A picture of resilience; people who adapt, adopt and improve

I was asked the question recently, “Is resilience something you are born with?”
My conclusion?

Resilience seems like a fixed attribute. Put someone under stress – they bounce back or they don’t. To many it may it may seem like it is something you are born with.

Resilience is a learned attribute and is highly dependent on the subject’s context.

And resilience changes dramatically according to a person’s motivations, environment and appetite for risk. And it changes dramatically under the influence of perceived confidence in a given situation. And it changes upon the situation.

Ask a person to show resilience in the chaos of an A&E ward, and watch them bounce back admirably because they have the training and experiences to do so. Put the same person on a stage and ask them to talk in public, and watch them quiver with nerves that stop them from speaking properly and then ruminate on the experience for days/months/weeks after.

As recruiters of graduates and apprentices we see this all the time. Those who can or cannot cope with the transition from the world of academia to the world of work. From the outside looking in it is the difference between performing and not performing. The difference between a candidate who has the potential to grow and one that does not. The difference between a person who ‘seems’ resilient, and one who does not.

These are all very black and white stances – and therein lies the problem. I actually agree that resilience is malleable. It can be developed.

However…

Those who haven’t ‘got it’ will take a long time to develop it. And by ‘long time’, I mean a couple of years. To learn the coping strategies that work for them (because they are different for everyone and for every situation!), to understand how they engage with their support network to get through difficult times, to learn the lesson and let go of the emotions.

Why is this a problem?

I think we expect too much of our graduates today. To be ready-made, set-them-to-any-task-and-watch-them-succeed kind of approach. My experience shows that resilience is made up of an accumulated set of experiences, skills and attitudes. How someone interprets and responds to a situation is the key. Nine times out of 10, the average graduate hasn’t got a whole bunch of stored-up resilience to draw upon leaving University. So the answer is that we (the employers) have to give them the time and space to develop it. Building resilience takes a lot of time, practice and help to master.
To some employers, perhaps there isn’t a problem. Perhaps it is as simple as a continuum where people are “employable versus less employable”, “to hire or to not hire”.

But I think there is a bigger issue at play here. The system is broken. The educational, governmental, technological and society systems have all contributed significantly to a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The perception is amongst recruiters of young people is that they are becoming less resilient. And we, the employers, should be helping them learn how to be resilient within the context of our businesses, not expecting them to perform from day one.

Rant over.

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Worried at Computer

#fact.

It is really hard writing your CV. It is so painful.

But why?

Why does it hurt so much? Why doesn’t it just trip off your fingertips onto the keyboard and into a magical, awe-inspiring document? Why, why, why?

I was reminded of this difficulty recently when asked to review someone’s CV. I had forgotten just how hard it can be to write your own CV.

It is so hard because it requires a great deal of self-reflection and talking about yourself in a way that is objective yet attractive to future employers. This means you need to engaged with the self-centred, self-assured, self-aware you.

Self, self, self.

And there’s the rub. It is YOU talking about YOUR life. You may as well take objectivity in your hands and throw it ceremoniously out of the window. Ha, there you go. Take that!

But that doesn’t solve the problem, now, does it?

What to leave in and keep out? Which details will employers like? I know I have learned skills but how do I describe it to future employers? All of these actions inspire procrastination. The head in the hands, the big sigh, the, “I think watching a bit of Jeremy Kyle has trumped this activity” responses.

Fear not. A solution is at hand:

Get a CV friend. Someone who can be more objective than you. Preferably someone you do not know (there’s nothing worse than getting a parent to be objective). It could be a colleague, a team mate, a school/college/university friend, or better still a careers advisor (someone whose job it is to review your CV!) – basically, someone who can see through the complexity of your life and focus on what you are good at, what you value and what you want and put that in a way that future employers will like.

It’s as simple as that. Bye, bye procrastination, hello superb CV.

Job done.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from 12 years in the industry is that the world of graduate recruitment is rather fickle: it changes a lot.

At least it seems that way. Lots of hot topics, heart burns and cries of “oh what a difficult time we are having trouble recruiting electrical engineers!”, let’s try something new.

Giving more credence to the fickle values of this industry are new ways of recruiting like “Strengths-Based Recruitment”, or “Video Interviewing” (both I think are fabulous by the way) and the vernacular of attracting digital natives spawning recruitment websites with a penchant for missing or additional vowels (Plotr andHiive come to mind – I love these too!).

And that is it: this is why I remain in the industry, why it feels cutting-edge and why I feel honoured that someone somewhere is really appealing to my dyslexic brian (errm, I mean brain) with vowel mashups.

Or is it just change for change’ sake?

Could this continuous reinvention just be smoke and mirrors for what is, actually, a set of rather ubiquitous problems that have existed since graduate recruitment was born? And actually, when was it born?

My curiosity took me to the catacombs of the British Library. Armed with pencil, paraffin lamp and cloak of invisibility I found a book called The Graduate Connection (Pearce & Jackson). Nothing strange about that, but the foreword was fascinating:

The change from the relatively individualistic and intellectual life of the student to the more regular and responsible existence of the wage earner can be a traumatic one. The adjustment that an organisation must make to absorb a new employee, who often comes with a generous endowment of preconception but little previous experience, can be equally difficult. The recruitment process is the critical part of the attempt to minimise the difficulties by matching the aptitudes and interests of the individual students, to the requirements of specific jobs or specific companies. But there are misunderstandings of both attitude and information, which careers advisers do all they can to remove.” (S.L. Bragg, Vice Chancellor and Principle of Brunel University, 1976)

Hang on! 1976?!

Not a lot has changed in the last 39 years in graduate recruitment. The same fundamental problems existed in 1976 that exist today. The market is somewhat broken, expectations aren’t matching reality and getting the right people in the right jobs in the right company is still proving rather tricky.

But what has changed is the lens through which we view these problems.

*Cue fanfare music*

I love acronyms and this one by Dr Graeme Codrington is a useful way to view how things have changed / are changing through what he coins “disruptive forces”. These are TIDES: technology, institutional change, demographics, environment and social values.

I wonder why he didn’t chose the acronym DIETS? There I go with my vowel mashups again.

Anyway, it is through this lens that I will explore how these disruptive forces are driving change in graduate recruitment today. After all, in 1976 they didn’t have the internet, only 49,000 UK graduates entered the market compared to 400,000 in 2014 and globalization was just a glint in Theodore Levitt’s eye. Social values have shifted and demographics in many countries are taking an hour glass shape; a ticking time bomb of labour shortage and shrinking economies for some.

All very positive, uplifting stuff then. Ahem.

I will explore that in the next blog post and then the next one after that, and then in the next one after that.

So, the question is, just how much change is around the corner? What else did I unearth in the British Library? And just how many more websites are going to lose / gain a vowel?

*Cue EastEnders duff-duffers*

*Fade to black*

"Hmmm, not quite what I was expecting." Image from www.theguardian.com

“Hmmm, not quite what I was expecting.” Image from http://www.theguardian.com

Today is a red letter day for many 17 and 18 year olds in England. It is A Level results day.

This article is about my story – when things didn’t go quite as I had planned on A Levels results day.

I remember the fear, the anxiety, the doubt, the everything-hence-forth-is-determined-by-one-result-day. I vividly recall walking into the room at school, to see a mixture of happy and not so happy friends. Some had done well, some better than expected. Some had done badly – tears running down cheeks.

I walked over to the person dishing out the results envelopes, my heart beating in my head with a thud-thud-thud. I gingerly asked for my results. I hesitated with the envelope in my hand. Gulp. This is it…

And then it happened.

A devastating, crushing blow. I looked at my results and I had failed to get good enough A Level results. I got nowhere near what I needed to get into University.

Geography – D d

Biology – E e

Spanish – E e

I was stumped and puzzled. How did that happen? And why oh why have they printed the results it in uppercase AND lowercase?

I rechecked the slip. Yes it had my name on it. Yes, that is my date of birth. The thumping heartbeat in my head had turned into an icy chill – like someone had just dunked my head in a bucket of cold water and held me there for a few seconds. The cold. The silence.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

The fear of realising that I hadn’t made the grade then quickly turned into the fear of, “oh crap, what am I going to tell my parents?”. I had failed. I had failed them, failed myself…I even felt like I had failed the school – a remarkable feeling given the fact that the only post-A Level options mentioned to us students were:

  1. University
  2. University
  3. University

Regardless of the course. Regardless if it was right for you.

And the strangest thing happened.

The next day, after the humiliation of telling my parents my results, I got a big brown envelope with a post mark from Northumbria University. To my utter astonishment it was an offer letter, congratulating me on being accepted onto a course. I called their admissions hotline and yes, it was true. They hadn’t made a mistake. They had offered me a genuine place. Granted it wasn’t quite the course that I had hoped to study, but it was a place!

I went to university that year. I lasted about one month. It was not for me. At least, not at that time. My heart was not in it. I was not putting in 100% percent. What I really needed was to discover and unlock the reasons why I had failed my A Levels in the first place. I needed to do something completely different.

And discover myself I did. I worked for 3 years. I moved to a different country for a while. It was a difficult but hugely eye-openning journey, and at the end of it I learned a lot about myself. After 3 years of doing different things I discovered my passion, my purpose and my motivation.

NOW it was time to go to University.

At that point I was 21 years old. I picked up the phone to Northumbria University admissions and asked them what my options were. 1 year later, a foundation certificate in quantitative methods studied part-time completed, I was back at University. Crucially this time I was studying a course I was passionate about: International Business Studies, with Spanish.

Did I fail?

No, quite the opposite: I did well. I graduated with a good degree at the age of 26 and then went on to work for some great companies.

The moral of my story? Today, if you (or someone you know) has not got the A Level results they wanted but has been offered one of the spare places at University, think hard before jumping into a degree. Because University is not the only option after A Levels. It is never too late to study, or think about doing an apprenticeship, or just taking a break from it all and go to work for a while.

Results do not define you. Sometimes you need to listen to your heart and go with your gut feeling and do something completely different to what you (and others) were expecting.

(Photographs of Robert Leake, professional musician)

I will start with a story:

Once upon a time there were two brothers: one aged 8, the other 11. They had really supportive parents so when they asked if they could learn a musical instrument, their parents agreed.

After six months of practice the younger brother clearly showed a natural talent for playing his instrument. His parents and music teacher congratulated him and told him he was talented.

The other brother was congratulated for his effort.

As time went by one of the brothers stopped practising, avoided taking grading tests and gave up his instrument.

The other brother practised at every possible moment and went on to become a professional musician.

Which brother went on to be the successful musician? Was it the one who was praised for his talent or the one congratulated for his effort?

I was the younger brother, the one told he was talented. The man pictured above is my older brother – the one who was congratulated for his effort. He is the successful musician. (If you are wondering, I changed my surname some time ago).

This story points at the surprising influence the word ‘talent’ can have on mindset. And conversely, the influence that process praise can have on mindset.

What is the problem with the word ‘talent’?

The evidence proposed by Carol Dweck and others suggests that the word ‘talent’ is loaded with expectation. Expectation from the giver or user: I am telling someone they are talented because I am in awe of their natural ability. And the expectation of the receiver: “wow, they just told me I was talented. That is awesome!”

But what happens next in the mind of the receiver surprised me.

I was talented and so thought to myself, “why do I need to bother any more?”, “why should I take a test that might risk me losing my nice label, or even worse, let other people find out that secretly I don’t think I am talented at all?”

Being praised for talent lead me to a fixed mindset. It lead me to not venture further into the unknown of learning my instrument. I lost motivation, mostly out of the desire to not be seen to fail.

Behold, you most very talented people!

The idea of talent is all important and valued in a Western society – just take a peek at job titles like Talent Manager, Talent Acquisition Specialist. Then there are the programmes – future talent, the talented and gifted. We talk in HR circles of talent pipelines…the list goes on. All searching or trying to develop, capture or personify talent. That mysterious thing that really nobody can put a finger on. After all, most people are just born with natural talent, aren’t they? *smiles wryly*

What the experts say is that talent is the subjective opinion of others who marvel at someone else’s skills and abilities. Underneath the ‘talent’, underneath the ‘natural ability’is usually a specific mix of experiences, influences and opportunities that have resulted in said talent.

So there is no great mystery after all about the word talent, but rather that we should be really careful when we use it and understand the impact it has on others reaching their potential.

Your comments and thoughts, as always, are greatly appreciated.

This is the first in a series of articles about the importance of mindset. In this article I will explain why I think mindset matters more than employability.

Employability – I hear or see this word almost every time I visit a University. The fact is that Universities and employers need to do more to improve students’ / graduates’ employability – after all, spending three years at University isn’t just about getting a degree is it? I’ll save that contentious debate for another article.

The ‘need’ in this case is derived from the employers (people like me wanting employable grads), the Universities (eager to prove that their graduates can get jobs, as well as degrees) and the graduates themselves (eager to get a job / run a business).

Employability matters. It matters because it is a continuum on which one’s ability to be employed is explained. It is controllable to a certain degree, ie. there are things that you can do to improve it. And I applaud the many higher education institutions that are taking steps to improve their students’ employability.

But something still niggles in my brain. Something that says that focussing on employability is not the answer. After all, if you put two students through the same employability course at university, why is it that one student will always seem to be more employable than the other? If we can answer that question then we can start to leverage vastly more potential in everyone.

Over the past 10 years I have observed, measured and worked to develop graduates. When I peel away the onion of employability to get to the essence of why some people are more successful than others, I have discovered that a person’s employability is symptomatic of something greater.

Mindset.

A mental attitude that determines how you will interpret and respond to situations. (Dweck, 2012)

Specifically, I think that graduates who show a growth mindset tend to be more successful than those with a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the key: a graduate with this mindset is open to change, trying different things and they truly believe that their own potential is unknown and unlimited. Intelligence, after all, is something that can be changed. They are the curious and proactive go-getters when it comes to the pursuit of learning, improvement and betterment. They engage in purposeful practice (Syed, 2011). They learn from their failures and they go further and faster in their careers than others.

So I propose that mindset trumps employability because mindset affects employability. Without the right kind of mindset, graduates will not realise their full potential.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Through my discussions with graduates I have discovered patterns to the lives of those who succeed. There are other layers and facets that act as a catalyst to a growth mindset and are essential to overall success. These are:

  • Inspiration – having excellent role models and mentors (the one’s that aren’t afraid to have up front conversations with you about your performance)
  • Support – having a good peer and family network supporting you when the going gets tough

 

Below is a model I have cooked up with the purpose of trying to make sense of employability.

The core of employability is not a means to an end, but is influenced by other very important factors. I contend that we need shift the focus from employability (the symptom) to a more holistic perspective that includes mindset, inspiration and support.

What do you think?

What have you seen?

(Photo by Christopher Parkes, courtesy of Arriva plc)

Fab blog about graduate recruiter’s fixation on A level tariffs as a blocker to social mobility.

The GTI Media blog

In 1978, I started working in the Careers Service at Manchester University. One of the first things I learned was that there was a correlation between a student’s grades at A level and success in examinations to become a chartered accountant. Historical note: ‘Chartered Accountants’ was the quaint name by which professional services firms were known back then.

The correlation between A level performance and success at professional examinations was unquestioned, as was the existence of the ‘research’ that had established the correlation some years before. It was an article of faith that the proof did in fact exist and it did in fact establish that to succeed as an accountant (and therefore to get a job as a trainee accountant in the first place) you needed decent A level grades. In time, other professions followed suit and even now, more than thirty years later, it’s still there, the confident…

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