Q&A with Darush Dodds of Esh Group - winner of the Schools Partnership Award 2015

September 21, 2015 Darush Dodds

Darush Dodds, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Added Value at Esh Group

Esh Group’s careers advice programme, Building My Skills, won the School Partnerships Award in this year’s Responsible Business Awards.  Over 60 companies work with Esh Group in the delivery of the programme, so it’s not surprising that the Award judges singled it out for commendation as an example of excellence in partnership working.

We asked Darush Dodds, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Added Value at Esh Group, to explain what helps to make the programme successful and to share his thoughts on how the partnership works.

Top tips for successful partnership working from Building My Skills

Thorough planning.
Everyone needs to know what they’re doing - so dates are put in the diary and organised in good time.  There’s no ‘I might call you about this and that’, it’s all set up from day one.  We try to plan a road map to success.

The Win-Win.
Everyone has a reason that works for them for getting involved – it’s a win-win situation.

Make it free.
If the purpose is compelling everyone is motivated to contribute for the’ win-win’.

Pick your partners carefully
A programme of this size and depth is only as good as the businesses and staff that deliver and the schools that receive it. We are lucky to work with some inspiring people from great businesses and very receptive schools.

The programme

Building My Skills provides schools with a free, six session programme of careers advice, timetabled into the academic year and delivered by business speakers from across a range of sectors.

It started five years ago by Esh Group, together with consultants Arup and Ryder architects.  Building My Skills now has a “workgroup” of over 100 partner companies which are involved in delivering the programme across the north of England and southern Scotland.  It supports and complements careers advice delivered in schools and, where the school holds no budget for the subject, it helps to fill a gap in provision. Darush comments on the effectiveness:

“Partly it’s down to the novelty of students receiving information and advice about jobs and careers from business speakers who talk about themselves and their companies.  The programme has been shown to help students gain a better understanding of the world of work which, in turn, helps them become more employable”.

Putting structure first

Darush says that with such a large number of partners involved thorough planning and careful communication are really important.  “One of the stand-out features of Building My Skills is the structured approach.”

He believes this is really important to all of the partners involved and something which leads to the partnership working successfully.

“Everyone needs to know what they’re doing so dates are in the diary and organised in good time.  There’s no ‘I might call you about this and that’; it’s all set up from day one.  We try to plan it as a road map to success.”

For Building My Skills, that means planned, timetabled sessions, arranged well in advance.  “Essentially a business introduces a school’s entire year group to the programme in September.  Five timetabled sessions are delivered over the course of the year, from five different sectors.  After each workshop the students complete a small piece of work, and that’s submitted and then reported back to us via teachers before the next workshop.  Students who have 100% attendance and do great work can be invited at the end to a special day of mock interviews where each is given a very realistic interview by a business guest.”

We circulate feedback to the businesses and they can see that their input is taken on board and goes towards helping improve the programme. We are really mindful of the fine line between too much and not enough contact and communication. All the partners are busy people, it’s important to keep the balance right.

Asked why he believes the businesses working in partnership continue their commitment Darush explains the huge importance which is placed on communication and keeping everyone in touch and up to date:

“It’s about keeping in contact with everyone so today, for example, two months before launch, the provisional grid which shows all of the schools involved and every session has been circulated to every partner to make sure they’re happy with the sessions which they’ve selected.

“We’re in touch at least once a month with an update on how things are going and we share any new learning or hints and tips which are fed back from both schools and the other business partners to the network.  This is really important, particularly for those delivering at the end of the programme as it keeps everyone ‘in the loop’ and involved.  Before each session, we’re in contact with the people delivering the sessions to check they’re OK and deal with any last minute queries or concerns and we always phone up afterwards to find out how it’s gone and to take their feedback”.

Multi-sector involvement adds to the win-win

“Building My Skills has grown from a number of Esh Group schemes which over the years have been aimed at helping improve people’s prospects of employment by helping them develop their employability skills and develop an understanding and appreciation of the world of work.  We’ve always wanted to engage with the workforce of the future, tell our story, inspire fresh talent into our industries and share the opportunity and excitement of business. 

“The original partners Ryder, Arup and Turner & Townsend were involved in shaping the programme from day one.  They’ve delivered alongside ourselves at Esh for four academic years.

Lately new partners from a variety of different business sectors have become involved.

Darush explains.  “Then as the word has spread about Building My Skills like-minded businesses have joined the programme.  They have been welcomed in, and from the outset we make surethat the relationship involves wins for both sides.  “  Some businesses already worked closely with Esh before becoming partners on the programme, while others are clients which were approached by the company.

“Every year we’ll actually do an email shot to every one of our big name clients that  pupils will understand, and say, “look, Esh Group and its existing partners are doing this, do you want to get involved?” says Darush.

Next year the Armed Forces, Boots, Boeing, Lucite, GlaxoSmithKlein and the NHS to name a few have become involved.

 “The win for many companies taking part is the chance to get involved with schools without having to reinvent the wheel, it helps them to engage in their community and provide development opportunities for staff as well.

Companies also appreciate the opportunities partnership opens up for working with clients, or in their communities.

“For example - a marketing agency might like to work with the schools that are their clients, or some of our landlord clients are looking for other ways to work in schools in their communities.”

Taking it to the students

As an established programme, Building My Skills offers businesses a straight forward way of getting involved and fulfilling their own aims in this area.

“I’ve never met a business person that didn’t want to get in front of an audience of students and talk about what they do for a living and enthuse them and raise their aspirations. But sometimes the barrier to them to working with schools is just ‘getting started’ – by providing a co-ordination role we help take that barrier away.

“We’ve developed great relationships with the schools; they happily allocate six hours of their timetable a year because they know that Building My Skills is well supported by business, organised and will deliver.  The Added Value team at Esh Group does do the legwork on behalf of all the partners, we liaise with the schools and set up all the times.  We provide the communications hub if you like - we aim to make it really easy to get involved and to take part.”

Building a network

One clear benefit of being a Building My Skills business partner is being part of the network.  The Esh Group Added Value team circulates all the workgroup members contact details to everyone involved.  “At the start of every academic year, every business gets every other business’ contact details. And every school, regardless of which business they work with, gets every business’ contact details and the businesses get all the schools’ as well.  It’s part of the deal that if you sign up then everyone’s going to have your details.”

Esh Group arranges networking opportunities, now up to five a year, and other opportunities for businesses to connect.  Many new relationships are forged directly out of this contact sharing.

“By giving companies this opportunity to meet and work together, everyone benefits.  We believe that last year about £60m traded hands between the companies in our workgroup that’s pretty amazing as an extra benefit.”

What’s in it for you?

Building My Skills is delivered at no cost to partner businesses or to schools.  Darush adds that, for Esh Group, working with the community is an integral part of its business.

“It’s not bolt-on philanthropy.  One of our straplines at Esh Group is ‘leading the way in constructing communities’ – we believe that the way we do business is just as important as our construction and construction related work and part of that is working with the people who use, benefit from and enjoy the products of our business.

And of course there is an increasing trend in procurement for business to be asked to behave and be involved in this way too – Building My Skills gives us a living case study.  The fact that we’ve been doing this stuff for a long time is a great advantage to the business and we’re delighted to share our experiences and knowledge and to support like-mined businesses to get involved too.  It’s a team effort and – as we stress all of the time – win-win is good for everyone.”

Where next for Building My Skills? 

“The programme is about to be launched for the 2015/16 academic year with 74 schools with 100 businesses. This year Building My Skills will be delivered in Scotland for the first time, we’ve also taken on five colleges and two universities this year.  Over the next three years, there is an opportunity to extend into Manchester, then over to Glasgow, hopefully 120 schools and 120 business partners, and then maintain and consolidate it.”

Read the Award case study on Esh Group's Building My Skills, or find out more about Esh Group on the company's website.



Darush Dodds, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Added Value at Esh Group

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