We interview Stephanie Cork, Graduate Talent Manager at Marks & Spencer to find out which talent project they’re most proud of, and why.

Marks & Spencer plc is a leading British retailer bringing quality, great value food, clothing and homeware to millions of customers around the world. As a company it is changing. Retail is shifting and M&S is responding by becoming more agile and thinking bigger. It puts digital innovation at the heart of its business to ensure it operates a digital-first, customer-focused culture. It has created a series of programmes for its early career hires enabling them to either specialise in particular areas such as fashion design or food technology, or to gain experience across the entire enterprise.

Stephanie Cork

What talent project are you most proud of?

We’re really proud of our Early Careers Enterprise Scheme because it’s allowed us to focus on the future of the business, attracting and developing a pipeline of individuals with traits that can help us develop our digital transformation.

Previously, our graduate scheme focused on hiring applicants for specific roles in disconnected sections of the business which, ultimately, reduced their ability to build up a breadth of experience and network across M&S. We knew we had to change our processes to better attract and develop our future business leaders.

We are appealing to – and selecting – new kinds of individuals

We’re so pleased that in transforming our recruitment strategy by improving our means of selecting candidates as well as giving hires broader exposure across the business – we’re able to appeal to and select different kinds of individuals.

Interestingly, we’re hiring applicants who, at first, may not necessarily know what they want to do with their careers but who have behaviours that reflect the M&S brand. These are people with a fresh approach and strategic mindset, who are rigorous, agile and curious.

Essentially, we want to bring in a diverse group of candidates who, no matter what their degree or specific skill sets, have the right traits that will help shape M&S and support a digital future. This is because, in the end, we know it’s not necessarily those that fit the status quo who can help us innovate and move forward as a future-ready workforce. With this step, we’re making a conscious investment in the development of future M&S leaders.

To get this right, we work with Aon’s Assessment Solutions as we need an assessment process that was completely new, future-focussed and would allow us to achieve some specific outcomes.

Firstly, we needed to improve our proposition to attract the right calibre of candidates in a really competitive early careers market. But beyond this, we had to develop an innovative assessment process that’s not only engaging for candidates but that supplies hiring managers with the best insights to support data-driven decision making. And, underpinning everything, we wanted to remove unconscious bias and promote inclusion.

We’re so proud to have accomplished our goals by introducing a new candidate journey and creating systems that improve our testing and screening stages.


Completely relevant for an early careers audience; we’re giving the feel of a market-leading, innovative workplace

We use several new processes here including a gamified ‘future readiness’ assessment to assess core future competencies such as learnability, agility and curiosity. We also use a chat-based job simulation which taps into the preferred communication style of candidates, making it relevant for an early careers audience whilst giving the feel of a market leading and innovative workplace.

Results from a personality questionnaire are mapped against the ‘M&S Way’ behaviours – strategic mindset, fresh approach, rigorous, agile and curious. Those successfully completing the online assessments are invited to virtually attend an assessment centre. Here, candidates take part in an innovative data analytical exercise that requires them to develop a business proposal and to then pitch it to ‘potential investors’. The exercise is very popular with our candidates; it’s very different to other assessments and really sets our process apart. A structured report is then generated to help the interviewer shape interview conversations.

Candidates also get personalised feedback on their performance. This is very close to our hearts – we make an effort to bring warmth to our communications during the whole process. Since everything is virtual right now and we can’t meet candidates face to face, we try to make candidates feel as comfortable as possible, so a human element is vital. We let them know that we care, and they can be themselves. For instance, when they introduce themselves, we ask for their preferred name, gender pronouns and what they studied, as opposed to where they studied. We want to create an inclusive environment and so far we’ve had really positive feedback.

And more than this, we want the experience to feel real for candidates, ensuring that in the assessment centre business scenarios they get a good sense of potential M&S real-world challenges. One highlight of our graduate scheme is that new hires work on relevant, innovation-focused projects that help them learn straight away, so they have to be prepared and feel comfortable in these scenarios.

Measuring success: the key achievements

We’ve been using this recruitment process for two years now and the increase in applications and engagement rates is great. In the first cycle, we received 10,000 online applications (a 20% increase year on year). However, more than simply increasing the applicant numbers, we increased the diversity and reach of the applicant pool. We are now competing for talent with businesses we’ve never competed with previously; banks and consultancy firms, for example. On top of this, the average completion rate of assessments across all programmes is 87%, demonstrating that candidates were very engaged.

Our online process helps us to focus on the strongest individuals within our increasingly diverse talent pools. Meanwhile, validation studies at the end of hiring cycles show that our assessment centres are strong in identifying the ‘M&S Way’ behaviours in candidates. These successes have partly been enabled by the virtual assessment centre which gives the recruitment team a single platform to draw together observations and scores, reducing margins of error and providing a quicker and more efficient process.

Beyond this, our scientific, data-led approach also removes potential bias from the process and we can see from an analysis of candidate scores it has no adverse impact on white and non-white, and male and female groups.


What did we learn?

From an employer perspective, we learned that guiding and reassuring some people in the business was necessary. It’s quite natural that some were concerned about the new process and whether it could measure candidates adequately, not least in numeracy as we had reduced the number of tests.

Also from an applicant perspective, in the second year, we learned to be more upfront to manage expectations. Letting candidates know how long tests take or that they don’t need to complete a test in one sitting helps them to better understand and manage the process. It is also important to us to provide feedback and communicate well. In the end, being able to provide these details improves the candidate experience and reflects well on our evolving brand.

This is the seventh in a series of profiles on talent innovators. Read the others – Serco, Ocado, Siemens Energy, Schroders, Vodafone and Screwfix – and watch for more.