The corporate ladder – don’t rush to start climbing

Wanting to climb the corporate ladder is a perfectly natural feeling feeling for most of us. After all, it is a clear demonstration of progress – not just to ourselves, but also to our peers. Few graduates would deny that they have such aspirations.

Corporate organisations are like a jungle. There is a clear hierarchy, with a well-developed food chain and an inherent superiority at the top of the trees. The view from the top is no doubt spectacular and far-reaching but it is a long way from the jungle floor where most of the activity is.rainforest
The further up the tree one climbs, the more distant becomes the view of the undergrowth and the life which thrives in it. Learning about how a business operates involves a great deal of studying the undergrowth – spending time there, understanding how everything fits together and what makes it work.

Be different – stand out

One of the questions I am most frequently asked when I’m speaking to students, is “How do I stand out from all the other students? We’re all applying for the same jobs, and we all have the same qualifications“. It is a fair question to ask – with supply exceeding demand employers tend to be picky. Very picky.

Be-Different-3 What practical steps can a student take? Actually, it is surprisingly easy. Continue reading

Confidence – the magical ingredient

I recently spent a day with a group of second year undergraduates – from different universities, on a broad range of courses. They were bright, happy, enthusiastic and optimistic about their individual futures. That’s not to say they knew exactly what they would be doing after graduation 18 months from now – in most cases they had no idea. They weren’t oblivious to the current economic climate, and they knew that many people are facing a tough time. But they were optimistic.

Probing a little into their optimism, I found it was based on the most magical ingredient – confidence.

When tempered with humility, and in the absence of arrogance, can there be a more alluring characteristic in young people than confidence?  Confidence enables people to open doors for themselves; it allows them to explore, and reach out further to extend their experience, knowledge and understanding; it gives them a basis for further personal development. And better than that, it is self-perpetuating, providing an ever-increasing baseline from which to develop. Continue reading

Hidden (collective) talent

The latest much-talked-about show on UK television is Hidden Talent (a Silver River production for Channel 4, sponsored by American Express).

In Episdode 3, 19-year old James Whinnery emerges from a battery of aptitude test undertaken by a large group of participants, appearing to have a particular talent for languages.  The show followed his journey from having absolutely no language qualifications to the point where he appeared on Jordanian television, fluent in Arabic 19 weeks later.  It was all the more fascinating since James was a down-to-earth, likeable character who hadn’t had the best start in life, and was an A-level drop-out who was living in a hostel for the homeless.

Whilst it was utterly compelling viewing, it was hardly surprising – after all, we know from past experience that many people have hidden talents.  And when those talents finally emerge from the “right people”, we are humbled and delighted.  What makes this series so interesting though, is the process by which the talents are uncovered.  The initial group of 900 participants took a series of aptitude tests, each of which had been carefully designed to identify specific talent potential.  James Whinnery performed particularly well in the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) which has been demonstrated to be an effective predictor of such talent.  Identifying and nurturing talent are, of course, two completely different steps, and James was lucky that not only was his surprising talent identified, but that there was sufficient motivation from him, and resource available from others, to nurture his incredible talent.

Can similar tests uncover hidden collective talent, and could they be applied in organisations to deliver exceptional results?  There are notable examples of what a group can do collectively – the rescue of Apollo 13, Mars Rovers, Concorde are obious examples – but are these the result of hidden collective talent emerging, or are they a potent combination of sheer hard work, huge resources and a large dose of luck?  Even though Gene Kranz never actually uttered the words “Failure is not an option“, and unpalatable though it was, it was surely the most likely of all the options.  The collective talent which saved the mission was not hidden, only emerging during the crisis – actually quite the opposite.  The eventual outcome was exactly what had become expected by the public who had become accustomed to witnessing great things from an extraordinary bunch of people.  Yes, for sure, there was delight and relief.  But surprise?  No, none – it wasn’t a surprise.

Personality type indicators such as MBTI and Belbin can be used to distinguish between different behaviours in individuals, and knowing this for each member of a team can sometimes be an indicator of how a team is likely to behave.  But this is very different from an aptitude test which detects hiddent talent within a team.

There are no doubt examples in organisations, where exceptional results have been delivered by teams to their great surprise.  Perhaps the results are only surprising because the initial challenge was so far outside the team’s normal remit that it was always inherently infeasible.  Such challenges are often delivered by inspiring leaders who can sense hidden collective talent.  Is there another mechanism for identifying hidden collective talent, or must we rely on those inspiring leaders?

By contrast, when leaders who are dictators, tyrants or bullies demand exceptional results, success or failure follow the deployment of massive brute force and huge resources – an effect which is altogether different.

James Whinnery demonstrated that once his talent had been identified, the nurturing of those talents could follow “standard procedures”.

If we could somehow identify hidden collective talent without recourse to the all-too-rare inspiring leaders, perhaps “standard procedures” for nurturing the team’s collective talent would deliver exceptional results?

When is a good time to stop listening?

“Never! It’s always good to listen”, is probably the reflex answer to this.  There are always people around who have experienced things for themselves, and who are happy to share the benefit of their experience.  In the work environment, it makes sense to listen to those who can tell you how to do something, or how not to.  At home, it makes sense for children to listen to parents or elders – after all, they’re almost certainly explaining something for the benefit of the child rather than themselves.

Parents will have noticed this with children.  A parent can tell a child something “a million times”, and the child will still stick his/ her hand in the fire, or touch the wet paint, or fall in the water.  At the time, it feels as though the child is being deliberately disobedient but I ought to be more charitable… it may have simply “decided” that this is a good time to learn by doing rather than by being told.

I’ve no idea how a child would determine when is a good time to be selectively disobedient and to learn by doing – it might just be random.  But either way, the child should be applauded for this approach since the resultant learning will invariably be more valuable.  However in the worst case examples, the natural reaction of a parent might be to scold a child, thereby reducing the likelihood of the child learning the next time, and perpetuating the problem.  Exactly the same logic applies to adults.

If we want to encourage real learning, we need to encourage failure – “we should be making more mistakes”.  But that inevitably means we should stop listening – sometimes.