Mental well-being in a time of pandemic

April 24, 2020

looking out

There’s a mental health time bomb ticking away but we’re not noticing it because we’re focusing on our physical well being.

Being stuck inside, lack of human contact, losing our routines, worrying, changing our dietary habits, these are all factors that can compromise our mental and emotional well-being, and while, of course, our priority must be to protect ourselves and others from the Covid-19 virus, our mental health is being compromised all the time we are trying to adapt to these unusual circumstances.

I’ve already noticed a slight shift from compassion to “blame and shame” with regard to people’s behaviours around the virus. People being judgemental about how others conduct themselves, complaining that others are not being sufficiently considerate on pavements and in public spaces. That has to do, in part, with heightened anxiety and the difficulties that arise from changes to our normal life, as well as increasing fear as people we know fall ill. It’s our own fears, being expressed as anger. 

People are reacting to the situation in very different ways. Some are positive – seeing opportunities, some are philosophical or stoic, accepting the situation for what it is, some are anxious, and others are experiencing depression.  It’s important to be aware that people are reacting in different ways: we’re not expected to see things as others do, and we can’t expect others to see things the way we do.  Our specific circumstances and concerns mean we may have a different attitude to the next person, and neither is more or less valid – just different.

At first Coronavirus was an abstract thing that happened far away.  Then it came to our country, our town or village, our community and now it’s reached our close friends and family. I don’t suppose there’s anyone in the UK now who does not know of someone who is, or has been, seriously affected by Covid-19.  It’s scary, and we need to notice our fear while also trying to to maintain calm, showing care towards ourselves and others.

With that in mind, here are some ideas to help with self-care.

1 Focus on what you can influence, not what you can’t.

It was the writer Stephen Covey who introduced me to this idea in his excellent 7 Habits of highly effective people.  I’m not one for coaching gurus, but Stephen Covey is the exception as far as I’m concerned.  Covey invites us to recognise that there are many things that worry and concern us, and we tend to pay more attention to the things that are out of our control than the things that we can influence.  We are all fearful about the spread of Covid-19 but there’s very little we can do to stop its spread, except to be as vigilant as we can, and behave as responsibly as we can. Other than that it’s out of our control, so there’s little point worrying too much about it.  When we see others behaving irresponsibly we can be annoyed, we may even say something, but we’re unlikely to change their behaviour, so why get stressed about it?

We fear the unknown, but doubt is OK.  We don’t know what’s happening.  Remember that it’s OK not to know.  We are looking for explanations – its the human condition.  We want answers and need to be in control.  the inability to be in possession of clear facts mean people grasp at half-truths, untruths, or anything that allows them to feel as if they know, understand, and are in control.  This then leads to people judging others if they don’t behave according to the “truth” that they have adopted, and add this to the anxiety that many feel, and you have a recipe for shaming and blaming others.

More worrying, it leads to conspiracy theories and damaging telephone masts because people are persuaded by ideas that Covid-19 is spread by 5G. It’s an answer. It doesn’t matter that it’s nonsense.  When people want answers they’ll grasp at anything that someone presents to them as an answer.

Better to put your energy into making the changes in your life that you are able to make. Stay informed, but don’t stay tuned into the news all day long – the media tells you about the things you can’t influence, and therefore the stuff that reminds you about what you don’t have control over. Overdosing on this stuff will bring you down. Focus on things that you want to do, and make efforts to effect those changes rather than focusing on things that you can’t do anything about.

2 See the opportunities in the situation.

With the additional time available during the week that many people now have, you have a chance to do things, either personally or professionally, that you’ve been meaning to do for a while. I wonder how many books are being written right now? Books that the authors have wanted to write for years perhaps? How many of my musician clients are going to compose new pieces and perhaps record demos at home?

For those people with children, can you see this as an opportunity to spend real quality time with them? Clearly if you have young children at home you’re not going to have much time to get into new personal projects, on the other hand, this time together might be something that your children will value and appreciate. How many of us feel guilty that we are at work until late and don’t see enough of our kids? Well here’s the opportunity to be with them as much as you always felt you needed to.

There are also things you can do with or without the children, that will have other benefits.  Later on I’ll talk about eating well.  The current situation presents us with opportunities to develop our culinary skills, or if we’re lucky enough to have one, working in the garden, or perhaps decluttering. I’m certainly looking at my possessions in a new way. The world is a very different place now and is going to be different from now on.  I’m not looking at accumulating things. I’m looking at shedding myself of things.   

The situation we find ourself in means that for many of us, we have time to do things we didn’t have time to do before.  Time is a gift.  Don’t think about how this is restricting you, think about the possibilities.

3 Try to maintain your normal routines.

Get up when you usually get up. Get dressed rather than staying in your PJs all day, eat at your normal times. Life hasn’t changed that much. Don’t let it feel as if it has. Whatever you used to do that you can’t now do in the same way, try to find a different way of doing it rather than deciding that you can’t do that thing any more.

Work and social life are the obvious examples. We’re all trying to find new ways of working.  We’re also discovering new ways to communicate with friends and family. That’s not changing your routines, that’s changing the way you follow your routines.

4 Exercise

Leaving the house to exercise is one clearly permitted. so every day you can go our for a run, walk or bike ride, perhaps.

Exercise has such an incredible impact on our mental well-being that everyone should find time, no matter what their situation, to do it, preferably daily, but otherwise whenever you can. It doesn’t need to be hard exercise, just going for a brisk walk that gets the heart rate slightly raised is good for the mind as well as the body.

If you’re confined to you home, or even one room, stretching, yoga or pilates will be ideal. There are many teacher now offering online classes. Exercise could be the most important thing for keeping you in balance.

If you never thought you could get into running, you have a great opportunity to take on the couch to 5K challenge. You have the time, and I promise you that if you see it through, you’ll be running for 30 minutes three times a week, within 9 weeks. There are plenty of downloadable programmes but the one I used was from the BBC website.

I’m a keen cyclist. When I took it up as an adult I had no idea of the well-being benefits cycling offered beyond general fitness, but there’s no doubt about it. Everyone’s talking about mindfulness these days.  I didn’t realise I have been practicing mindfulness on a bike until I watched a short film on youtube called “The Art of Mindful cycling with Dr Ben Irvine”.  It’s well worth looking at.  Cycling is high value exercise with low impact on your body. Also, it’s a lot easier to keep a safe distance between you and others when on a bike. There’s no narrow paths to share as walkers and runner must.

Another form of exercise that is both enjoyable and easy to do at home is dancing, so put on a bouncy piece of music and have a bop!  Get that adrenalin flowing through your body. You could even arrange a disco with friends over Zoom or Skype.

Or alternatively, an online gym session with a friend while you are both on zoom together.

5 Eat well

Panic buying seems to have eased off, but still we can’t always buy the food we normally would. So another opportunity to try something new presents itself. It’s really important to eat a balanced diet for physical and mental well-being.  Take the opportunity to cook new dishes, using foods you might not have tried before. The internet is an amazing source of recipes.  It’s a chance to eat well, to learn something new and to do something with the children, perhaps.

6 Socialise as much as you can.

Contact is crucial. Isolation is incredibly detrimental to well-being so pick up the phone and talk to your friends and family now that you can’t visit, especially those living alone.

Create WhatsApp groups with different communities and participate in those online conversations.

Video conferencing allows you to see and speak to people and some of these services allow group chats. 

Check in on your neighbours if you are able to go out, talking to them from a safe distance. I’m optimistic that we can come out of this experience much closer to those around us, and much more caring towards our friends, family and neighbours.

It’s important to feel connected to others. People want to feel connected. Say hello to strangers as you pass them in the street – acknowledge the humanity of others.

7 Spiritual practice

This isn’t about getting religious. Those that have faith had it before Covid-19 entered our lives, those that don’t aren’t gong to suddenly get faith now because of it. I’m talking about meditation, mindfulness and becoming more tuned into what’s really important by spending time in contemplation.  It’s amazing how quiet, private thought puts our fears and worries into perspective.

Some meditate, some look at nature, even if that means looking out of the window at a tree. The universe is a big place, and we are very, very very small things in the universe.  That’s awesome. Tuning into your sense of awe brings inner peace. Being in the moment means we stop, for a while, worrying about the future.

8 Sleep well

Good sleep is important for physical and mental health. Just because you haven’t got anything specific to get up for, go to bed at a sensible time and wake up after a proper night’s sleep. This might not be easy but it is habit forming.  At first you might find it difficult to get to sleep, and you might wake up in the night several times, but don’t stop forming that habit. Go to bed when you feel tired rather than trying to go to bed early and tossing and turning. Then, when you’ve found that natural bed time, you will soon be waking up at the same time every day. Sleeping-in isn’t good, and lying on your back for too long isn’t great for your lungs, which is something we need to be aware now just now.

All of these practices are important for physical and mental well-being.  They directly influence our energy levels, and they contribute to our overall happiness. Most of us have never experienced a situation as challenging as now. It has never been more important to pay attention to our self-care.  If you take on some of these ideas now, you may even come out of the experience feeling healthier than you have for many years.

Finally, remember, this will all be over relatively soon, and there’s going to be a lot of crying, and a lot of love to give and receive, so try to stay mentally strong and healthy so you can be there for those who will need you. 

Stay safe, and stay well.

The fluid generation

December 17, 2018


fluid generation

Fluid generation.

I was recently with my 22 year old son talking about “the future”.  His future, to be specific.  Not one of those “now son, it’s time you got serious and started to plan everything for the next fifty years” conversations, but more about how he imagines things might develop for him having recently embarked on the first stage of what I would describe as his first career.

His response was interesting, and not altogether surprising to me. I’ve had similar responses to this enquiry from several people of his generation over the last few years. In essence, he said he has no clear idea of how things will pan out for him beyond the next 4 years or so, and, (and this is the important bit to my mind), he’s not worried about it.  He’s focused on what he’s doing now and when the next stage of his career comes across the horizon he’ll make his choice about what to pursue given the opportunities that are presented.

Things are going to change so quickly in the meantime, both in the world of work and beyond, that there’s little point in trying to plan beyond holding some fairly loose ideas.

This is the fluid generation.

The term has been coined to refer to the rejection of gender as binary: male or female.  While most of us find the idea of gender fluidity at best confusing and at worst dangerously threatening, most of my son’s friends have absolutely no difficulty with it, and I admire them for it. Indeed, they find it curious that we struggle with such a notion.

The idea of fluidity for millennials, I suggest, is not confined to gender. I think young people are fluid, open, non-committal about just about everything of importance in their lives.

Granted, when I was in my twenties I couldn’t tell you what my long-term plan was so that’s nothing new.  What is different is that when I was in my twenties I had a sense that I was on some kind of linear path in life  – that each step would lead inevitably to the next. That model of thought was predominant for my, and probably previous, generations.  I also saw work in binary terms: employed or unemployed; waged or self-employed; working hours and non-working hours; weekday and weekend. Again, I’m not saying that these distinctions have completely disappeared, but I don’t think they are as defining for millennials as they were for me. A week that comprises some hours of work, some hours learning, some in the gym, some volunteering, plus the inevitable every moment in between online, so that ones social life is conducted more or less continuously throughout the day, regardless of the primary activity, is standard.

Moreover, in my day it was rare for anyone in their twenties or thirties to work on a freelance basis.  Nowadays many young people work that way, and as a freelancer working hours are very much more fluid than 9 to 5. My daughter is not yet 24 yet has worked on several projects as a freelancer, and that’s not counting internships. Self-employment is the norm for her and she’s doing this alongside her studies.

Why is it that those people just now becoming economically active see the world in much more fluid terms?

We can’t discount the pace of change in the world. Things have moved on significantly in the handful of years since the millennials left school. Technology is their touchstone, and they know better than anyone how quickly ideas, apps, games, etc., become old.  They are completely used to obsolescence in every aspect of their lives.

Perhaps political uncertainly also plays a part?  Unpredictability in world affairs, environmental collapse,  and in the breakdown of the left v right system may all be feeding a sense amongst young people that it is foolish to predict what their world will look like in the medium-term, let alone the long-term.

In other words, there’s no point in my children and their friends planning for the future because that future is so unpredictable.  Actually the future was always unpredictable, but my generation and those before me thought they could predict it. Instead millennials living much more in the moment, seeking satisfaction from what is available now, taking advantage of current opportunities, and wherever those opportunities lead, that will be their path. They are not confining their decisions to work opportunities, but to life opportunities, because work opportunities are no more valuable, have no more potential to lead to a “good” life, than any other opportunity.

Again, my generation also responded to opportunities.  People I work with in their forties and older talk me through their careers and many jobs taken are responses to opportunities rather than the result of planning.  Why did you go to work in Australia?  I was in Singapore and met an Australian, we got married and I went to live there for the next 20 years, might be a typical case, but that’s still a different situation to what I’m noticing today where people don’t even have a clear path from which to deviate.

I think that ten to fifteen years down the line we are going to see a significant cohort of people who have drifted, but that drifting will not be a bad thing, it will simply describe the way people move through life, settling down to something for a while and then upping and moving on to something else.

Why banning the salary question misses a major point

November 16, 2017

In a remarkably progressive move, not without resistance from the business community, various jurisdictions in the USA are banning interviewers from asking candidates about their salary history.

Few jobseekers will lament this move.  It’s the no win question – either tell the truth and the advantage is with the employer when an offer is made, or risk being found out later for exaggerating when the tax information is passed on, for example.  While there are ways to sidestep the question it’s difficult to do so, and carries the other risk that an unwillingness to share will put the candidate at a disadvantage.

The reason for the ban is right and proper.

Women in the US earn approximately 80% of the salary of men for the equivalent job. By asking for salary history information this discrepancy is perpetuated. Now, it is suggested that by asking instead for salary expectations the problem will persist, and that may be partially true, at least until women gain the confidence to ask for the right amount, nevertheless this ban can only be a good move.


This is the best image I could find when searching on the term “women’s relative salary”

Certainly, many women and men will be relieved not to have to answer the last / current salary question, although most people don’t know how best to deal with the question about salary expectations.

Why? Because they don’t know what number is most likely to secure them the job, and they therefore shoot low.  The mistake is to think that they are required to answer with a number. While the interviewer is almost certainly looking for a number,  if the candidate does not know what they can legitimately expect they can’t answer the question with a figure.

And here’s the thing.  The question is framed in such a way that it assumes the candidate knows how much they should be paid for a job, when they know very little about the role. They don’t know what demands and responsibilities it holds (the job description and person spec are unlikely to be sufficiently accurate sources of data to allow one make such a judgement) and crucially, they don’t know how much other people (read: men) at that level in the organisation are paid.

It’s an inappropriate question to ask a candidate because the employer knows what the correct pay level should be, and the reason they ask the question is because it might provide an opportunity to offer a lower salary than they need to, and all the better if that lower salary is still greater than the candidate quoted as their expectation.

In an ideal world there would be no discussion of salary at the interview stage.  If a person is deemed to be the best candidate they should be offered the job at a fair salary that takes into account the level of difficulty, targets, scarcity of skills and what other colleagues earn. It doesn’t work like that because there’s a zero-sum game that is played out in recruitment that sets up an antagonistic rather than collaborative relationship between employer and employee from the very start.

Of course it’s completely unacceptable that women are offered less than men for the same position, but what is missed is that employers want to play games that might lead to resentment from any employee when they could, if they were honest and fair, increase loyalty through their salary system.


Actually they don’t care how hard you play

October 16, 2017

One of the (many) problems I have with the modern business world is all the cliches, platitudes and, frankly, meaningless banality that we are bombarded with, usually dreamt up by coaches like me.

One such that I was pondering recently is the label that some individuals and companies give themselves to indicate that they are serious.  They take their professional responsibilities seriously, and when they are not at work they let their hair down in an equally committed way.  They  boast that they are people who “work hard and play hard”. When companies describe themselves in this way they’re really telling us that they expect their employees to work hard, and that they are looking to recruit high energy, outgoing people. I don’t think they are particularly bothered about how hard their employees play.

Where in the work hard, play hard philosophy is the message that rest and relaxation are also important for a healthy, balanced life? Lunch is for wimps, and so, it seems, is sleep.


Source: US National Archive and Records Administration

Recent research tells us that greater happiness can be achieved if people slept more.  The problem we face at the moment is not that we don’t “play” hard enough, it’s that we don’t sleep hard enough. Happiness is the point here because what people are quickly realising is that happiness is really what they seek above anything.

The research, commissioned by Sainsbury’s, came out a while ago and it received fairly widespread coverage so I won’t go over the details.  For those that are interested in reading more on it you can download their Living Well Index report here.

Another recent study appears to suggest that the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced if people slept more owing to a discovery that a lack of sleep increases the presence of a brain protein that is linked to the illness. More on that here.

To mark World Mental Health Day on October 11th the headteacher of a west London secondary school gave out alarm clocks to pupils, with a note to parents inviting them to take away connected devices at night in an effort to encourage the youngsters to go to sleep.  The excuse is often made by youngsters that they need their phone for the alarm function in the morning.  No doubt teenagers are resourceful enough to get around this idea, but the message is important, if symbolic.

Another problem with the work hard culture is that it discriminates in favour of those who have fewer commitments outside work, like family, and we all know what that boils down to; women, in particular, are held back in this way.

Instead of crowing about being a place where people work hard and play hard, I’d like to see more employers encouraging staff to work hard but not long hours, to ensure they eat a healthy diet, exercise, spend time with friends and family and critically, to get a good night’s sleep. They can start by ensuring that their senior managers set the right example by leaving at a reasonable time, encouraging their team members to do the same, and by making it clear that staying late is not impressive.

That way they will end up with a far more productive workforce than they would if they encouraged people to burn themselves out.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 2am and I need to watch a bit of telly.



The end of retirement

September 14, 2017

I read a book. Not just any book. I read a business book. I buy business books every now and again, and read them less frequently. I have a small pile of unread business books going back several years. The truth is I don’t much enjoy reading business books. I find they rarely have much to say that justifies the time it takes to go through them, for a slow reader like me at least.

However, for a reason that defies any logic given what I’ve just said, I recently joined a reading group for career consultants and the first book we agreed to discuss was The 100-year life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

I’m pleased about that because I found it full of interesting ideas, some of which I have been considering myself for a while, which meant I felt simultaneously flattered that my thoughts rank alongside those of the authors of a Financial Times business book of the year shortlist maker, and frustrated that I didn’t write the thing first. It would possibly have been the first business book that justified the time it took me to read.


I won’t offer a review because there are many available.  Instead I’ll pick up on the overall theme of the book, because it encapsulates much of my thinking about careers as we look to the future.

The essential premise is that as we live longer people will no longer conform to the Education – Work – Retirement pattern for a number of reasons, primarily economic.  Instead people will transition between periods of different uses of their time.  They will dip in and out of education throughout their life, they will spend chunks of time across their life in a range of different careers, they will spend periods of time travelling, or raising a family, or focusing on charitable activities. These are not mutually exclusive.  More and more people will work part-time while volunteering or engaging in other personal pursuits.

The challenge for society will be how it adapts to this model. Apart from the obvious question about how pensions will be funded – a problem we are already struggling with – we also need to consider when state pensions will be available to a person if they are potentially going to be economically active for blocks of time with an undefined end point?

It seems obvious that people will need to save more when they are working in order to fund the time when they are not working, and the big implication here is that people will be working for many more years, overall, than they do now. We will, perhaps, be working well into our eighties, and this suggests the most profound shift – that society will be forced to re-think its current narrative that people are no longer of value to the economy after a certain age.

Retirement at an early age is, as the authors point out, a fairly modern concept. It turns out that it is probably a historical blip and that most people will work for as long as they have capacity to do so. In the past the amount of time that elapsed between retirement and death was just a few years at best. In the future we will probably have the same number of years between our last stint in employment and death.



Are Portfolio Careers Now the Safest Form of Employment?

January 3, 2017

I recently facilitated a panel discussion about work in the twenty-first century, with particular focus on portfolio careers.  Something one of panelists said stopped me in my tracks, ever so momentarily.  It stopped me because while I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the world of work and how it is changing, and while a lot of that thinking is about portfolio careers, freelancing and the diverse ways by which people make a living and relate to the “employer” (however that relationship is defined), the point that was made challenged the received wisdom that I have simply accepted throughout my years as a career coach.


A portfolio career is about spreading the risk, not having all your eggs in one basket

The panellist, a person whose portfolio of activities comprises eight separate income streams, said that in his view a portfolio career is more secure than traditional employment.

And there am I trying to tell people that while it may not be secure, for many people the portfolio career is the best work pattern for reasons of lifestyle choice or pragmatic need.  I never really thought of portfolio careers as a smart move for the risk averse. When I work with people for whom a portfolio career seems sensible, it’s often because permanent (full or part time) employment prospect for people with their capabilities are rare. I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to someone that a portfolio career is the way to go for someone seeking financial security.

The reason is fairly obvious. When faced with starting out on your own or finding a job with a regular, known, salary from day one, the salary appears to be a safer proposition.

In the longer term, however, employment is precarious, and living in a world where redundancy can come with short notice, leaving a person without any income, is a reality of the twenty-first century.

So when my panellist pointed out that he no longer has any worry about finding himself without any income, because out of eight activities, even if some of them declined or went through a bad period, he’d still be earning from the others and would have time to fix or replace the failing ones, it made total sense.  Being self-employed is safer than employment.

Why does this notion turn our received wisdom on its head?  I suspect it’s about how society has viewed self-employment pretty much since the beginning of industrialisation. Working for a well-established, successful company was seen as secure employment.  Why has it been harder to get a mortgage or insurance as a self-employed person than as an employee? Because the actuaries have worked on the basis that a self-generated income is riskier than a pay cheque every month from a corporate entity.

That’s all changed now.  Employment is not a guarantee of security.  It’s just a guarantee of predictability for the duration of the employment. You know how much you’re going to earn, but you don’t know how long you’re going to earn it for.  On the other hand, self-employment means that you know you will always be working (as long as you choose to) you just don’t know exactly how much you will be earning.

Building a portfolio that manages the overall income stream is where the art of the portfolio careerist comes in.  My panellist could quite possibly develop one or more of his current activities into a successful business, taking up all of his time if he wanted it to, but he has decided that to put all his eggs in one basket in this way would diminish the security that his portfolio provides.

In other words, this portfolio career is specifically designed to offer a level of job security that he couldn’t achieve if he were employed by a large company.


Portfolio Careers, Portfolio Careers and Serial Careerists

October 5, 2016

The term “portfolio career” is bandied about a fair bit, however, many are confused because it has two different meanings. The terms are fairly new in the employment vocabulary, and their increased use is a consequence of the changes in the workplace and employment relationships that have developed over the forty years or so.

Up until the mid to late 1970s a person would enter the world of work and, if they wanted it, could reasonably expect long-term job security.  There were many employers, commercial and not-for profit, for whom, unless you committed some sackable offence, you could work your entire working life and retire at the end with a handshake and a gold watch.

A strong, stable economy in which non-western competition was not much of a threat, and the slow pace of change meant that reasonably well-run, decently resourced organisations were fairly invulnerable.  Globalisation and technology have changed all that.

Nowadays stable employment is far from guaranteed.  The concept of the job for life no longer exists in any sphere as all organisations are constantly looking to stay relevant and competitive. In an economy where human resources are almost always the most expensive cost on the balance sheet, and the easiest to adjust, the employee – employer relationship has changed from one of almost paternalist responsibility on the part of the employer, to that of a simple business transaction. The employer buys the services of the employee for as long as those services are required.

The most common use of the term “portfolio career” refers to a collection of part-time jobs a person may do at any one time. That might include jobs in which a person is formally employed, jobs for which they work as a contractor, activities for which they operate on a self-employed basis or voluntary positions. Since a person’s skills may be of some use to an employer for part of the time, and since employers no longer see a need to “own” the skills required to deliver its products or services, those skills are hired for just the number of hours a week they are needed. The human resource has been outsourced just like many other components of the business operation have been. Employers can no longer afford to have their staff working at anything other than optimum efficiency, and they carefully monitor their use of that particular asset to ensure they are achieving best value from it.


All you need for a successful portfolio career is to be able to remember where you’re supposed to be on any given day.

A second, less frequently used application of the term refers to the notion that a career is the process of gathering skills, knowledge and experience over time, and that we go through our working life offering employers this “portfolio” of skills which we are constantly updating and adding to. This concept of a portfolio career acknowledges an important aspect of the world of work today – that we as individuals are responsible for our career development, and to succeed we must always be looking out for opportunities that will keep our skills relevant and marketable. Over the years I have had several clients who have found themselves at a point where their capabilities have become obsolete, and this has made it very difficult for them to find work. Like an artist’s portfolio, it must be up to date and relevant.

Another terms is “serial careerist”.  I came up with this term some years ago to describe myself. I can’t say for sure that I invented the term – there are ample uses of it on the internet and I doubt they all got it from me, but I like to think I got there first.

A serial careerist is someone who changes career, not just their job, their entire career, every few years. There have always been serial careerists but the conditions outlined above have made it an imperative for some, as whole careers disappear in very short periods of time.  Just look at how the music industry has changed in recent years.

A further factor here is societal change. We may not have quite become hedonists, but young people are perhaps more thoughtful about how they use their time.  Working at something they don’t enjoy is less acceptable that it might have been for previous generations. Boredom thresholds are lower than they were, possibly as a result of today’s fast paced, tweet dominated world.  Change and moving on are how we live now.

These are the conditions into which my children are now entering the workplace and I am observing it with a sense of excitement and trepidation.  Their careers look like they might be much more interesting than ours, but it also seems it will be much harder for them to progress vertically in a world where careers are horizontal processes. How this will impact on their ability to maintain the standard of living they grew up with remains to be seen.

Five Lessons from Leicester 

May 3, 2016

Unless you are from another galaxy, or America, it’s unlikely that the David and Goliath story that is this season’s English Premier League has passed you by.

As such, I feel it is my duty to attempt what pretty much every other business commentator will be doing; make profound connections between sporting and business success.  I just hope you read mine before you are fed up with everyone else’s.


Obligatory picture of Leicester City football players teaching business a spurious lesson about something or other.

1 Take the team for a pizza for the slightest reason

Pundits have snorted at manager Claudio Ranieri’s motivational tool of taking his players out for a pizza when they finished a game without conceding a goal. How could such a pathetic reward motivate high earning sportsmen?

It’s not about the reward, it’s about celebrating small successes together, and importantly, spending time outside of the workplace getting to know each other. Seeing each other in a different way, learning to be around each other, learning to care for each other. That’s team-building.

2 Know your job and keep it simple

Leicester City are not a team made up of high flyers by top professional footballing standards. They are competent individuals at their level, no more. What’s important is that each of them knows his job, believes in his ability to do it well, understands how his role contributes to the whole, and gets on with what he is supposed to do.

At the point of winning the title Leicester City had the fourth best disciplinary record in the division. Maintaining discipline translates to maintaining individual focus in the world of work, not resisting the urge to gouge your competitors’ eyes out. When an employee maintains focus on their task they make fewer mistakes.

3 Minimise mistakes

If you can get your team members to do their job well, mistakes are minimised. A high number of mistakes leads failure, and no matter how talented your team is on the attack – innovating, selling, marketing – if you can’t get the basics of the operation right you’ll lose customers (or let in goals) faster than you can gain (score) them, and as everyone knows, customer acquisition costs about five times as much as customer retention. Leicester have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the division.

4 Minimise staff turnover

Leicester City have used fewer players than any other team during the Premiership campaign. Every time someone leaves or joins it causes disruption. Disruption means performance is compromised. Staff retention is absolutely crucial to the success of any team.

5 Don’t work too hard

Actually I have no idea whether Leicester’s training schedule was more or less arduous than that of other teams. I’m just chucking this in here because I want to.

Training too hard increases the chances of injury. In terms of business, working too hard reduces motivation and life balance. Being healthy is critical to performing well at work. Strings of late nights in the office are not good for the individual, the business or the customers. Balancing work with other activities; physical, social and intellectual, is good for business.


So, if you adopt some of these ideas for your team, who knows, maybe next year they will win all sorts of awards for their performance?

And then the following year they’ll probably be struggling to avoid relegation again.




Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




Graduate Entry Schemes

January 25, 2016

I have recently been focusing my attention on graduate programmes. In particular I’ve been interested in identifying patterns that are common across schemes. In order to build my picture I conducted some fairly straightforward research amongst the UK’s largest companies, specifically the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250.

The first thing to note is that while a high proportion of the bigger companies offer graduate programmes, they are less favoured amongst the cohort of smaller companies.

Something else of note is that almost every programme states a minimum entry standard of an upper second class degree or equivalent, usually this means a GPA score of between 300 and 350.  They also typically expect a UCAS score of at least 300, sometimes more for specialist areas as opposed to general management.

The application period is usually in the autumn, and if a candidate gets through those two or three stages they will typically be invited to attend an assessment centre in the early part of the following year.  Almost all schemes appear to include an assessment centre stage.

So what’s involved here? Assessment centres will involve any combination of the following activities:

  1. Group exercises, the purpose of which is to see how an individual contributes in a team environment. They often involve role play or group discussions.
  2. Presentations, where some information, data or case study will have been provided either on the day or in advance, and the objective is to see how the candidate analyses information, synthesises ideas, and/or communicates to a group.
  3. Psychometric inventories. Companies use a variety of tests to assess personality, ability and intelligence. These tests are also sometimes administered online before the assessment day.  Occasionally, and more controversially, some tests have been developed to measure integrity and propensity to display anger.  Correctly handled, the employer will use the test results to explore relevant matters in the interview.
  4.  Work based exercises are sometimes used to see how well a candidate executes the type of task they might be required to perform in the job. They are often some type of problem solving (sometimes also done in a group setting) or as an in-tray exercise.
  5. Interviews are almost always a part of the process, sometimes linked to the other exercises, i.e. interview questions follow up on observations made during the activities. Other types of interviews are technical and competency based, and may be either be HR staff or line managers / departmental colleagues, and set up as one to one or panel.

These are the most common elements but it’s important to recognise that each company is looking for a particular combination of qualities and will possibly have specific tools to explore those factors.

This article only scratches the surface of the assessment centre.  There is much to say about each of the above elements, not to mention the various stages that take place even before the assessment centre.

If you, or someone you know is interested in learning how to make the very most of their assessment centre experience, be it for a graduate scheme or other recruitment opportunity, I am running a special workshop on the subject on February 23rd in central London.  Further details here