Heidi Gerhard discusses the recent transformation of BASF’s university relations program and shifting its focus towards building their executive talent pipeline

In late 2017, Heidi Gerhard — BASF's Head of Talent Acquisition and University Relations at the time (now the Head of Leadership, Organizational Capability, and Culture) — and her team embarked on a transformation of their multifaceted university relations program.

To kick off the transformation, the team conducted a strategic review.

Now, looking out 10 years from now, we already have our pipeline of future leaders. Heidi Gerhard
With the help of an outside firm, they looked at the historical performance of the program. They also did an extensive survey and analysis from their program managers, assignment managers, past and current program participants, and steering committee members.

“The committee members are the senior-most executives of the organization who chair committees to ensure that we are not only attracting and selecting the right talent, but we are developing them appropriately throughout their tenure in the program,” Heidi said.

They came out of the review with clear actions to enhance a few key areas.

“We wanted to focus on retention and accelerating the nomination of talent that rolled off the program into our talent pools,” Heidi said. “Those are our high potential talents that we look to grow and accelerate development into executive level positions.”

They also had to ensure they could streamline operations and efficiencies to improve the candidate and talent program participant experience from a recruiting perspective and a programmatic perspective.

The biggest proof point they gathered was that the university recruitment development programs are specifically designed to accelerate the development of future leaders within BASF.

Make sure you understand what your talent needs are, what gaps you’re looking to close, and what value you expect from your university program. Heidi Gerhard
“It's not an entry-level pipeline program and it's not a technical track,” Heidi said. “Which was a great distinction for our leaders because it was important to frame all of our future decisions around the redesign.”

The program's main goal is about ensuring BASF has a sufficient executive talent coming into the organization. “Now, looking out 10 years from now, we already have our pipeline of future leaders,” she said.

BASF's university program consists of two arms: leadership development and professional development.

The professional development program includes all of their undergraduate programs in a number of focus areas: commercial and sales, supply chain, HR, accounting, economics and finance, and engineering.

“Within our leadership development program, we have an MBA program and a PhD program, for those talents with a research and science background,” Heidi said.

Also included in the leadership development program is a new category for diverse leaders.

Since their strategic review, the team is focusing on intentionally designing the rotational experiences that will accelerate the development of their talent pool.

We wanted to focus on retention and accelerating the nomination of talent that rolled off the program into our talent pools. Heidi Gerhard
This year, they plan to take it to the next level when it comes to more systematically designing the experiences within each of the rotations that will align with the capabilities and skills that need to be developed across the rotational programs.

“It's about which future skills and capabilities we need from future executives at BASF, and how we can lay that foundation intentionally in each of these rotational experiences,” Heidi said. “We need those proof points and that's what we're looking for in this new design.”

The newest component of the initiative, the diverse leaders program, was launched in 2018 to create a more inclusive environment at BASF.

Heidi emphasized the importance of having visible, diverse senior-level leaders to change the composition of the organization. And when they looked at the current leadership pipeline, they saw opportunities for more diversity and wanted to be intentional in accelerating their efforts.

“We know our professional development programs are not going to reach those senior-level leadership roles for another 10 years or so,” Heidi said. “And we want to change the composition of our leadership pool now. So we designed our diverse leaders program with the intent to bring in strategic, innovative, diverse leaders with an MBA or a Masters, who have seven to 10 years of work experience under their belt, and are interested in becoming senior executives one day.”

Once candidates are accepted into the program, they spend one year in a visible, impactful role within a particular business.

Within our leadership development program, we have an MBA program and a PhD program, for those talents with a research and science background. Heidi Gerhard
“They also get an executive sponsor, who's a senior level leader in the organization, to mentor and coach them,” Heidi said. “They receive a leadership assessment and an executive coach that helps them assimilate into BASF and supports their growth in key opportunity areas. And they attend an external leadership development program that includes a cohort so that they can continue to build their extended peer group and thought partnership across the organization and beyond.”

During the diverse leaders program's launch, the team promoted the materials, shared it through their school partners, and primarily targeted the National Diversity Conferences.

They went to the conference to meet potential candidates and conduct interviews. Then, over the course of two days following the event, they made in-person offers to the selected candidates and invited them to spend a day at a BASF site.

“Our 2018 class had three individuals and our 2019 class, which starts in a couple weeks, has four,” she said.

According to Heidi, since their other leadership and professional development programs are already well known, conveying the goals of this new diverse leaders program to their internal stakeholders and external candidates has been a challenge.

“We had to make sure the organization was aware that although all of the talent from our different programs are on-boarded together, there's really a differentiated level of experience for this diverse leaders program,” she said.

They needed the business to recognize that the candidates brought in through the program were senior-level, executive-track talent.

“We had a lot of meetings and we got executive sponsorship,” Heidi said. “We have champions in our North America executive committee who help educate our North America leadership on the program's intention, which helped gain additional support.”

She added that when the diverse leaders program talents were brought on board, her team made sure they had one-on-one chats with senior leaders and got cross-organizational exposure to share their experiences and the value they would bring to BASF.

If you're planning to transform your own university relations program, Heidi suggested understanding your “why.”

“Make sure you understand what your talent needs are, what gaps you're looking to close, and what value you expect from your university program,” she said.

Being clear that their program wasn't an entry-level feeder pool was the key differentiator for her team and allowed them to divide their strategic vision and approach in a transparent way for the organization.

Some leaders wanted her team to expand certain aspects of their program that weren't focused on their overall leadership development goal.

“If that's something the business is looking for, we could figure out how to solve for it,” she said. “But at the end of the day, that wasn't the design and intention of our program. So that gave us a strong foundation on which to build.”

Heidi Gerhard has been a member of the Talent Marketing Board since 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.