Careers - Consulting on talent

Ian Florance talks to Charles Bethell-Fox, Deputy Managing Director of Personnel Decisions International (UK); and Craig Ward writes on his move from a psychology degree into the law

How did you first get interested in psychology?

Two things – studying science and the influence of people. I’ve been given a lot of help by some fine people throughout my career.

I studied A-level science and learnt physics using the Nuffield approach: learning through discovery. You mimicked the footsteps of earlier thinkers, and discovered the laws of physics for yourself by testing hypotheses via experimentation. What fascinated me was how real-world phenomena could be predicted using simple generalisable formulae. I began to wonder ‘Why not study people’s thinking and behaviour in the same way?’ This seemed like a clever, original idea until my physics teacher pointed out experimental psychologists had been doing this for the last 100 years! I decided to go and study with some of them. My headmaster put me in touch with a former pupil who was now a psychologist. He recommended some psychology departments and I plumped for Experimental Psychology at Sussex.

The staff and the students I met at Sussex seemed very bright, but they were also friendly, liberal and open in their thinking. Sussex’s tutorial system was also hugely attractive. I learn best by discussing and arguing to find ideas and so-called facts that stand up to scrutiny and challenge. That’s also core to finding theories that reflect reality and have practical value.

During my second year at Sussex, I got on an exchange programme with US universities, so I spent my third year as an undergraduate studying in Los Angeles. I audited classes in different subjects, including varied aspects of applied psychology. Living in Southern California at that time was terrific: people seemed very open and inquisitive, and willing to test out new ideas in practice. By contrast, Europe seemed more cautious and, perhaps, risk-averse. I ended up wanting to do a doctorate in the US – studying people scientifically seemed such an interesting thing to do. After finishing my final year at Sussex I applied to a number of different US graduate schools, and went off to Stanford. 

I get the impression you were fascinated by psychology as a subject and approach rather than one particular specialisation. 

I think that’s right. I’m working in organisational/occupational psychology now, but my PhD was in learning and individual differences, whereas my undergraduate work was in experimental psychology.

My time at Stanford helped me grasp something I felt was fundamental. Experimental psychology looks for commonalities. Individual differences tend to be seen as ‘errors’. The people I was studying with – Richard Snow and Lee Cronbach, in particular – helped me understand how a scientific perspective could provide insights into individual variation across people, and how psychology could be all the more useful and practical for that.

For example, we built information-processing models of how people use different strategies to solve exactly the same problems, and found that these differences were strongly associated with different levels of test performance. That’s interesting, but it begs questions about whether lower-performing people can be trained to use the high-performing strategies, and whether there is value in using different instructional methods to teach people the same things? So, part of the work I did at Stanford looked at the interaction between individual variation and instructional methodology.

When you came back to the UK you started to work in applied psychology. Was that a difficult decision? 

No.By that time I was already very interested in practical applications. My PhD focused on getting answers to some theoretical questions that, potentially, had practical applications. Initially, on returning to the UK, I did some test development work but moved into broader applied work with the Ministry of Defence. The MOD offered a very good environment for studying people across  a range of roles. You could also work with large numbers of people, and the importance of the role that psychologists could play was well established.

At Senior Psychologist (Naval) I worked with Alan Jones, a great psychologist with a very practical bent. That experience helped shape the way I try to work today. In part we focused on improving officer selection methods. The Royal Navy is full of competent people who value competence in others, and so young officers have to win the trust and respect of the people who report to them. Officers can’t get away with just ordering people about. Good officers have highly developed leadership and people skills. And experienced naval ratings know how to make a bad officer’s life hell!

I also had a chance to work on training programme design. The navy trains people to use complicated bits of kit, and to work cooperatively in very challenging situations. Part of this involved working on simulators, trying to train people so that they can perform
a sequence of complex judgements and actions flawlessly under time pressure in stressful contexts. That was another ‘ah-ha’ moment: understanding the difference between knowing how to do something well versus actually doing it well. Simulators and simulations are good tools for helping people learn and practise doing things, and to assess whether they’re ready to do them in the real world.  

This presumably fed into your organisational work. 

Yes. At PDI I work with senior and middle executives – you could say the officer group – mostly in larger, international organisations. Some of this involves using simulations to assess and develop leaders. As in the navy, a leader needs to communicate a vision in a clear and engaging way. And you can’t just tell people – you need to get them engaged in thinking through solutions with you: getting the best ideas on the table; building clarity and commitment; holding people to account, while also offering support and encouragement. Leaders who can balance task focus with good people leadership skills can make a huge difference.

After the RN, I worked for Hay McBer, founded by the Harvard psychologist David McClelland. This was the early days of assessing and developing the leadership competencies identified by behavioural event interviewing. We addressed which competencies drove superior levels of leadership performance. I worked in London, Toronto and then New York before returning to the UK.

Later, I worked for McKinsey to help them enhance their selection systems. McKinsey do a lot of work around business analysis and strategy identification, so that helped grow my interest in making clearer links between business and talent strategies.

Working at PDI has pulled all my interests together. I use a reasoned approach to the identification and development of leadership capability. We often make use of simulations, creating experiences very close to those a leader would come across in work. This is very powerful especially when someone is being considered for a step-up to a leadership role. As observers and role players, we get a good sense of how ready the potential leader is. As participants, potential leaders can test themselves and decide on necessary developmental action before making a step up. So it’s an empirically-based, discovery approach, which, I suppose, is a bit like my school Nuffield science.

Another chunk of our work involves helping organisations develop talent strategies linked to the tactical and strategic needs of the business. I enjoy this work enormously because it’s all about focusing capability on the critical needs of the business, and about developing people to be ready to take up critical roles.

What are the qualities and skills you look for in an occupational psychologist?

Intelligence, obviously. Can they articulate their thinking in a crisp, clear way to communicate with clients, especially at senior levels? Do they focus on what’s really important? This depends on putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by listening actively: can you understand what’s important from another’s perspective, and then find the right words to discuss these needs?

This doesn’t mean completely shaping your solutions around another person’s agenda. Courage is something else I look for: the grit to be unpopular, at least in the short-term, and to be honest enough to say what’s in the client’s best interest, even if the client’s not sure that that’s what they wanted to hear. In my view, if you can’t do this you’ll never be a really good consultant.

You seem to be talking about more general personal competencies.

Yes, I think that’s right. A good knowledge of psychological theory is a given, but you’re also looking for the building block competencies that can develop into strong client-interaction skills. It doesn’t matter how long someone’s CV is: if they haven’t got the potential to develop good client-interaction skills they’re unlikely, I think, to grow into a good internal or external consultant.

I’d also add enthusiasm, to help create energy and accountability. The latter’s important. A good psychologist is caught between a number of pressures: their employing organisation’s need to win and keep business; the manager or organisation purchasing or using those skills; and, of course, the challenges of the intervention itself.

Needless to say, integrity’s crucial, and in this sense a consultant is akin to a leader in any organisation. Clients must feel that they can trust you, and you need to be able to back up your claims.

Also, I look for a track record of success in whatever the person has done, whether it’s relevant to psychology or not. Particularly in new graduates, this suggests drive and self-discipline. And I like to see strong evidence of learning from difficult experiences. We all make mistakes; the question is, do you have the ability to learn from them and raise your game.

Good consultants are able to apply a knowledge of psychology to helping find solutions to real-world issues in organisations; they talk in appropriate language; have drive and a real love of their work; and the can build trust, respect and relationships, while arguing their case convincingly.

Given your views on successful consultants’ competencies, you must have views on psychologists’ training.
Unfortunately, I don’t meet many people who understand the practical usefulness of what they’ve learnt or discovered. If someone reads the latest research finding in, say, memory functioning or decision making, have they asked themselves ‘So what?’ and been able to draw any practical conclusions. Students should be challenged to examine the implications of psychological theory in the real world.

By the way, that’s not some anti-academic polemic. For example, Daniel Gilbert is indisputably an academic, but if you’ve read any of his work it’s clear that he’s constantly asking himself ‘So what?’ in a very practical sense when he’s reading research articles.

I’d also like to see students think more about how different aspects of psychological theory interact. When we study something, we tend to break it analytically into pieces, but in the real world people, organisations and issues present holistically. For example, if you’re coaching a leader you have to take into account cognitive skills, personality dispositions, motivation, past knowledge and other things. But if you can’t grasp how these different factors interact to produce the person sitting in front of you, how can you possibly come up
with practical solutions that will help the individual develop their leadership or other skills?

I’m not suggesting that encouraging students to think in this way never happens, but I do think it could be strengthened. And teasing out how you can make use of a body of knowledge doesn’t necessarily water down rigorous academic content – in my view, it can help strengthen it.

I also think that we don’t have to have a complete, watertight account of an area before we can begin using it in anger. Instead, we should try to get the best out of what we already know.

I feel the same issues apply to occupational psychology training – more real-life issues being considered, and more people from business being brought in to enliven courses, and real individual and organisational cases for occupational psychology students to work on. This technique is used in other areas – training medical doctors and MBA students, for instance. No doubt some courses are doing this sort of thing, but it could certainly be done more frequently. This would produce people with academic training in occupational psychology who have practical skills that they can turn to good effect immediately. That would also help to raise their employment prospects.

You seem to see that ‘consulting’ model as important to all applied psychologists.
Yes. The challenge is discovery – how  you surface things to get to the issues that need to be addressed. In their day-to-day work, most applied psychologists have to sit down with people, hold a discussion, find out the person’s or organisation’s need, and then use interpersonal skills to apply psychological knowledge in an appropriate and effective way.


Taking flight as a legal eagle
Craig Ward on his move from a psychology degree into the law

Maslow taught that individuals strive to become everything that they are capable of becoming – to achieve what is attainable. If you complete a psychology degree you should possess particular knowledge, skills and techniques that will open up a huge variety of possibilities and opportunities. My choice among all these was to become a lawyer.

How lawyers operate
The life of a lawyer has some echoes of a psychologist’s. They both work with clients, many of whom only require assistance during the most stressful times in their lives. They extrapolate from the information clients give them, sifting out what is relevant and trying to understand the clients’ expectations.

Both have to know current good practice in ‘case law’, and be able to evaluate evidence objectively, understanding why there are differences in evidence and opinions. Based on this knowledge and analysis they advise clients, in an intelligible way, on the range of options available.

Becoming a solicitor involves a law conversion course, followed by a legal practice course; both are one year full-time or two years’ part-time courses. These are followed by two years of on-the-job training. The route to becoming a barrister is similar, but involves less on-the-job training.

Much of a lawyer’s life is spent balancing clients’ needs and expectations with legal principles and case law. I find the following skills, attitudes and approaches I gained through studying psychology essentially useful in my work as a solicitor.

Critical evaluation
As a lawyer you need to understand how the aspects of a case affect people. Lawyers are supposed to assess and advise dispassionately, without prejudice, but I have found that practising law is often more emotive.

For instance, take the case of Mrs Smith. She is an 80-year-old widow, with carers coming daily. She has two adult children, one of whom, her disabled son, lives at home. She has recently started spending time with one of her carers socially. A recent social services assessment says she needs to go into a care home. She retains sufficient mental capacity to make decisions.

The lawyer’s notes might include:

Moving home is very upsetting and disruptive. Mrs Smith does not necessarily have to move, as more care might be provided for her at home; that way she could also continue caring for her son.

She has mental capacity and should consider making a Lasting Power of Attorney (this grants authority to someone to make financial and care decisions if she loses mental capacity). This would allow her to have control over her life, and she could choose the person that would make decisions for her if she became unable.    

Abuse is always a possibility, so a check should be made to ensure everything is well.    

The lawyer is still dispassionate, but can see her social and emotional needs, particularly where and with whom she may want to spend her time. A knowledge of the dynamicsof relationships, and of how numerous variables interact, can often be useful.

I have found that being called to a police station to advise an alleged robber sharply focuses the mind. Most crimes occur within a social framework, perhaps because of pressure, desires, status or emotions. Seeing how these affect each other allows greater insight to providing advice, in quite a stressful situation. Psychological study is invaluable here. Sitting in a police station taking instructions from someone about a significant life event, which needs resolving fairly quickly, requires patience, understanding of their emotions, a perception behind what happened and the events leading up to this, and the ability to draw out hidden issues or agendas in order to provide advice.

Does all this sound a little like counselling? Open and closed questions, exploring, recognising patterns and themes, confronting discrepancies and goal setting
– skills lawyers need, albeit without the counselling qualification.

Problem solving
Lawyers are often faced with cases which, like jigsaws, have missing pieces. It’s not always obvious how what’s missing affects everything else. Inserting this missing piece allows effective advice to be given.

Getting there is about problem solving. Psychology students who spend their days challenging why things happen, and how variables can be altered to affect outcomes, become very good at problem solving and seeing what is missing. This is a particularly useful ability when advising in civil litigation cases, in which people are allowed to claim confidentiality on documents. The ability to see what is missing and why allows links to be made between evidence in order to advance and challenge a case.

Higher-order analysis
Lawyers are often faced with piles of documents that need to be read, quickly mastered and advised on. Success in this is the ability to see connections between ideas, especially obscure ones. Psychological study teaches ways of seeing relationships between ranges
of information. Being able to see these links, and how they affect each other, allows for more effective choices for the client. This is helpful for advocates attending court, as cross-examination requires you to quickly jump between what the witness has just said, and what is recorded in the documentary evidence. The better you become at seeing the links, the better you are at challenging someone in cross-examination.

Information gathering
The law changes constantly, and being able to sift, analyse and prioritise what is relevant is an essential legal skill. Psychological research skills teaches how time can be saved, whilst helping both the lawyer and the client stay on top of what is happening.

People are the key
Lawyers are more people-oriented than they’re usually portrayed. Most law is practised with an individual in front of you – a client – seeking reliable advice about what may happen next in their life. It’s almost like a counselling session.

Just like psychologists, some lawyers spend their time resolving life’s social issues – working in criminal law, mental health or community care law, as I have. Lawyers can work in high street firms, for charities, social services departments, health authorities, central government or as a mediator.

Psychological study involves learning how to form hypotheses. These require testing before a conclusion can be reached. Lawyers work in the same way: forming a legal idea that is evaluated against the evidence. This leads to client advice on how best to proceed.

Psychology underpins society. I believe it underpins law in the same way as any other activity, though you wouldn’t always think so given the way we are often viewed!

Featured job

Job Title: Learning Mentor
Employer: Culloden Primary School, Tower Hamlets

David Gregory, Assistant Headteacher Inclusion, describes Culloden Primary School as ‘a vibrant, diverse, inclusive place, increasingly involved in the community, where 18 languages are spoken and the leadership team is highly effective. It really is an enriching place to work and experience.’
The new role of Learning Mentor seems an unusual job to advertise in The Psychologist, but David had a specific aim in mind. ‘We’re looking for someone who wants to apply the ideas they learnt in a first psychology degree. It would be ideal experience for someone who wants to go on to qualify as a child and educational psychologist. The person must be adaptable, child-centred, and have real energy. Every member of staff models behaviour for the children, whether they’re talking to another person or simply walking through the school. The Learning Mentor will need to build up a range of approaches and then choose appropriate ones to use with each pupil, who they’ll get to know closely. We feel a graduate psychology student who wants to work with children will find this a really rewarding role.’
The job involves identifying and supporting children who are underachieving or disaffected from learning. ‘Statemented children are looked after by the Special Educational Needs Manager. The Learning Mentor will identify – through discussion, classroom observation and work with other staff – children where there are other barriers to learning. Examples would be an inability to attend or manage themselves in a classroom setting. The mentor will work with them in the classroom, one-to-one or in small group settings. This is a really varied, challenging job – the successful candidate will be working closely with children aged from 3 to 11 for instance, requiring very different approaches at different ages. We take a best-practice approach and the Learning Mentor will work with me, the Special Educational Needs Manager and other staff to develop ideas. We’re very keen on peer support and staff development, so we help staff grow with the job. That should appeal to a graduate psychologist.’
David says that ‘the school really changed nearly three years ago, and our Executive Headteacher Amanda Phillips is driving change further. This is an essential new role which can contribute to that change.’

You can find this job with many others on

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