How EY built the world’s best talent strategy

Until his retirement from the firm in October 2014, Mike Cullen was global managing partner for talent at EY. Before that he held the position of global managing partner for markets and over the past 20 years has been a key creator of EY’s global strategy. Today he is visiting professor at London’s Cass Business School and is a member of the Executive Education Faculty at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School. This interview with BDLN took place in December 2014.


In 2013, Universum named EY the world’s most attractive professional services employer and the second most attractive employer overall behind Google. How did you achieve that?

Mike Cullen:
“The first thing we did was redefine EY’s employer-value proposition [the essence of what a firm offers employees] to make it both attractive and authentic to the people we wanted to hire.

“If you’re a civil service type job, your EVP [employer-value proposition] is probably your great pension scheme and the fact you can offer a “job for life”. At EY, 95% of recruits will never reach pension age at the firm. “Come to EY, you won’t draw your pension here” doesn’t sound great, so how do you turn it into a positive? Why should people join this great firm? After some analysis we decided our EVP should be: “We will give you the experience to last a lifetime.” However long you stay with EY, the exceptional experience you get will last your whole life. We changed our recruitment headline on campus from: “We’re here to recruit the future leaders of EY” to “We’re here to recruit future leaders.” We dropped “of EY” to reflect the fact that some graduates will go on to lead EY, some will lead other businesses, and others will become great entrepreneurs. The 2012 World Entrepreneur of the Year was an EY Alumnus! So our task in recruiting is to find future leaders. Full stop.

There are one million alumni out there. Are they EY brand ambassadors?

“As global managing partner for talent, my job wasn’t just about the 11,000 partners and 185,000 people who work at EY today. It also included everyone we saw on campus and everyone who’s left EY. There are one million alumni out there. Are they EY brand ambassadors? Are they saying they had a great time at EY and gained fantastic experience?

“Also, on campus we wanted to create a best-in-class recruitment experience. We recruit over 50,000 people per year and to do that we probably have to interview 250,000. How do the 200,000 who don’t get through feel? Are they thinking: “That process was awful”? Or: “I’m sorry I didn’t get through but I’ve learnt a lot about me for the future, and perhaps one day I will try again”.

“EY, and professional services in general, is a relationship business. That’s always been assumed with clients. We turned that into a whole strategy for people. We seek to build a whole-of-life relationship with everyone we come into contact with. They’re your brand ambassadors in the external marketplace for both work and for future talent.”

What tips do you have for professional services firms looking to recruit the best talent?

Mike Cullen:
“It’s about building high performance teams and a high performance culture, and that begins with recruiting high performance individuals.

“The change we made at EY was a move to something we called “strengths-based recruitment”. In our industry today you need a global mindset, inclusive leaders, and emotional as well as technical intelligence, so you must search not just for great technocrats, but also for team players with softer skills. it’s as much about EQ as IQ.

“Let me give you a simple hypothetical example. Let’s say to do this job you need people with numeracy skills eg a good grade in maths A-level. In this example we might receive 10,000 applications for 1,000 jobs, all from people with this level of numeracy. The standard approach used to be to drill down to 5,000 with higher grades then say 3,000 who did maths at university and find your 1,000 from that mathematical elite. But that doesn’t make sense because it ignores the fact your recruits only needed the original standard of numeracy. But more importantly, that they need other skills too – attributes like teaming skills, emotional intelligence and a talent for building relationships and business development. So you have to develop the selection process to assess for those other skills. Then you get the highly intelligent but also very rounded and grounded people we want.

Building inclusive leaders is critical to EY’s talent strategy

“Once you’ve got high performing individuals matched to the required IQ:EQ balance of your firm, the question becomes: How do you build high performing individuals into high performing teams? That requires inclusivity, which people often get mixed up with diversity: diversity is getting the right mix; inclusivity is getting the mix to work. So you must develop a mindset within all people, partners in particular, that says: I welcome a diverse team – ethnicity, background and gender – and I’ve also got an inclusive approach. What is an inclusive approach? Here’s an example. A partner asks: “Has anyone got any questions?” They get a reply from the team. The next sentence uttered by that partner is critical. Do they say: “Has anyone got any decent questions?” Or “That’s an interesting point of view – does anyone want to build on that?” Building inclusive leaders is critical to EY’s talent strategy.

“Turning high performance individuals into high performance teams requires inclusive leadership.

“Finally, how do you create a high performance culture? Answer: By making sure high performance individuals and high performance teams are pervasive across the whole organisation. Because in large organisations we tend to work on three or four different teams at the same time. Project teams, staff groups, sector teams etc etc. So a high performance teaming culture cannot be for just anyone of those “teams”. It has to be institutionalised across the whole organisation.”

What happens if you do not have an inclusive leadership culture?

Mike Cullen:
“Without inclusive leadership, any work you do on diversity is lost. We closely monitor the employee engagement index at EY and one of the key components of engagement is how involved and included people feel.

“I also led a separate study that links engagement to top-line and bottom-line business success. That’s the way you get it through to partners – that being more inclusive leads to greater profitability, less staff turnover and higher brand favourability in the marketplace. For the first time we built a correlation between the (internal) global engagement survey and the (external) global brand survey. The results and messages were clear to see. We banned people from saying: “We need to do this – be diverse and inclusive – because it’s the ‘right thing to do’.” If you do that it becomes a pseudo religious debate. You have to link diversity and inclusivity, and the whole engagement process to identifiable business success. That’s what we did.”

That’s the way you get it through to partners – that being more inclusive leads to greater profitability

Why do some firms fail to create a high performance culture?

Mike Cullen:
“Sometimes organisations are too nice. A talent strategy isn’t about being nice; it’s about getting results. You can’t have a high performance culture if you tolerate poor performance, if you don’t point it out, if you’re not honest and don’t give authentic feedback at the right time.

“You have to achieve a balance between niceness and edginess. High performance teams are edgy. You get told when your work wasn’t good enough but also hear the reasons why and what you have to do next time. As opposed to: “Yes, good job, I’ll call you next year” – but you never get the call. That ‘niceness’ is no use to you or the business.

“It’s all linked to leaders understanding that they are accountable for the way they lead and develop their staff.”

If there’s one phrase that stands out for me from all the work I’ve done it’s: ‘I am stretched to the edge of my ability in a teaming and supportive environment.’

How can managing partners of smaller firms attract top talent?

Mike Cullen:
“If you unpick what drives employee engagement and motivation, you’re left with two things. First, the nature of the work itself – the experience and type of work you are going to give people. Any smaller firm can challenge a larger firm for talent if you can explain the nature of the work and excite people. If I was pitching for a smaller firm for example, I’d focus on the fantastic clients we work with eg local entrepreneurs and highlight the fact you’d get more access to owners of businesses. Or a sector niche we had eg in biotech or a sector really relevant to our location as a business.

“The second important factor is the teaming environment of the business. If there’s one phrase that stands out for me from all the work I’ve done on what drives engagement it’s: “I am stretched to the edge of my ability in a teaming and supportive environment.” My message to firms large and small is to aim to get their staff to feel that.

That’s why talent and market strategy are two sides of the same coin: to attract high performance individuals you must demonstrate you’re going to give people experience to last a lifetime

“How you achieve that feeling in your staff is down to your market and business development strategy. This is where your market strategy links into your talent strategy. The market strategy has to deliver stretching work and experience that will last. So your market strategy needs to be focused and clear. For a small firm, the experience you get – and impact you can make – looking after a small family firm where you know the owners is going to be very rewarding.

“That’s why talent and market strategy are two sides of the same coin: to attract high performance individuals you must demonstrate you’re going to give people experience to last a lifetime in a teaming and supportive environment. Your market strategy is how you’re going to deliver that. If your market and talent strategies are not totally connected, you won’t attract the people you want and the ones you have will leave.”