On the value of self-knowledge

“Who am I?” cries Jean Valjean at a high anxiety moment in the musical “Les Miserables”. Over the course of the story he certainly goes through a range of names, but one of the themes of the drama is about identity and self-knowledge.

Recently I asked my 7 year old daughter if she thought she might, at some point in the future, consider getting a tattoo.  “I don’t think so, I’m not a tattoo kind of girl” she replied.  That’s one of the magic things about being 7 – you know exactly who you are. Sadly the magic doesn’t last that intensely for most people as they get older. One of the reasons for the on-going success of self-help books is that so many of us never get any closer to knowing who we are. We get caught often without enough understanding to make sense of our place in the world. “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” (Susan Cain), “Thinking: Fast and Slow” (Daniel Kahneman), “Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential” (Carol Dweck). There are over ¼ million titles on Amazon with ‘self’ in the title…

During the past 100 years considerable research and interest has been directed at understanding personality using psychometric analysis. Evolving initially from the work Karl Jung did on psychological types back in the 1920’s, a codified tool showing how different personality types work best (now known as MBTI) was developed by mother and daughter team Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers. Their system was used effectively during WWII to identify what sort of jobs women going into factories would find “most comfortable and effective”. Jung’s typology tests looked at 4 key areas. Since then there have been other systems – Raymond Cattell’s 16 personality factors and the Big Five Dimensions amongst others. In business the application of psychometric profiling has been marked in recruitment and in team and organisational development.

Increasingly these profiling techniques are being used by younger people as they try to navigate their way through subject options, degree choices and career paths. Parents often say how worried they are that their child “just doesn’t have a clue” what they’d like to do – it’s a source of real anxiety. After all, most parents have done their best to nurture their child – supporting their education from the early months of finding their own noses, to putting their jolly egg box art on the mantelpiece to making sure they have revision postcards and highlighter pens. Parents watch the confidence of the 7 year old wannabe fireman / teacher / stuntman evaporate and then begin to re-emerge from the duvet cocoon (I know, mixed metaphors) as blinking, nocturnal, angst-ridden existentialists.

Unfortunately a quick 16PF profile won’t bring everything into sharp action-worthy relief. But it can provide a robust foundation from which to start the discussion. These profiles help by highlighting strength beyond academic results – such as listening or influencing skills. They also isolate some of the weaknesses which can have been overlooked. Personally speaking, the knowledge that I am poor at detail and finishing things (ENTP for MBTI spotters) means I am very aware that I need to find strategies (or another person) to check minutiae and conclusions.

Recently I came across a young man who had been knocked-back several times from medical college. He had A* grades and had done all the right preparations – but somehow kept not making it through interview. His parents were both doctors and he was very keen to follow in their footsteps. Working with my colleague he identified that what really interested him was the science of medicine. Though being a perfectly pleasant person, his “agreeableness” trait tended away from compassion. He changed his direction toward purer sciences, got the university course of his choice and has increased his likelihood of career satisfaction and success.  In his case he has now balanced the triangle of achievement (academic), values and interests (analytic) and ability (able to apply to university).

In an increasingly competitive job market having a degree of self-knowledge can make all the difference. It shouldn’t be seen as a pigeon hole – or an excuse. It’s a step on the trail of understanding. As Jung says “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become”. Or, to return to Les Mis (and please imagine the original cast recording by Colm Wilkinson here – not Wolverine’s mutterings) “Who am I?  I’m JEAN  VALJEAN” !

HR – jobs for (mostly) girls?

This week I am going to a school’s careers fair to make the case for a career in Human Resources. It is such an interesting, exciting business area with such enormous range in terms of activities – which affect everyone in a business – you’d think all bright young people would be keen to get into HR. And maybe tomorrow I’ll find that they are – however I’m up against lawyers, doctors and financial services… I suspect I might also be up against a bit of prejudice. The response from several (male) contemporaries has been quite old-school (hum, that’ll be a euphemism) with mutterings about it being like the hapless Celia Imrie character from the 1990’s Victoria Wood comedy “dinnerladies”. Certainly she personified the ditzy personnel lady with dippy cotton skirts, silk scarf and clipboard, but she didn’t encapsulate modern HR by a long way.

Historically HR in its various guises has been a business area with relatively more women than any other – certainly from the employer’s side. Starting with “welfare secretaries” looking after the protection of women and children in work at the turn of the 19th century; to personnel assistants implementing government bureaucracy during the war; to human resources managers of today, there are a lot of women in HR.  Currently the profession is dominated by women –in both the US and UK women account for around 70% of all Human Resource staff. Many of the executive board positions held by women are as HR directors. As one commentator put it, the glass ceiling is thinnest over HR.

Why are there so many women – and whether it matters –is an area for hot debate. There is the school of thought based around the traditional flexibility of HR jobs – easily made part-time – being good for women juggling families. Then others describe it as inherently appealing to mothering/nurturing skills; or as being an area where being able to multi-task (like women do) is at a premium. These commentators note that men in HR tend to go for recruitment type roles where thinking is described as being more linear. The bias is a cause for concern because it could mean the HR team is out-of-touch with the rest of the organisation – particularly if they are predominantly male.  Judging by the number of (female) HR managers lamenting the absence of men on their team, a young bloke able to demonstrate multi-tasking, right brain thinking, nurturing moments (who could put up with a room full of women) would be a shoo-in.

All the same, I don’t believe it is quite that simplistic. Back in the mid-1990’s, when I was interviewed to do my CIPD at Heriot-Watt university as standard questions was “Why HR?” and the best answer was not that one “liked people” or was a “people person” – the primary objective was always to support the organisation to achieve its mission and strategic goals – albeit often using the range of softer skills, such as collaboration and negotiation which can be very effective. Providing a shoulder to cry on was never a core activity.

Secondly, there are some left-brain thinking, target driven, strategic visionaries out there who happen also to be female. Most recently Yahoo!’s new CEO, Carol Bartz and the new head of HR, Jackie Reses announced the end of home-working for Yahoos …the expectation now is for everyone to be at their desk under one roof – chatting together at the water cooler, bumping into one another in the corridors, having great ideas and discussions – and no longer emptying the washing machine on company time. Not all the employees are thrilled, and there was particular criticism of Bartz on the grounds that she has young children at home. It’s curious, since she obviously doesn’t expect to have her “stay at home and have a brilliant career” cake and eat it, so why should others expect her to demonstrate both full-on mothering and Machiavellian corporate stratagems?

I hope that I can encourage many bright young people to consider HR as a career option. There’s obviously room for right and left thinkers; nurturers and nutters; dippy skirts and power dressers. And, failing my hand-outs and rolling Powerpoint presentation, I shall have a large bowl of Maoam chewy sweets to attract them – see, soft skills!

Ten bits of advice to take to your first job

Advice: so much easier to give than receive. As young people head into the post-school phase of life and start getting jobs they can be inundated with advice.  It’s mostly well meant, however there are undoubtedly risks that the advice giver should be aware of. These include being over-come with the need to add historic context (“When I were a lad” … school of advice). Or of being overly pessimistic. It may seem harder now than it ever did to get a toe-hold in a profession, but it is not impossible and muttering that “You’re doomed, all doomed” like a grumpy old man from “Dad’s Army” isn’t helpful to the young person.

The following advice was originally written by Angus MacDonald, a successful entrepreneur and business builder. He says that a key contributor to his achievements has been picking the right people – and these are the characteristics he not only recommends, but also looks for in people he recruits.

Ten bits of advice for my boys* to take to their first job

  1. You must be hungry for information, read everything about the business area you are in. Read your trade publications and websites. Pass on relevant stories to your colleagues. Become the company expert.
  2. Work ten hours more per week than others. Get in earlier and leave later. Work harder and be seen to be doing so.
  3. Build a rapport with your bosses, help them with contacts and ideas.
  4. Look tidy, but not posh. Shortish hair, clean and ironed shirt every day, clean shoes, always shave. Wear a suit and tie to visit customers (when selling)
  5. Always look out for business opportunities for the company, write down the details, research it and pass them on.
  6. Be generous with your praise of others, be understated, be modest and never talk about personal finance.
  7. When pitching for business surprise the customers and colleagues with how much you know about them. Read their annual report, what are their competitors doing etc. knowledge is king
  8. Management of expectations. Say I will have the report ready by Thursday, but have it done by Wednesday. Say I think it’s 50/50 that I will sell £50,000 worth in May only if you are certain it will come in.
  9. Assume if you are going on a sales call with your boss that he will have nothing with him, write a short list, you prepare and bring everything. He will be busy.
  10. Never be late, ever.

*Angus has four sons

What I like about this is its very forthright nature – no space here for shilly-shallying. It is also about being in the moment rather than spending too much time looking up the ladder of career promotion.

My advice is to start by respecting the integrity of the job: get on with being competent at what you’ve been employed to do – whatever it is – in the first instance. Progression and advancement will surely follow. (oh, and always be pleasant to reception, post room and IT support)

If you have ever received, or given, advice that you think a young person should take to their first job please let us know what it was, and if it was any good.