From builder to business psychology

A career in construction did not turn out as expected for Terry Sexton. The many different ‘characters’ he encountered led him on a circuitous route into business psychology.

I didn’t plan for a career in construction. After doing badly at A-level I failed to find any work. A careers adviser asked me if I liked working outside and suggested that I sign up for an HND in Building Studies. A week later I started the course and began my career in construction.

The HND was a sandwich course so, at the age of 19, I spent a year on site working for a local house builder. I found it very tough. The site manager took a very authoritative approach to leadership, shouting and swearing at everyone, and I copied him. I assumed that was how you managed people.

Whilst he was on site with me, this method worked up to a point, though someone did threaten to throw me out of a window. However, things really fell apart when he took two weeks holiday. Luckily the tradesmen on site got together to prove that they would work better when not being yelled at and they told me to simply keep the materials coming, they would look after themselves.

This worked like a dream; I even had Directors visiting site because they couldn’t believe how fast the works were progressing. It was embarrassing when the site manager returned: he’d expected things to fall apart without him. I realised then that you can’t lead without the support of your followers.

After the HND I joined a major construction company’s management training programme. I was able to work in all the departments and eventually chose to stay in planning because the planners were a great group of people and hilarious to work with.

When the recession came many planners were made redundant. I was lucky to find a project in Whitehall for another large construction group, and back on site I realised I was different from most of those around me. I didn’t get excited by huge concrete pours or reinforcing bar schedules. What I really enjoyed was interacting with different characters: architects, clients, labourers, project managers.

Generally I found that people on site are authentic, there is no pretence, ‘what you see is what you get’. You can have a huge argument with someone but an hour later it’s all forgotten. Construction people tend to feel that they don’t do team work very well. However, in my experience they do both team work and project management very well indeed. This may be linked to their inherent authenticity.

The construction industry is notoriously boom and bust and all too soon I went into another recession. This time I decided I had to get myself another qualification, construction was too volatile. I started to study for an MBA with the Open University despite people on site constantly telling me that I wasn’t clever enough.

After a few months the company agreed to fund my studies and I was taken off site and given various assignments in head office. This culminated with me heading up a large culture change programme across the whole of the international business. This was very different to running a construction project. People react to change in very different ways. If I was to be successful, I knew I had to understand people a lot better, so I signed up with the Open University again, this time for a BSc in psychology.

As soon as I started the course I knew this was where I wanted my career to go. I carried on studying and leading the change programme, but I was losing my interest in construction as my interest in psychology grew. At the same time I was becoming increasing frustrated with the high-level politics I faced every day and the barriers this created.

My next move was into management consultancy. I thought it would be easy to move out of construction – it wasn’t. Having sent my CV to several recruitment agencies, I was appalled when one of them phoned to tell me to give up, that I would never make it as a consultant because I didn’t go to the right school, I didn’t go to the right university and I didn’t have the right experience.

After this episode I redoubled my efforts and eventually was offered a position as a management consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. New technologies were being introduced but people were unwilling to adopt them, preferring to stick with what they knew. My job was to help people through the change. Unfortunately the consultancy’s US owner decided to close their UK business and I was made redundant after about a year.

The Psychologist came to my rescue. My wife saw an advert in the magazine for a business psychologist at OPP in Oxford. I didn’t think they would consider me because I wasn’t an occupational psychologist me so I did nothing about it. Undeterred she typed out my CV, wrote a covering letter and got me to sign it. Needless to say, I got the job and it worked out really well. I loved working there, received a huge amount of training, gained vast experience in business psychology and started an MSc in occupational psychology at Birkbeck.

OPP promoted me rapidly, eventually to Head of Leadership, which was brilliant. We won a lot of work; I was incredibly busy and working crazy hours. I had very little time to spend with my young family. One day, out walking the dog, I realised that if I wanted to see my children growing up I would have to resign, which I did the following day.

Whilst I was trying to work out what to do next OPP gave me associate work which allowed me to set up my own consultancy (www.wiseleadergroup.com), focusing on enabling people to use psychology to develop themselves in the workplace through the use of apps, e-learning, e-retreats and online coaching.

When I look back at how I came to business psychology it was mainly due to the fascinating characters I met in construction and the realisation that to be successful in business you need to understand people. Construction taught me to be authentic and accept who I am. Now I can help people to understand and develop their own authentic ‘self’ in the workplace.

Part two - an update, September 2018

I have very much enjoyed my career as a Business Psychologist enabling organisations to create their future through people. This has included working on Assessment and Development Centres, Team Building and Executive Coaching. However, my main area of work has been Executive Profiling and Leadership Development. It was whilst delivering a Leadership Development Programme that I met my now business partner, Jill Chapman. When I was awarded the programme the client asked if I would collaborate with another consultancy so that their preferred psychometric could be used. I agreed and this resulted on Jill and I working on the programme together. We found we worked well together and experienced the benefits of taking this collaborative and complimentary approach. Organically, we continued to collaborate on other projects. This collaboration resulted in us recognising that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and we decided to merge our businesses. We are now both directors of the Create Network

At the Create Network it has been a pleasure to combine business psychology with a range of experiential creative activities, such as film, music, art, drama and storytelling. This has allowed us to translate psychological concepts into enjoyable activities which engage and develop people. We have found that this approach enables people to access different types of intelligence they do not typically use in the workplace. People then often surprise themselves as a result. They are able to think, feel and behave in new ways and co-create their new future. 

All was going well until I read the first part of a poem called Hieroglyphic Stairway by Drew Dillinger.  This is what I read:

it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
once
you
knew?

Probably like most people, when I read this poem I knew we were heading for climate change and that we also in the early stages of what is looking like being the seventh mass extinction of species on this earth. Armed with this knowledge, what was I doing? What could I say to my future great, great grandchildren if they came to me and asked “what did you do once you knew?” At that time, my answer would have been absolutely nothing! This troubled me, but what could I do? I wasn’t a politician, ecologist, environmentalist, or economist. However, the poem wouldn’t leave me. It kept going round and round in my head. I then found myself asking, who is plundering the earth? The only answer I could come up with was; we all are. Our society is plundering our planet. Then it hit me. Our society is created by the collective decisions of leaders. What do I do for a living? I develop leaders. So I’m part of the problem. I realised then that if I’m part of the problem I can also be part of the solution.

This realisation inspired me to develop, with Jill, some ideas around how we could develop leaders so their decisions collectively create a more sustainable society. Our ideas were also influenced by our experience of setting up a not-for-profit social enterprise, Create Community Network, which seeks to enable everyone in the community to value themselves and, in turn, make a valued contribution to society. Through our work in the community we could see how current leadership decisions, across our society, are resulting in massive inequality and poor psychological wellbeing. We could not accept that this is the best we all can do, as leaders, in creating a better future that would benefit us all. Through our work in businesses we were also meeting many leaders who were thinking the same. They were getting frustrated as they wanted to use their leadership to give more back to society, rather than just serve their company, but were struggling to find a way.

As our ideas were developing we started collaborating with another psychologist, Gary King, who is qualified and experienced in facilitating outdoor and adventure learning and development. Just before Christmas 2017, these ideas and collaborations led to the establishment of a not-for-profit co-operative called Create Seven. The purpose of Create Seven is to develop and enable leaders to co-create a more environmentally, economically and psychologically sustainable society.   

At the core of our work are stage theories of adult psychological development. Like Einstein, we believe that no problem can be solved by the level of consciousness that created it. If the current level of consciousness of the majority of leaders is creating a problem in sustainability, then we need to help leaders develop to a new level of consciousness where they, hopefully, can find some solutions. Stage theories of adult psychological development provide us with a useful route map to achieving this. Along the way we work with developing, what Ken Wilber calls, ‘lines of consciousness’ such as cognition, emotion and behaviour. We also give leaders the opportunity to travel ahead and experience higher ‘states of consciousness’, or what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’.  We encourage these through mindfulness practices, connecting with the wilderness and nature and through Bohm Dialogue. We are finding that developing both lines and states of consciousness does help to prepare leaders to make the transition into a new stage of consciousness. It allows them to perceive, understand and experience the world in a different way, which then influences the decisions they make in their work. The greatest change we see is that they start to let go of their ego. This allows them to use their leadership to serve others rather than to protect themselves. They also tend to be less competitive and more collaborative. When combined, these have the potential to enable the leaders to co-create a more sustainable society.

Our experience of launching Create Seven has proven to us that psychologists have a huge role to play in helping our society to create a more sustainable future. This has been reinforced recently by the Centre for Alternative Technology giving me the opportunity to deliver a lecture on ‘Sustainability Leadership and Behavioural Change’ for their MSc students studying ‘Sustainability and Adaptation’. Could this lead to psychology being at the forefront of sustainability? Psychology certainly has a huge role to play. 

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