What I learned building the Novo Nordisk graduate programme

Caroline Hart Sehested

Introduction to the Novo Nordisk Graduate Scheme

We sat down with Caroline Hart Sehested to get her thoughts on what she thinks it takes to create a successful graduate programme. Caroline is one of the leading capacities in Denmark when it comes to graduate programmes and talent development. She has spent most of her career at Novo Nordisk and has been one of the driving forces behind their very successful graduate programme. Note: She is no longer employed by Novo Nordisk, so consider her comments her own.


Her own career started out as a Business Process Graduate in 2007 at Novo Nordisk. She went on to hold various roles internally at Novo Nordisk and also spent a few years in the US helping her husband get his startup off the ground. After a few years in the states they went back to Copenhagen and she returned to Novo Nordisk where she was promoted to People & Organization Director to build up a Global Centre of Excellence called  ‘Global Early Talent’ (focused on Talent Acquisition & Development for Trainees, Interns, Students and Graduates). 


November 2019 it was time to try something new in her career and she was eager to utilise her experience within talent development and how companies can adapt to the future of work. Today she works as an independent consultant, strategic advisor and keynote speaker within Talent Management and Future of Work. You might have seen her recently as the TEDXCopenhagen host, where she is taking listeners through the ‘Future of Work’. She can be booked to do talks and workshops, strategic advice and consulting as well as a moderator or facilitator of big events or workshops. You can reach out to her on email or via her Linkedin profile to hear more about how she can help you or your company.


Caroline Hart Sehested Career



What are some of the core pillars in creating a good graduate programme? 


“That’s a good question. I think overall you can divide it into three overall pillars which in my opinion is foundational in creating a good graduate programme:


  1. Strong mentors & managers: You need to have skillful and dedicated managers/mentors in the company who are passionate about developing key people of tomorrow. They need to be 100% engaged in the graduate programme and have a desire to help develop these talents. Great mentors and role models from HR as well as of the individual departments who allocate time to grow talents are crucial to succeed with graduate programmes. Otherwise it will fall flat and you will lose talent.
  2. Long term organisational buy-in: The organisation needs to be aware that it’s a strategic long term decision to build up an internal talent pipeline to safeguard future workforce needs. There will be an upfront cost to establish a graduate programme and costs to training programmes, international rotations etc, but in the long term you will reap the benefits from the talents taking on critical senior roles at the company. Having a fast track development programme where graduates have 3-4 different global cross functionally jobs will create talents who develop an agile mindset and competencies to take management positions often much faster compared to traditional entry level employees.
  3. Set expectations: Before launching a graduate programme, the company needs to understand why and how it will benefit their talent strategy. They need to have an idea about which talent they need today and in the future, where they expect to lack key people and leaders in the future. From an external candidate perspective, it’s very important that you set really clear expectations between what the graduate programme can offer and what the graduate can expect. If you are not aligned here and potentially promise more than you can actually deliver, you will see that you are not able to retain the talent and it can harm your Employer Brand. I think at Novo Nordisk, we were very good at being very transparent around what we communicate and what the graduate actually gets out of the programme.  


How do you measure ROI for a talent programme?


“For large scale talent programmes such as a Graduate Programme, I think it’s difficult to measure the exact ROI as there are so many different components to it, but I have had good experience in measuring career progression rates and retention rates which can be good ROI indicators. 


I think it’s vital that companies spend time to properly reflect whether or not they need a graduate programme and how they need it to be structured. The most important thing is probably, that they do a comprehensive analysis to understand where they will be lacking talents in the future. It is based on that gap analysis, looking 5-10 years into the future, that you should create your programme.” 


Caroline emphasises that the Novo Nordisk graduate programme is a strategic business decision which is part of their global Talent Acquisition strategy and during the more than 25 years it has existed, many changes have happened to meet internal needs in the company and external changes from society, technology and education. Despite many changes, the Novo Nordisk graduate programme continues to fosters many key leaders to all corners of Novo Nordisk and looking at the Executive Board this also holds talent who started their career in the Novo Nordisk graduate programme such as Lars Fruergaard (current CEO), Lars Green (Former Novo Nordisk EVP, now Novozymes CFO) and Camilla Sylvest (EVP Novo Nordisk). 


She does say that having a graduate programme is an individual company decision and is not necessarily something which all companies can benefit from – it depends on the companies talent strategy.


“The first thing I would say is that you need to consider what your overall strategy is when it comes to talent development and look into pros and cons for a “build vs buy” strategy where you can either buy external talent or you can develop them internally. At Novo we did a bit of both – so we would use internal headhunters for critical senior positions if  the talent pipeline did not meet current demands. 


At least for Novo Nordisk this balance of build vs buy has worked really well and I believe that companies who have access to a strong internal talent pipeline and still manage to source experienced manager from other companies who can bring new knowledge and lead change, then you have a solid strategy to grow your business 


Novo Nordisk has received a tremendous amount of value through the graduate programme by developing internal talent who have since taken up senior leadership positions. So there is definitely value in building your internal talent instead of only hiring externally which can also be a very costly strategy. 


I also think there is a lot of value in having employees who have been with the company for a long period of time, who have tried to work in different parts of the world, have a unique network and know the business well. I see many former graduates who are now placed all over the world in different leadership roles. These leaders now carry on a strong company cultural heritage because they have been with Novo Nordisk from the start of their career. All of these talents bring valuable  continuity for the business and as a bonus carries on the legacy of a strong company culture which is something you cannot go out and buy externally – it comes with time, long term talent investment and experience.”


I like to use the quote “The war for talent is over – talent won”. 


Companies no longer pick their talents – talents pick them based on how the company purpose, culture and work environment fits to their life. I therefore personally believe that companies need to differentiate and offer something special to attract the best talents and with more than 10 years of experience I know that having a graduate programme is a great strategy to attract the best talent and to ensure  competitive advantages within talent pipelining for the future.”


Caroline Hart Sehested presenting


How do you think graduate programmes might develop in the future?


“Over the past 10 years more and more new companies have entered the market with a graduate programme and as such the hunt for the best graduates have become more competitive. But I think this is a good thing for the market, as it ensures that companies continuously develop their programs, and particularly good for the graduates, who have more career opportunities to kick start their career in a fast track development program where they can explore, learn and grow from 3-4 different jobs within a few years.


With the growth of graduate programmes, this also means that the companies need to be very clear around how their graduate programme is different and what the purpose of the programme is.  In the future, I expect that new generation graduates will be more focused on sustainability and social responsibility.You’ll for sure see companies customizing graduate programmes to meet these needs and communicate specifically around these topics to the graduates to be more attractive in getting the best talent. 


In relation to the graduate programme itself, I expect  it will become increasingly more up to the graduate him or herself to co-design the learning elements of the graduate programme and the learning curve they are after. So the programmes will offer a lot more flexibility depending on the graduate which I believe will also benefit the company and develop talent who owns their own career and whose development is more and more based on intrinsic motivation and learning.”


How do you attract the best graduates?


“Graduate programmes are created with the intention to build internal talent pipelines and to  attract the best talent, so it’s a very relevant question. The key differentiator in my mind is having a strong employer brand. The best way to  build and improve this is by using, in my opinion, the best branding tool which is your current employees. You need to use the workforce as ambassadors to help attract the best graduates”.


Concretely Caroline mentions the below as some of her advice on how to attract the best talent:


  • Do face to face activities. This has historically been a very strong channel for Novo Nordisk to actually giving candidates the opportunity to meet peers, managers and potential future colleagues and ask their questions directly. It creates a stronger connection and you get a better feel for who the people behind the company are.
  • Make sure your graduate programs are  strategically visible throughout the year.  This ongoing awareness could be through attending career fairs, offering company visits, case competitions, skill seminars to provide sufficient opportunities for the candidates to meet you and for companies to meet potential future talent.
  • Use digital attraction channels. While I think face to face activities are among the strongest Talent Acquisition tactics, there are of course clear advantages of using digital channels due to their reach and opportunities on SoMe where current graduate programme profiles can share their experiences in the company and the company also can share their business purpose and values.
  • Make a global recruitment centre to assess all potential candidates  and look for cognitive diversity, social skills, open and global mindset as key factors in your final selection process. Today early talent have similar skill sets and create amazing CVs, so it can be difficult for a recruiter to select the right person which is why seeing candidates in  your own business environment where they among other things, have to demonstrate collaborating with others candidates, is very valuable. I always follow a simple recruitment strategy, recruit for attitude and train for skills. If you hire talent who have an ongoing curiosity and who are able to learn, unlearn and relearn, then I think that will be much more valuable than  if you only focus on best of class students and CVs.


How do you ensure diversity?


“At Novo Nordisk diversity came quite naturally due to the global nature of the programme. In my 10 years working with global graduate programmes  we always ended up with a 50/50 gender split and a truly global and educational diversity.”


So if a company struggles with harvesting the amazing benefits of having workforce diversity, a graduate programme is probably one of the strongest strategies I know of, to build current and long term workforce diversity.”


If I’m a graduate, what should I look for when finding my graduate programme?


“That’s a really good and important question. Today there are so many companies offering a graduate programme that it can be a bit of a jungle for the applicant. Below is a list of advice: 


  • Focus on what’s important for you and don’t get caught up in the opinions of classmates. 
  • Find the graduate programme that’s right for you and fits your purpose and values.
  • Make sure you take the time to visit the companies and its people either at a career fair or during company visits – this will help you a lot in feeling the culture and work environment of the company
  • Reach out to former or current graduates to hear about their experience working for the  organization (they love to share their experiences and this is sometimes more valuable than speaking with senior managers)
  • Investigate if they have a mentor programme and what their individual development plan looks like
  • If you want an international rotation make sure that they have one of those – this is very valuable in my opinion and not all programmes offers this opportunity
  • Understand what kind of roles you could end up in after the programme ends”


To learn more about how to get hired, why not hear from Nicolas Norlinger, who actually made it into the graduate program at Novo Nordisk.


What are some of the risks as a graduate?


“I’m extremely biased here as I have been in a graduate programme myself, but I think it’s an amazing opportunity.You get a huge network in the business and so many amazing opportunities. Many students say it is difficult to choose their first job, so having the opportunity to get a snapshot of different business areas and tasks through a graduate program, before you potentially specialize into a specific direction, is something I wish everyone would do. 


I can’t see that there are many  downsides, but my best advice to graduates is to always be the captain of your own career development. After a graduate programme it is important to continue exploring, showing results and engagement while acknowledging that you cannot expect the same high level of mentoring and training as you did in the graduate program.”


A similar remark was made by Danfoss postgraduate Kasper Poulsen. In our interview, Kasper emphasized eagerness to learn as a key personal trait to succeed. Read the whole article with the Danfoss postgraduate here