Louise Northcutt, final year German Studies student, was in the middle of her year abroad teaching English when she made the decision to apply for a summer placement with Unilever and find out what life is like in the world of ‘big business’. Read her story…
During the application process I was teaching English in Germany for my year abroad, and although I was enjoying teaching, I wanted to apply for the summer placement to test my motivation and see what other career paths were open to me. Studying for a language degree – and the career freedom it brings – can be a double edged sword. It’s great, but you can also feel paralysed by choice, as so many avenues are open to you. With my key skills in mind – an interest in international affairs and cultures, good communication skills and experience with leading people, I felt that Human Resources was a natural step for me.
The application process
The application process involved an online application form, a telephone interview (competency based) and finally a half-day assessment centre. I didn’t have any experience of assessment centres or telephone interviews, but I realised this was a great opportunity to prove myself, so I tried to remain calm and just approach each stage as an experience in itself. I thoroughly researched Unilever beforehand and searched online for interview and assessment centres tips. This was great preparation and really boosted my confidence; it also seemed to work because a few of the tips and strategies I used were noted in my feedback from the assessor.
You don’t need to study business to ‘do’ business
I found myself competing with candidates who had studied HR and Business, so initially I felt bit deflated; however during my placement I met an overwhelming number of colleagues who had studied humanities subjects at university and were now working in a variety of roles and function. Despite the common misconception that you need a business-related degree to get into ‘big business’, companies place a real value on humanities degree due to the ways you will have been trained to approach problems, think critically and analyse strategies.
One of the assessments on the day did test business knowledge, so it wouldn’t hurt to familiarise yourself with some of the basic concepts, but don’t worry about it too much. Assessors want to see how you reach your answer, and are interested in the processes you use. Just because you approach things in a different way to a business or finance students doesn’t mean you are more likely to fail. Think of it as different, not better.
At Unilever HQ…
After succeeding at the assessment centre, I was assigned to the Global HR team in the Embankment Office in Central London. In practice, this meant working in the most corporate of their UK offices, where HR schemes are developed to be rolled out across the world. It was a really exciting place to work. There were many perks, not least a beautiful view, free ice cream and free gym (perhaps to counteract the ice cream!)
Unilever HQ, London
My line manager was an HR Vice President which presented a fantastic opportunity to learn from someone really experienced, who usually only mentors more senior staff. He also gave me quite ambitious projects, enabling me to assume more and more responsibility throughout the placement. Although I was part of a team of HR business partners, I mainly worked on my own projects and relished having this degree of autonomy.
My most important project – and one I really enjoyed – was to engage HR with the Sustainable Living Plan at Unilever. This formed part of Unilever’s business plan to define the ways Unilever can double its growth whilst halving its environmental and social impact. Using an internal social media platform, I organised and carried out several interviews to develop case studies and interactive Q&A sessions with colleagues and senior leaders across HR. The purpose was to discover and document how they’d been integrating sustainable living into their HR practices. This project offered me a great deal of responsibility because I was accountable for the success of this project, but it also gave me the opportunity to network across the business and learn from people in positions around the world.
Get stuck in and make a contribution
Every day in the office was different and I became really adept at time management. Although everyone I met was incredibly friendly and keen to help, it was a challenging placement because I was given responsibility from day one and expected to deliver just like any other employee. I found myself working late and at weekends to complete the work, but there was a real trade off in terms of stimulating, challenging work.
I also enjoyed many opportunities to learn about the company through other schemes such as taking part in Dove Day 2013 which enabled Unilever employees to teach self-esteem awareness in local schools, volunteering at an award ceremony for the Marketing department and also working with job-seekers aged 16-25 to advise them in a CV workshop and interview skills session.
It was a fantastic work experience opportunity where I rapidly developed not only my transferrable skills but also my confidence. I now feel far more prepared for life beyond Warwick….