot of people think companies have this incredible career plan book they use to guide and shape each employees future.  They don’t.  It’s up to the individual – no matter the job or the company.  If you want to be seen as a star – you need to be a star.  If you’re not performing as a star you need to get onto a project or a team where you can thrive.

EF’s customer base is very young – primarily around 18 yrs old – and since we are an education company, we attract a lot of young talent to the company who want to join us right out of school.  During your 20s your “career” is a bit of an abstract notion – you know it’s really important but you aren’t sure how it applies to you.  We deal with a lot of people “worried” about their career, but they don’t really know what they are supposed to be worried about (just that they should be worried about something).  It’s hard to guide that mindset through career growth – it comes with a lot of anxiety and expectations.  Young staff want a lot of appreciation, and they want to be CEO within 2 or 3 careers steps – those are hard expectations to manage.  A big challenge is they throw a lot of youthful energy towards this end goal but can be disappointed if they aren’t the CEO in a few years time (surprise!).

Overall, people shape their careers at EF like they would anywhere – they need to build a very strong network. It’s a mistake to try to get to know everyone, and their partners and pets names – that’s just superficial.  They need a network of people they really trust, and that trust them in return.

[Marc Coleman] Are you seeing or experiencing any game changers in the market?

[Eric Van Delden] There are a few “game changing” trends – but I’d like to point out that it’s important to be conscious of this term – “game changing” doesn’t imply a new trend that gives a company an advantage nor does it create a disadvantage if you fail to embrace it – it just changes things.  Sometimes for good, sometimes not.  The risk is if you chase “game changes” you will fail to develop a strong recruitment culture because you staff see the heads of recruitment as unfocused.

That being said, here are some “game changers”:

  1. 1. Social media. And not in the obvious “we can find people on Facebook” way.  People forget that great recruitment is not hunting for talent – it’s creating a company where people want to work. Look inward and ask yourself – would you apply for a job at the company where you already work?  One of the strongest ways potential talent learns about their future place of work is by observing that companies social media behavior.
  1. 2. Good people are always hard to find. I don’t care if there is a recession or unemployment is at 15% or higher.  In fact, I’m often recruiting in markets with 25% unemployment as well as 2% (Spain and Norway respectively).  Forget those numbers, and forget how the economy is faring.  If you want a great company, you need great people – and you need to work hard to get them.  What’s changing now is that companies are realizing that high unemployment levels can make it even more difficult to find great talent, and ever more difficult to convince them to join.

[Marc Coleman] What do you think the new (perhaps most important) competencies for HR Function?

[Eric Van Delden] HR & Recruitment shape the future of a company much more than they did in the past.  For a company to achieve incredible things they need to find great people, and create a great environment where people love coming to work everyday.  It’s really a make-­?it or break-­?it situation.  Either a company or organization can find, keep, and maximize these people – or they can’t.  Great talents are more willing to change careers and change locations than ever before.  If you can’t create a culture where they want to join and want to stay – your company just won’t last.

The “secret for success” for a company changes through the decades – in the past it has been:

  • Own market share (or monopoly if possible)
  • Make the best products possible
  • Virtualize your business – owning things from end to end
  • Streamline your business – and outsource as much as possible
  • Globalize and take advantage of cheaper markets
  • And so on and so on

Today – the secret to success is the people you have at your company.

[Marc Coleman] How are you using HR to make the organization more agile whilst still saving money?

[Eric Van Delden] We’re trying to use HR to better manage the talent (and problems) we have within the company and ensuring we are using those people to their fullest.  For us, HR is not about job contracts, days off, and all that legal stuff – we are much more focused on the “human” in HR.  This means we do all we can to retain great people.  This isn’t accomplished by salary increases, promotions, investment or training, or any of that “old school” ways of showing staff they are appreciated.  It’s done by ensuring we have an incredible place to come to work every day.  A place where you want to go – where you feel you do your best work and achieve things you are proud of.

Marc Coleman] What’s the most exciting opportunity for HR right now?

[Eric Van Delden] I really love how companies are melding recruitment with marketing – they realize that as important as it is to attract customers – that same mentality has to be used to attract talent.  Your company has to be perceived as just an awesome place to work.  And I love the recruitment marketing that is emerging from companies like DHL, Twitter, and of course, EF!

[Marc Coleman] In a room of Europe’s finest HR professionals, what questions would you put up for them to answer/what answers would you be chasing?

[Eric Van Delden]

  1. What are you doing to ensure a great onboarding experience?
  2. Would you apply for your current job?
  3. How many of your friends have you recruited into your company?
  4. Are you spending the same amount to acquire talent that you do to acquire customers?

I also want to add:

I see a lot of companies that fail to do the single most important thing you can do to recruit.  Say “thank you” to your staff and mean it.  Tell them they are important and appreciated.  I promise you those staff will go home and tell their friends the following “I have an awesome boss – and I love my job”.  In a word, you’ve turned that person into the best recruiter you could ever dream of.

Marc Coleman is director of the Pan European HR Network. You can connect with Marc on twitter @HRNEurope or via LinkedIn. Our recent productions include: HR Tech EuropeNext Generation Talent, iHR Awards and Social Enterprise. To build  good-smart connections please visit the Pan European HR Network’s Groups on Linkedin (EMEA HR Directors, Pan European HR Network, Strategic Talent Management and HR Tech Europe). Do you have Facebook app on yoursmartphone? Simply like our Facebook page for key updates in our community!