Skills for startup growth: private equity and the opportunities for business graduates

Business Impact: Skills for startup growth - private equity and the opportunities for business graduates

Looking for career opportunities in an area that’s gathering momentum? Jessica Wax-Edwards, Director at ThoughtSpark, examines the skills gaps impacting PE-backed businesses and outlines how forward-thinking Business School graduates can help overcome them

For Business School graduates, most of whom will already have solid business experience prior to embarking on a further qualification, working with entrepreneurial businesses can be an attractive and challenging option. Such businesses – which are typically backed by venture capital or private equity (depending on their stage of development) provide a lively stage on which the business skills acquired in recent qualifications and training can be deployed in the real world.

The vista of potential organisations is wide. Startups are estimated to represent 1% of all European jobs. But on top of that, accelerated development finance is available from the private equity (PE) sector, which in recent years has been raising record capital volumes to invest in fast growth or turnaround opportunities.

This is especially true in the current climate. The last two years has heralded a global boom in new businesses, particularly in the areas of logistics, delivery and IT. Many other sectors are also entering a new era of development and evolution accelerated by the Covid-19 experience. Digitalisation, new ways of working, new regulatory environments, new product platforms (such as biological drugs or cloud computing), reshoring, environmental standards, and a host of other factors are now gaining real momentum.

With PE the favoured funding source for many new companies – rather than complex and costly flotation on the public markets – investors are becoming increasingly keen to ensure that all the key skills are in place to make the best possible use of their funds. Some of these skills can be provided by the PE companies themselves, by taking a seat on an investee company board. Others, however, cannot – and this is the exciting opportunity for Business School graduates, with their combination of direct business experience and strategic training. So, where exactly do those key opportunities lie?

Skills gaps encountered by PE firms

Typical skills shortages that PE firms encounter in their investments are identified in recent research from ThoughtSpark and Mindmetre. has identified the typical skills shortages that PE firms encounter in their investments. By definition, these skills gaps should be priority areas for PE investors to fill, whether that’s through recruitment, interim staff or agencies. They are also the skills gaps that dynamic Business School graduates may seek to fill.

In the research, respondents from among Europe’s top 100 PE firms were asked to grade the skills they typically encountered in the companies they invested in. The results show that PE-backed firms generally present high skill levels in product development and sales, perhaps unsurprisingly. With exceptions, this is because they tend to be run by owner managers who have successfully built a business to date by creating, selling and delivering value to their initial merry band of customers.

In contrast, skill levels tend to be either mixed or lacklustre in three areas: digital transformation, performance visibility, and financial strategy/ management.

The findings indicate that PE investors should scrutinise digital transformation and performance reporting capabilities in the firms they acquire, filling any skills gaps with either recruited experts (listen up, business graduates!) or third-party providers. Financial strategy and management tend to be core capabilities of the PE investor, and they have traditionally bridged this skills gap through representatives at board level.

But there are a further three areas which score really low for competency at the point of investment: talent management/development, growth management/scaling, and – worst of all – marketing and communications.

These are likely to be the skills gaps that an entrepreneurial Business School graduate could fill. The first step for the investor is to recognise the potential skills pitfalls – and then a willingness to recruit/learn/collaborate in areas that may previously have been considered low priority.

Opportunities for Business School graduates

The rewards can be huge. For instance, McKinsey research shows that organisations that align talent with their value agenda are more than twice as likely to outperform their peers and achieve 2.5 times the ROI in their first year. This skills gap implies that PE investors may well need to insist on a professionalised talent management layer being introduced, that could be linked into the Business School network, and which reports on progress (talent recruitment, development and management delegation) to the investor.

Scaling and managing growth – the next area of weakness – not only requires talent development and empowerment, but also a host of skills that are frequently (according to our respondents) not the natural province of founding management. Performance incentives for board directors – indeed, throughout the company – need to encourage rapid development, but there is also an argument to look carefully at a commercial director position, possibly supported by independent consultants, which reports directly to the investor as well as sitting on the managing board. Again, the combination of real-life commercial experience and strategic management training could be a substantial opportunity for Business School graduates.

Finally, a key part of the growth picture is a professionalised approach to marketing and communications. Rapid growth requires a company’s successes to be broadcast as widely as possible, direct, through social media, through the press, at industry events, and so on. Both marketing leadership and staff need to have experience in rapid reputation building – helping the company to punch above its weight in terms of the sheer noise it is making to its target audiences.

Systematic marketing is required to bring the company’s value proposition to the total available target audience, unrestricted by limitations in the direct sales effort. Inexperienced marketing staff open the door to massive opportunities for wasting money and resources. Unaccountable or poorly measured marketing will not be able to differentiate between cause and effect, again wasting investors’ precious funds. Without experienced marketing direction and execution, scale growth is unlikely to be achieved. As with talent management and growth management, senior marketing staff and/or specialist agency support should have a direct reporting line to the investor, as well as the board, to demonstrate the alignment of priorities transparently and empower efforts towards the single goal of accelerated growth.

Conclusions

The current economic situation makes it even more important that all key operating skills are in place to offer the best chance of successful rapid business development in PE-backed companies. Put simply, any significant operating skills gaps increase the risk of failure. This is a huge opportunity for Business School graduates, especially for those who have cut their commercial teeth in digital transformation, performance management, scale growth, talent management or systematic marketing. Time to get searching!

Jessica Wax-Edwards is a Director at ThoughtSpark Agency, where she manages an international team on projects for clients in the financial services, legal, logistics and technologies industries. She has worked in PR and marketing for the last 10 years, during which she completed her master’s by research and PhD at the University of London. 

Researching the employment market: five steps to finding the right job

Business Impact: Researching the employment market: Five steps to finding the right job

Get some advice on finding the right role for you as well as ways in which you can network effectively and increase your chances of a successful application, in this extract from Get That Job: CVs and Resumes

To find the right job and present yourself in the best possible light at interview, you’ll need to research industry trends and find out as much as you can about the companies you want to work for.

Step one: do the research

In the early stages of your research, you should begin by researching industry trends.

In a nutshell, you need to look out for:

  • Major growth areas
  • Major and up-and-coming players
  • Key challenges, opportunities, or potential problems for a given industry

If you are not sure which industry you want to work in, there are several good references and reports on attractive jobs and desirable companies. For example, look at the Financial Times website which provides well-organised information about trends in various business sectors. The Economist website contains extensive articles on business worldwide.

Look also at the websites of the top Business Schools – these give guidance on where to go and which directories to look at.

Step two: go from a macro to micro level

A: Research your chosen companies

The next step is to narrow your research by gathering information about the companies you would like to work for.

Aim to find out:

  • The size of the organisation (sales, profits, market share, numbers of employees)
  • Its mission statement
  • The company’s strong and weak points
  • Its key partners
  • Its key competitors
  • Information about the organisational culture
  • How the company is organised
  • Its key strategic challenges
  • The subject of recent press releases

Also, use social media and networking sites, like LinkedIn, to learn as much as you can about the company, the sort of culture they have and the type of opportunities they offer.

B: Speak to current employees

Once upon a time, the only way to talk to someone at a company that interested you would be if you had a direct connection with it, via family, friends or location. The internet has made it possible to do this from the other side of the globe, knowing no one, if necessary. Use social media and networking sites, such as LinkedIn, MeetUp and Xing, to find people who work at the company, tell them you are interested in working at the same place, and ask them if they’d be happy to have a quick chat over email or social media.

Also, get in the habit of telling everyone you know what sort of work and/or opportunity you are looking for, and ask them if they can help. It’s really important, in a job search, to seek out any connection you can find and it’s often surprising how easy it can be to have a chat with someone helpful. Be prepared, of course, to do the same for them when necessary.

Step three: think about the job you want

When you are looking for a specific job in a specific company you will want to know:

  • What qualifications are needed?
  • What would my tasks and responsibilities be?
  • What is the typical salary for a job like this?

If you can gather information ahead of time, you will be better prepared for your covering letter, your CV, and your interview. If the job has been advertised, then the tasks and responsibilities will have been listed. If you know for sure that there is a job opening, ask the company to send you a copy of the job description.

Step four: make the most of everything available

A: Job alerts

Many recruitment agencies or career-related websites offer an online service to both job hunters and companies trying to fill a vacancy. For job hunters, registering your CV online is a quick and easy process, and means that should an interesting vacancy arise, you can ask the agency to submit your CV quickly.

In addition, take advantage of email job alerts, in which agencies or career websites email you when a job that meets your specifications comes on the market. This is another quick and easy way to keep on top of job opportunities in your particular market.

B: Network

Networking is one of the best ways of getting a new job and finding out about potential openings. The internet has revolutionised the way that people can keep in touch with each other, and one of the simplest ways to use it for networking is to email people on your contact list.

You can ask them about industry trends, potential job openings, or for specific contacts within an organisation. Other ways of networking on the web include:

As with all other types of networking, though, remember to:

  • Thank people for their time and help when they get back to you
  • Offer your help to other people as much as you possibly can
  • Be patient

Step five: be organised

Create your own database of organisations you are targeting and keep track of information you have gathered about each. Record any job-search actions you take for each organisation, such as dates of letters and CVs you have sent, what form of CV you used, dates of phone calls, and who you spoke to and what was said.

*

One common mistake to watch for is to ensure that your research is not patchy. If you don’t thoroughly research the industry, the company, and the job, gaps in your knowledge may jeopardise your chances at an interview. If you can demonstrate that you have done your homework, you will stand out from the crowd and will have a better chance of being offered the job.

This is an edited extract from Get That Job: CVs and Resumes – how to make sure you stand out from the crowd (Bloomsbury Business, 2022).

BGA members can enjoy a 30% discount off the RRP for Get That Job: CVs and Resumes. Click here for details.

Five steps for tackling the transition from Business School to career

Business Impact: Five steps for tackling the transition from Business School to career

In the face of an unknown future, it can help to have a mindset rooted in curiosity about what is possible in new terrain. Marketing professor, Joan Ball, outlines five ways to prompt enquiry, exploration and learning

In a world filled with promises of quick or easy answers to life’s most challenging questions, I wish there were five easy steps I could offer to set you off on a well-marked path to success, post-graduation.

Unfortunately, after nearly 15 years of working with students transitioning from university to career in my research and practice, one thing is clear – there is no single path, best practice or model for professional and personal success in the 2020s. You are graduating into an environment where commitments and priorities are constantly shifting and changing. One where opportunities (and challenges) abound and no single map, compass or true north is available to guide your way.

In this uncharted territory, careers are increasingly nomadic, and the future of work is being co-created in practice, as organisations and the people who keep them afloat are called on to adapt to new tools, tactics and approaches to living in a paradoxically predictable and unpredictable postdigital world.

Some people find this realisation exciting. They are inspired by the freedom and creative potential of uncharted territory and the adventure of blazing new trails in their professional and personal lives. These are the people who embrace uncertainty and ambiguity as a prompt to explore. For others, the lack of stability and predictability is unsettling – even threatening. They long for clear markers on well-worn paths that lead to a clearly defined notion of a successful career and life. In either case, the space between university and career is a liminal space between the highly structured life of the university and the multitude of possible ways to move forwards beyond graduation.

In this new environment, embarking on the career journey is less about following prescribed steps and more about developing and adapting practices and principles that are customised to amplify our unique strengths, address our particular challenges and guide us on a path towards our context-specific aspirations in ways that are relevant to the lives we hope to live.

For many of us who were trained in systems that favored finding a true north and relying on models, frameworks and best practices as our compass, this can feel daunting. Many students I work with describe themselves as feeling lost, overwhelmed or stuck at this point of inflection – even though they are excited and eager to embark on their career journey.

Fortunately, uncharted territory is just as navigable as a clearer path if we gather resources and develop the principles, practices and approaches we need to engage uncertainty with curiosity, confidence and humility. This involves shifting from a traditional navigator mindset (‘GPS, tell me where to go!’) to a wayfinding mindset.

Wayfinders mindset

The wayfinders mindset is rooted in rigorous self-awareness and a curiosity about what is possible in new terrain. I offer the following prompts as a place to begin. Not so much a set of steps, but more a stepping off point that I hope will prompt enquiry, exploration and learning in the face of an unknown future.

1. Stop: you are entering liminal space

You’ve spent the past 22+ years studying, preparing and having your life reset every quarter, semester or trimester for as long as you remember. This rhythm of life and the prescribed routines surrounding them (registering for classes, studying, preparing for exams) are now over. You are no longer a student, which is a huge identity shift. You no longer have the prescribed timelines and approaches that were created by your university.
Making the shift to a new identity and a new direction is not something that always happens intuitively at points of transition. This sort of disjunction can be unsettling and lead to incendiary emotions. Pausing to acknowledge the change and give it consideration prompts us to shift from a mindset that views the future as a problem to solve to a mindset of discovery. Doing so can help temper the threat we sometimes feel when we’re not sure what to do next and help us to embrace uncertain transitions as invitations to learning. This makes it easier to approach change with dispassionate curiosity rather than fear-based reactions.

2. Ask: what is the new terrain I am entering?

Once we’ve paused and set an intention to engage transition with dispassionate curiosity, we can reflect on who we’ve become and the particulars of the current state of the world we’re entering. You are not the same person you were when you entered university. Who have you become? Are the aspirations you had when you started the same as they were then? What are you clear about? Where is your sense of who you are and what you want murky?
No judgement here, just enquiry and taking a clear-minded inventory of who we are, where we are and what is possible. Once we have a sense of ourselves, we can do the same for the state of the world we’re entering. It is not the same as it was when you entered university. Making time to get the lay of the land can help spark ideas about what comes next.

3. Ask: what resources do I need to navigate this new terrain?

Open an enquiry into what resources you have or don’t have. What strengths do you see in yourself as you enter this transition? Where do you have gaps and holes? How might you connect to the emotional, physical, material and social resources you need to amplify your strengths and reinforce areas where you feel less prepared?
Gathering the right resources to enter the uncharted territory of your life, post-graduation, is as important as gathering resources for a backwoods hike.

4. Ask: what do you hope for as I enter this new terrain?

What are your aspirations? Have they changed since you entered university? Are you still not sure? Acknowledge that having a clear sense of what’s next is sometimes available and that, at other times, we are exploring. Neither is better or worse than the other, but each invites a different wayfinding approach.

5. Explore: how do I find my way in this new terrain?

Wayfinding is an art – and a science. Entering into the transition from Business School to career with the open-minded creativity of an artist and a scientist’s structured willingness to experiment, learn and build on learning can provide a framework for engaging in uncertainty as an adventure in learning, doing and exploring rather than finding the ‘right’ answer to living a good life. This is a critical orientation for entering this next stage of your life – and every uncertain transition you face in the future.

Joan P Ball is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Peter J Tobin College of Business, St. John’s University in the US. She is a transition expert, holds a PhD in international business management and is the author of Stop, Ask, Explore: Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty (Kogan Page, 2022).

 

Headline image: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Will your social media profile replace your CV?

Business Impact: Will your social media profile replace your CV?

From Amazon and Netflix to LinkedIn and TikTok – your digital footprints offer glimpses into your personality. Algorithms can use these footprints to reveal your soft skills and suitability for a particular role, say the authors of The Future of Recruitment

What do you think reveals the most about you, your carefully curated resumé, or your online browsing habits? I think we all would agree that the latter would give any stranger an accurate picture of your unique values, characteristics and personality.

If I know that you spend a lot of time browsing and contributing to Wikipedia, as opposed to if I know you spend your time bouncing from one influencer to the next on TikTok, I can make a safe bet that you’re intellectually curious — a personality trait that is a strong predictor of job performance.

When evaluating job applicants, recruiters are evaluating a candidate on their technical skills and expertise, alongside their soft skills – or in other words, their personality. The field of industrial-organisational psychology (I-O psychology) is dedicated to identifying and measuring the personality characteristics that explain who performs at work, and who doesn’t.

Thousands of scientific studies have demonstrated that psychological qualities – such as being disciplined, curious and considerate, to name just a few – consistently predict important work outcomes, such as leadership effectiveness, innovation, and collaboration, as well as which industries or vocations would be most engaging. These findings are then used by recruiters to improve their hiring decisions and organisational performance.

Digital footprints offer new ways to evaluate applicants’ suitability

While it is somewhat easy to measure one’s technical ability, understanding whether a candidate has the ability to work alongside others, stay motivated and practice curiosity is much harder. Recruiters are often left to their intuitions (which are inadvertently biased) or rely on psychometric tests that are usually cumbersome, expensive, and often unscientific. Fortunately, new technologies powered by machine-learning and our digital footprints may offer new ways to identify top talent and evaluate the suitability of job applicants. They can also open up new job opportunities to underserved communities, save time and minimise the bias that holds many people back.

As you live and work online, you leave a large trail of digital footprints that reveals an insight into what makes you, you. The films you watch on Netflix, the things you purchase on Amazon, the TikTok influencers you follow — each provide a tiny glimpse into your personality. These footprints can be aggregated and mined by machine-learning algorithms to reveal your soft skills.

Nearly 10 years ago, researchers from Cambridge University demonstrated that your Facebook Likes could accurately predict your personality, with greater accuracy than your closest friends and family. In other words, you are what you Like. Other researchers have since expanded these findings to include Spotify playlists, Tweets, smartphone usage, and many other sources of online behaviour. So how does this impact the way organisations recruit talent?

Benefits of incorporating digital footprints into the job application process

The fundamental objective of all talent assessments is to sufficiently understand a person’s tendency to behave in a given way and infer that they will continue to do so in the future. After all, if talent is the product of the right personality in the right place, recruiters need more accurate and comprehensive tools of one’s dispositions, decision-making styles and motivations. Incorporating digital footprints into the job application process offer multiple advantages over traditional talent assessment methods:

  1. User experience. Digital footprints can be analysed in seconds, as opposed to the 30 minutes or more that it takes applicants to complete a traditional talent assessment.
  2. Fairness. If trained and deployed correctly, algorithm-powered talent assessments standardise the job application process. This means that all candidates are assessed against the same criteria, minimising human bias and subjectivity.
  3. Diverse talent pools. Digital footprints allow for ‘one click’ job applications, and when coupled with the switch to virtual working, they can attract applications from underrepresented groups and communities. New assessment methods can reduce barriers to entry and build more inclusive organisations.
  4. Accuracy. Digital footprints provide an accurate and objective measure of an individual’s disposition. By using objective behavioural data, from a variety of sources across multiple points in time, recruiters can gain an accurate insight into one’s dispositions and potential. 
  5. Transparency. It is hard to understand and ‘debug’ human decision-making, it is comparatively easy to study how algorithms work. The use of algorithms in hiring contexts will lead to talent decisions that can be easily explained — another way to combat bias.

Ethical use of algorithms  

We hope that you are hearing alarm bells as you read this article. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the use of such data and technologies in the hiring process. As US mathematician, Cathy O’Neil, writes, algorithms that are used to evaluate people and guide human decision-making can become ‘weapons of math destruction’. In fact, we have already seen how these technologies have been used to foster social tension and inadvertently lead to biased recruiting decisions. That said, we believe it is better to be proactive about the future and guide the development of these technologies for the benefit of individuals and society. 

To ensure that the promise of alternative measures of talent can be fully realised and used ethically, it is important that the developers and users of these next-generation technologies think critically and intentionally about the following questions:

  1. A lack of transparency. To what extent do applicants and recruiters know how their data is being processed, weighted and analysed by the algorithm?
  2. Power asymmetry. What can be done to equalise the imbalance of power between those wielding the algorithm and those being subjected to its decisions?
  3. Bias and discrimination. Can the developers and users of talent algorithms demonstrate that there is no adverse impact on the selection of minority and protected groups?
  4. Privacy. Are the requested digital records relevant, made clear to the applicant, and what safeguards are being made to ensure their privacy is being protected?

Talent algorithms should not replace human agency and decisions. Instead, they are a tool to balance our intuition and subjectivity that so often leads to bad hires and wasted resources. As the way people live and work changes, so must organisations change the way they understand and recruit talent. Digital footprints show promise to be a valuable addition to the job application process, providing we can ensure that it is done with fairness, transparency and ethics.

Franziska Leutner is a Lecturer in Occupational Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Reece Akhtar is a Co-Founder and CEO of personality assessment firm, Deeper Signals.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University.

Franziska Leutner, Reece Akhtar and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic are the authors of The Future of Recruitment: Using the New Science of Talent Analytics to Get Your Hiring Right (Emerald, 2022).

Finding your fit: the relationship between stress, career and creativity

Business Impact: Finding your fit – the relationship between stress, career and creativity

While an optimal amount of stress can help you focus and perform better, ‘bad’ stress and anxiety can impair your ability, says the author of Beat Stress at Work, Mark Simmonds. That’s why your characteristics and your work must be a good fit

Fit is everything.

If you want to give yourself the best chance possible of enjoying a rewarding career – one where you are able to fulfil the loftiest of ambitions – it’s important that you’re able to choose a path where you are able to manage ‘bad’ stress as much as possible. One way of doing this is to treat your job in the same way you would treat a personal relationship. In other words, look for a job where there is a close alignment between your own values and those of the company. If there is misalignment between the two for too long, the pressure will mount and it will more than likely end in tears.

This is what happened to me when I kicked off my career. It was really painful.

The prolonged panic attack

In my early twenties, I started working for Unilever, the global consumer goods company – one of the largest in the world. Its household brands, like Dove, Axe, Knorr, Magnum and Domestos are available in around 190 countries.

Unilever also has one of the most respected management trainee programmes for young people who want to forge a career in marketing. I succeeded in joining it when I was 25, working for Birds Eye Wall’s, one of its operating companies at the time and I was pretty proud of my achievement. The career roadmap was now neatly laid out in front of me and the future seemed bright.

A year later, I found myself pacing up and down the basement of the Birds Eye Wall’s building liked a caged animal. I was alone, surrounded only by freezers full of frozen peas, beef burgers and fish fingers and my own confused thoughts. I was trying to work out why I was suddenly feeling so anxious, why I seemed incapable of completing the most basic of tasks at my desk upstairs. I needed a bit of head space, away from people, to think clearly and work out what was going on in my frazzled mind. At the time, I was only a trainee, the lowest of the low. Admittedly, I had now been handed a little more responsibility and people in the team were relying on me to get things done, but I was still a relatively insignificant cog in the wheel.

Yerkes, Dodson and the electrocuted rat

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing a prolonged panic attack. During those ‘basement wandering days’, I felt frightened and agitated all the time. Back in 1908, two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, discovered that mild electric shocks could be used to motivate rats to complete a maze, but when the shocks became too strong, they would start panicking and scurry around the maze haphazardly in an attempt to escape. This became the basis of the Yerkes-Dodson Law which suggested there is a clear link between performance and arousal.

For example, an optimal amount of stress will help you focus on an exam and remember all the key facts. You might feel energised, stimulated, even exhilarated. That is ‘good stress’ and this might help you perform even better. But too much anxiety can impair your ability to remember anything worth writing down on the exam paper. You might freeze and become incapable of thinking straight. That’s ‘bad stress’ when you might not even perform at all. For what it’s worth, I felt like that electrocuted rat.

A round peg in a square hole 

When I was writing the book, Beat Stress at Work, I reflected back on that period and tried to work out what had gone wrong. What was it that had caused me to suffer from the prolonged panic attack and the years of discomfort that followed working at Birds Eye Wall’s? The problem was fit. I was a round peg in a square hole.

By nature, I was more of a creative type and enjoyed ruminating and cogitating, playing around with ideas and concepts, preferably on my own. I liked to have time and space to think things through. However, Birds Eye Wall’s was a fast-paced environment where making decisions quickly was very much the order of the day. Long ‘to do’ lists and pressing deadlines were very much the order of the day and all the beautiful inefficiency associated with the creative process was frowned on.

Matching careers and characteristics  

I developed the Matchmaker to help people make good career choices. It identifies a number of characteristics that define the DNA of both the company and the individual. The goal is to try and ensure that there are as many matches as possible, because the more matches there are, the more aligned the needs of both parties will be, and the less likely that ‘bad’ stress will rear its ugly head.

You can see in the Matchmaker table that in the case of Birds Eye Wall’s and me, that it was only ‘team orientation’ where alignment existed. For crucial pairings such as ‘focus on people development’ vs. ‘focus on task completion’ and ‘bias towards introverts’ vs. ‘bias towards extroverts’, the company and I were misaligned. Over a period of time, this misalignment began to cause me more and more ‘bad stress’.                            

So, how do you use the Matchmaker?

1* If your current job is causing you significant ‘bad’ stress, use this framework to highlight the differences that exist between you and the company, dimension by dimension. Put your name and your company’s name in the relevant boxes and insert a star where your names appear side by side.

2* Use the completed framework as the basis for a constructive conversation with your employers to see if you can achieve greater alignment. Be prepared to discuss the source(s) of your stress. Try and agree what they can do, what you can do.

3* Alternatively, if you are on the lookout for a new job, then use the dimensions of the Matchmaker to help you identify companies/positions where there is likely to be greater alignment between you and them.

Remember that fit is everything. Don’t be a square peg in a round hole if you can avoid it.

Mark Simmonds runs a creativity agency called GENIUS YOU and is the author of Beat Stress at Work

Pursuing purpose in your career and life

pursuing purpose in your career and life

Society in the western world has lived in a dearth of purpose since the 1970s, but now is a great time to pursue it once more, says McKinsey Consultant and author of Outgrowing Capitalism, Marco Dondi

What role should your job play in your life? The range of possible answers today is quite different to those of 100 years ago.

If you’ve never thought about this question, now might be a good time because the answer is often a window into the quest for our life purpose. Those who rarely ponder the question are likely to end up regretting it on their death bed.

A good sign that you are pursuing your purpose is that you are proud of who you are and are not afraid of people getting to know you. But what should you do today to be proud of yourself? What should you do to make your future self proud? You spend most of your waking time working – is this time spent in a meaningful way?

The historical decline of purpose

A century ago, most people gained pride from their role in the family, namely with men as breadwinners and women as caregivers. Work led to a material increase in living standards for both one’s own family and society at large, and in times of war, it contributed to survival, freedom and national pride. Over the last 50 years, these historical sources of pride and purpose have declined in the western world.

The fight for survival and freedom has, thankfully, almost disappeared from our day-to-day lives. Raising a family has become insufficient or secondary to finding purpose, as more women have joined the workforce and both men and women have delayed marriage and having children. Increases in living standards as a source of pride, meanwhile, started to plateau once the masses reached middle class. And work, that should have strengthened its contribution to purpose, has instead been sullied by a ‘wicked’ turn of capitalism.

At the worst possible time, the prevailing narrative among economists and politicians made shareholder profit the sole purpose of a business, and a person’s salary became the main measure of their worth. From the late 1970s, society has lived in a dearth of purpose. Some clung tightly to their family values, but divorces and wage stagnation among the middle classes made the road to purpose more arduous. Others espoused the pursuit of higher salaries and personal achievements, only to find out later in life that this road too often leads to perdition and narcissism.

But here come the 2020s. From the ashes of rising inequalities, social divisions, and the failures derived from letting greed loose in the financial markets, a new society is starting to take form. Businesses are repudiating shareholder capitalism and are placing all stakeholders – as well as purpose – back on the agenda. Some governments are prioritising people over money and ideology. Covid-19 lockdowns forced people to break away from habits and gave them the uncommon luxury of time to reflect. In addition, climate change provides a common enemy to fight against. By the end of 2021 the world was facing the start of The Great Resignation. Could this be the dawn of a new purposeful society?

The road to purpose in the 2020s

While a good dose of optimism is justified, younger generations should not be naïve in thinking they have tailwinds. Gender equality has long been a priority for most actors in society but after decades of struggle we are nowhere near a satisfactory situation. Much of the power to enact change has historically lain with senior white males at the top of the ladder, siloed by several layers of mostly male executives and managers. In this context, conscious and unconscious bias has made the road to gender equality a terribly frustrating one for hundreds of millions of women to this very day.

The road to purpose is likely to face similar barriers. There are decades-long habits and mindsets ingrained in your peers, your more senior colleagues and – depending on your age – they might even be ingrained in you too. There is a window now where people are more open to consider alternatives and look more favourably to a diversity of approaches for individuals to pursue purpose in their own way. But creating new habits will not happen overnight. People showing up less in the office might still be labelled as ‘they care less’. People de-prioritising a fast career trajectory might still be labelled as ‘less ambitious’ or ‘less capable’. All the while, businesses still need to turn profits, with markets pressuring for higher profits and faster growth than the competition. Many executives and managers will still look at numbers before people and have expectations of you.

Navigating your path to purpose

How can you navigate your path to purpose in these choppy waters? Is quitting the only solution? Should you set up your own business? Or should you hang on and chart your path in your current organisation?

The answers are, of course, many and diverse but here are four suggestions:

  1. Take time to reflect and gain clarity on the version of yourself that you would be proud to show the world and for the world to know – the version that you’d be proud of when looking back at your life. What would this version of you do, and why would you do what you do? This should give you a glimpse of land beyond the choppy waters and can be your guiding North Star.
  2. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses and set a path to purpose that plays to your strengths. Be humble when choosing or you’ll be, quite literally, fooling yourself. Ask others for an honest opinion, after all, it’s not too difficult to listen to others’ talking about where you excel.
  3. Stay open to changing what you do to live up to your purpose. There are multiple paths to reach your North Star, so you might want to stay relatively detached from any one path in particular. Stay nimble and acknowledge that some waves are too big to surf.
  4. Be consistent with who you want to be even when you’re faced with more complex situations. We have a cunning tendency to create justifications when we take decisions that are at odds with our principles. This helps superficially but a deeper reflection will uncover the inconsistency. It is better to keep a tight grip on the steering wheel than to follow the waters wherever they take you and fool yourself into believing that it was your intended course.

Now is a great time in history to pursue purpose. However, the pursuit is yours to captain.

Main image credit: Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Marco Dondi is a Strategy Consultant at McKinsey & Company and former global manager for economic development working on labour markets. He is also the author of Outgrowing Capitalism (Fast Company Press, 2021). Marco holds an MBA from INSEAD and a master’s in management, economics and industrial engineering from Politecnico di Milano.  

 

How to answer tricky interview questions

Business Impact: How to answer tricky interview questions

Congratulations, you’ve been selected for interview – now comes the nerve-wracking part. Get some advice on preparing for, and answering, questions designed to explore your decision-making and reveal your potential

Job interviews are the single most important part of the work selection process – for you and for your future employer. Once your CV has shown that you meet the basic skills and background requirements, the interview then establishes how well you might fit into an organisation’s culture and future plans.

Most interview questions are generally straightforward, unambiguous enquiries, but some interviewers like to surprise you by asking questions specifically intended to explore your thinking and expectations. Or they might try to throw you off guard to see how you react in high-stress or confusing circumstances. Or they may not be intentionally tricky at all. The interviewer may not be very experienced and so ask you questions which seem unrelated to you and the position.

Answering tricky questions successfully could help you gain the position you are applying for, but remember that the nature of the questions, and how your answers are received, can tell you volumes about whether this is a company you would really want to work for.

Prepare for the interview

1. Think about the potential questions

Spend time in advance thinking about questions you might be asked during the interview. Also, study lists of questions that are available online and formulate possible answers. Although you may not be asked those questions specifically, being well prepared will help you feel relaxed, confident and capable.

2. Think about the purpose

The best job interviews are positive encounters that allow a two-way exchange of information. It may feel as though the employer has all the power as it is they who will decide whether or not to offer you the job. But, in fact, it is you who holds the power – it is you who will decide whether or not to accept the job. So, interviews are just as important for you as they are for the interviewer. Keeping this power balance in mind will help you stay calm, dignified, and clear-headed.

3. Think about the interviewer

It is safe to assume that the interviewer is slightly uncomfortable with the process too. Not many people enjoy grilling a stranger. Remember that you may be the 25th candidate this week and the interviewer may be quite sick of asking the same questions and hearing the same rehearsed answers. Remember, too, that the interviewer was once sitting in your seat, applying for his or her job within the company and worrying about the same surprise questions. Establishing some empathy with the interviewer can help to make the encounter more relaxed.

Communicate effectively during the interview

Never lie. Many interviewers do this work for a living, so they have heard all the ‘correct’ answers many times before. Don’t trot out what you think the interviewer wants to hear. Instead, be candid and clear, and use lengthy answers only when you think that demonstrating your thought processes in detail will add valuable information.

Be sure you understand the question. If the question is unclear, ask for clarification. ‘I’m not sure what you mean. Could you explain?’ or ‘could you rephrase that question?’ are perfectly acceptable queries in any civilised conversation. Job interviews are no different. Similarly, if you didn’t hear the question properly, don’t be afraid to ask for it to be repeated.

Be prepared to answer questions about salary. You can politely decline to give details about past salary and future expectations if you wish, but be warned that this is difficult to do without creating a bad atmosphere in the interview. The most important thing is to keep the focus on your worth, not your cost.

Many companies offer salaries only at a certain percentage above a candidate’s previous salary. However, if your previous salary was below the market average or your worth, this doesn’t mean you should be forced to accept a lower salary in the future. Decide before you go into the interview on a salary range that is acceptable to you. Make sure the top of the range is well above the figure you would be thrilled to accept, and the bottom of the range slightly above your predetermined ‘walk-away’ figure.

Deal with tricky questions

There are roughly eight areas of questioning that could pose a challenge in the interview:

  1. Your experience and management skills
  2. Your opinion about industry or professional trends
  3. The reasons why you are leaving your current job
  4. The financial or other value of your past work and achievements
  5. Your work habits
  6. Your salary expectations
  7. Your expectations for the future
  8. Your personality and relationship skills or problems

Identify the topic areas that might be the trickiest for you, then think carefully about how you might answer them. You don’t want to have to try to blag your way through difficult parts of the interview, and you certainly shouldn’t lie. However, you should also be wary of rehearsing answers to anticipated questions word for word, as this is likely to come across as false and insincere, too.

Your solutions to ‘scenario’ type problems will tell the interviewer a lot about you – whether you can make tough decisions, for example, or if you have leadership qualities.

Questions about your weaknesses are usually designed to discover the extent of your self-knowledge. Keep your answers short and dignified. Identify only one area of weakness that you’re aware of and describe what you are doing to strengthen that area to demonstrate your enthusiasm for self-development. Try to avoid using the response of being a ‘perfectionist’ as it is a cliché. Remember, no one is perfect.

This is an edited excerpt from Get That Job: Interviews (Bloomsbury Business, 2022) from the Business Essentials series. Available in paperback, ebook and audio, £8.99 GBP. www.bloomsbury.com

How to build meaningful work for your people

Business Impact: How to build meaningful work for your people

What do we mean by ‘meaningful’ work and how can organisations provide it? Degreed’s Annee Bayeux looks at factors of autonomy, complexity and recognition

Let’s face it, we’re all looking for that dream job. The one which brings meaning, purpose and growth to our lives. Yet, in many cases, our work is falling short. In fact, only 20% of employees globally are engaged at work. And that’s bad news for employees and their employers. Disengaged employees are known to be less productive, less satisfied, and less likely to remain with their employer for a long time.

Defining meaningful work

More than anything else, people everywhere are looking to have meaningful work in this moment of time, but what exactly is ‘meaningful’ work? According to author and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, meaningful work consists of three distinct qualities:

  1. Autonomy: having control of our choices.
  2. Complexity: being able to constantly improve and be challenged.
  3. Recognition: a direct connection between effort and reward. That payoff can be financial, spiritual, social, and so forth.

Using this as a guide, HR leaders and people managers can bring meaningful work into their people’s day-to-day lives. As a Chief Learning Strategist, I see this list as a challenge to shift the learning and growth culture of an organisation.

Autonomy

It makes sense that anyone stuck doing rote tasks under the constant gaze of a controlling manager is not going to have much job satisfaction. There’s no fun in having little-to-no control of what you’re working on, where you work, when you work, or your career trajectory. Instead, offering greater autonomy in the workplace will boost engagement, trust, loyalty, and work quality.

So how can you build greater autonomy in your workforce? A few ways to do this include:

  • Providing greater flexibility for people to choose their working hours and environment. Some people work better in quiet spaces while others prefer the hustle and bustle of a workplace or cafe. Likewise, giving greater control over work hours can help people fit their work around other commitments, like family or personal development.
  • Offering stretch assignments that align with goals and interests. This empowers employees to seek out experiences that will build their careers and skills, while also inspiring them in work that they are interested in.
  • Offer volunteer opportunities. Similar to the above, having the opportunity to volunteer for a cause close to an employee’s heart actually has a boost effect on productivity. Studies have shown that allowing employees to help others, either externally or internally, on ‘company time’ increases productivity over time. Degreed’s traditional ‘Good Deeds Day’ gives four days a year to your favourite cause, where many employees choose to help upskill, mentor or coach others during their time off.
  • Provide opportunities to teach, mentor or coach others. People who are passionate about their work and who have built a wealth of experience, will naturally want to share this knowledge with others. Like volunteering, the intrinsic pleasure of helping others helps to keep us happy and motivated. Don’t forget about reverse mentoring, where new arrivals can help bring fresh ideas and expertise as mentors and coaches, just like your seniors. Finally, keep it democratic – using technology to level the playing field, opportunities to coach, mentor or be coached should be transparent and available for everyone, not just a ‘happy few’.  

Complexity

Complexity is… well, hard. Having complex work ensures that your mind grows constantly. Helping your people to feel challenged (but in control) will enable them to discover their passions and shape their career journeys. The first step is to understand what makes your people tick. What are their interests and career goals? By understanding what motivates them, you can offer learning and career opportunities that help them achieve their goals. At the same time, this challenges them every day, especially if those learning and career activities are done in the flow of work.

Two other things to consider when developing complexity in the workday: it needs to be challenging, but not so much so that it causes constant stress. This is how ‘stretch assignments’ earned their name – for seeking to find the sweet spot between your comfort zone and learning a new skill. Find the right balance between tricky things and activities that your people are confident and experienced in.

The second thing is to provide the psychological safety to fail. My first boss once told me: ‘Annee, you can make as many mistakes as you want, as long as you only make each one once’. This tongue-in-cheek expression really teaches you the value of learning from mistakes. Building a culture focused on growth, instead of blame, will be a key factor in managing complexity. You don’t get success without some failures along the way, and failing can provide people with valuable lessons for the future. Communicate that it’s ok to fail as long as there are learnings from it.

Recognition

It’s hard for me to mention recognition without mentioning rewards, but here my intention is distinct. So much of the joy of success comes from seeing how far you’ve come and equally importantly, to feel that others around you appreciate your efforts and passion. Recognition comes in many forms, from a manager recognising the great work of a team member, to colleagues who thank team members, to winning an award for a complex project. Everyone feels great to be recognised.

There are many options to help build recognition into your people’s workday.

  • Track your team’s efforts, recognising those who have gone above and beyond, and report back on progress against set goals. Allow your stars to mentor or coach others.
  • Incorporate regular feedback into your culture. This could be as informal as a quick coffee or walk, or more formally during regularly scheduled team and individual feedback meetings.
  • Remember that rewards offer proof of recognition! Consider gamification, badges, and other reward-systems that provide incentives for someone to reach specific goals and results. Peer-recognition systems can also help to recognise someone’s contribution and teamwork across a wider organisation.

Remember to recognise all forms of effort at work, whether that’s completing a difficult task, helping another department, or learning a new skill.

A thriving and motivated workforce

Building meaning into everyone’s workday will pay off with greater retention, engagement, and productivity. Your people will feel motivated to achieve their best work because it feeds their sense of purpose and passion. This creates an environment where everyone thrives, can bring their best selves to work, and who are in it for the long term.

Annee Bayeux is Chief Learning Strategist at upskilling platform, Degreed. She has 20+ years in L&D, M&A, Talent, and HR Technologies with Global 2000 companies, such as Bosch Automotive, Alstom, General Electric, and Danone.

Building your career strategy

Business Impact: Building your career strategy

What do the terms ‘insider information’ and ‘high potential’ really mean? Kimberly Cummings, author of Next Move, Best Move, outlines what you need to know and why it’s important to put together your own career strategy

When we think about career strategies, we often expect the strategy to be handed to us by senior leadership, human resources, a direct manager, or a mentor building it out on our behalf. I want to empower you to understand the importance of putting together your strategy.

This strategy will focus on your goals and align with your career opportunities, not only for your career at your current company but for your overall career. Additionally, relationships are a key part of your career strategy to help you navigate new situations and easily move into your next opportunities. If you do not believe in the power of relationship-building in your career, I hope digging into the concept of ‘insider information’ will help you understand that this career concept is non-negotiable for you.

Insider information

I affectionately call my email newsletter ‘insider notes’ because it’s my way of sharing career-related stories, insight, experiences, and tips with my subscribers. In your everyday life, insider information is the same thing. Essentially, insider information is the 15-minute coffee chat when you learn more about a stakeholder and his or her preferences for receiving information for a new business proposal, or those quick after-hour drinks when you get some helpful feedback to learn a better way to approach your role.

As you build relationships with peers, coaches, mentors, and sponsors, the insider information you receive will make or break your ability to take advantage of various opportunities. For example, whenever I learned about a new career opportunity, the first thing I would do was go through my network to determine if I knew anyone working with or for the company to conduct an informational interview.

As a professional in the workforce, you know there’s a big difference between the beautiful job descriptions and testimonials on the company website versus the actual experience working at a company, especially as a woman or person of colour. Once I locate a contact or request an introduction from someone we have in common, I prepare key questions to inform my next steps. Typically, I ask questions like these:

  • Would you share your current experience in the company?
  • Do you feel your experience has been consistent since day one?
  • What are the policies for upwards movement at your company?
  • Would you share more about your experiences with senior leadership?
  • Do you feel like you have opportunities to grow at this company?
  • Do you feel like there’s a glass ceiling for women and people of colour? If yes, why?

If the person works in the same team or department that I’m seeking to work in, I also ask the following:

  • Would you tell me more about the leadership style of the manager?
  • What are the biggest challenges your team faces?
  • Who are the key stakeholders and external teams your team works with?
  • Does your manager have any red flags he or she looks for in candidates? If so, would you identify them?
  • What do you believe the first 90 days in this role will look like?

When you rely on your company to build your career strategy, you allow it to have a singular focus for your career. Your company spends thousands upon thousands of dollars recruiting and onboarding its talent. So, of course, it likes to ensure it keeps it, which means its priority will be to keep you in your role, or a more senior role within that same department or company at-large.

High potentials

Moreover, companies frequently focus exclusively on developing their high-potential talent. ‘High potential’ can have several meanings, depending on the company, but what I’ve seen, especially for women and people of colour, is that although they do phenomenal work, they may not have the talent designation of high potential.

High potential is short for:

  • Ready for an opportunity for promotion
  • Ready for a new, lateral opportunity
  • Ready to begin managing people
  • Ready for a stretch assignment
  • Needs more development but is very promising, and efforts need to be made to retain the talent, so the employee does not pursue external opportunities

After more than 11 years of career development experience in higher education, talent acquisition, and coaching hundreds of clients, I have seen that many companies do not have strict guidelines on the definition of high potential. Without high-potential definitions to remove bias and allow managers to make an objective assessment of their talent, that talent is being evaluated at the mercy of the managers.

I’ve had some great managers and some terrible managers in my career, and one of the best pieces of advice I received was from one of my mentors, a senior executive at a Fortune 100 company. She advised that not all feedback is about me. When she shared this during a conversation, my mind was blown. I had an experience in my office that I wanted to review with her, and she changed the way I thought about performance appraisals and feedback in the workplace. Managers are responsible for providing feedback and insights about their teams that can make or break a team member’s career. However, a biased opinion can paint a picture of a team member that does not align with that member’s skill set, performance, and career objectives.

This is an edited extract from Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into A Career You’ll Love by Kimberly B Cummings (Wiley, 2021).

Kimberly Cummings is an author, career expert, and the Founder of leadership development company, Manifest Yourself. She has a background as a career development adviser for US universities, and as a diversity and inclusion professional at a Fortune 100 company.

BGA members are able to receive a 20% discount off the RRP for Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Click here for details.

Building your career profile through experimentation

Business Impact: Building your career profile through experimentation

‘Get on the dance floor as soon as the party starts and show off your moves.’ Michel Masquelier, author of This is Not a Dress Rehearsal, says it’s never too early to embrace experimentation and start building your unique profile

Your grades and your CV are no guarantee of success. And even if they help open the door for you, the leap from theory to practice is one you will have to make by yourself, without a safety net and without the helping hand of parents or teachers. You will gain wisdom and build your confidence through a succession of experiments, through trial and error, on your journey.

Experiment as early as possible

Before undertaking her degree at the University of Edinburgh, my eldest daughter, Charlotte, had held six different summer jobs requiring three different languages – French, Spanish and English. The tasks she was given ranged from making the morning coffee to translating interviews, or simply being a runner from one desk to another. She started at the bottom and began to demystify the unknown world of work.

While taking her degree, and after graduation, she secured several internships. These ranged from an Erasmus scholarship working for EuroLeague basketball in Barcelona to working in online education in London, working in data management in Melbourne, being a marketing assistant in Hong Kong and acting as a media rights assistant at UEFA in Nyon, Switzerland.

It has become increasingly common for young people to take a gap year, either before or after graduation. That can be great fun, and a great opportunity to learn and grow. Charlotte decided to sacrifice the fun, however, and dive straight into the corporate world – to learn the trade from the inside. After a couple of years, she decided to deepen her understanding of the business by enrolling for a master’s degree at Esade Business School in Barcelona.

The choices that now lie ahead of her include going back into the corporate world or flying with her own wings and starting a business. Whatever path she chooses, she has embraced experimentation to build up a unique profile for herself, with experience based on tasting the real thing at an early stage and building communities of real friends.

The path to knowledge is practice

I am an advocate of internships. At IMG, I used such opportunities to test the practical ability, motivation and ambition of people who would later be given proper challenges and responsibilities. Many of the talents that came through the IMG internship programme went to the very top, driven by hard work and determination, as well as their innate abilities. This was how my own journey started too. I wanted to get my foot in the door and an internship was a way of doing this.

I was determined to break any barrier to have the privilege of jumping on the corporate ladder, building relationships, and learning the trade. However you are able to get your start, I recommend that you get on the dance floor as soon as the party starts and show off your moves, regardless of how outrageous or clumsy they might be. Practice, goodwill, hard work and experimentation are prerequisites for the journey to success.

You may be a talented artist, a gifted athlete or possess a scientific intellect, but without experimentation and practice, you are not yet a star. You may like cooking and feel passionate about it, but to become a recognised chef you will need to go beyond reading recipes. It is about hard work, experimenting, innovating, taking inspiration from others, creating and progressing.

No one starts as an expert. You may be gifted, talented and well educated, but the path to knowledge is practice and the earlier you take a deep dive the better: to experiment, to learn languages, to see the world, to taste real things. It is never too early to start. Do not waste time; the journey is shorter than you think.

This is an edited excerpt from This is Not a Dress Rehearsal (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021) by Michel Masquelier.
Michel Masquelier is the former chairman of IMG Media, part of the global sports management agency. After graduating with a degree in law, he worked his way up the ladder at IMG from intern to chairman.

BGA members can receive 20% off the price of a copy of This is Not a Dress Rehearsal courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Click here for details.

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