From journalism to psychology – writing my story

Psychology graduate Rupert Cornford is combining a career in the media with a deeper passion for understanding people. This is his take on changing career and understanding a brave new world.

‘What does a business psychologist actually do’, asked my dad, as we sat down for dinner in London. He’d always been supportive of my career move; in fact, throughout my life, he’s just let me get on with it – with occasional guidance thrown in.

But what’s obvious to me, might not be to him, and even though the job title might sound intriguing, it will mean different things to different people. That's what I have found during my first 18 months at Carter Corson.

When I decided to leave my role in the media during 2015, I’d spent many hours talking to business leaders about the importance of people; how they can make or break businesses; and how investors will back management teams first.

I heard stories of cultures slashed to bits by ego, and businesses moving up the rankings of 'best places to work'. Put this together with a generational shift of what work means, increasing stress levels, 24/7 expectations and the breaking down of hierarchies, and you have the perfect people storm.

That’s why I took a psychology degree, jumped across, and joined a business invested in helping people to understand themselves at work. On our meeting room wall, and website, is written: ‘we might not change the world, but we can change the minds that might’. It’s our mission to improve people’s self awareness, their relationships at work, and their ability to be the best version of themselves.

Psychology has an important role to play in our lives, because for me it starts and ends between the ears. Our brain and behaviours are inextricably linked and we still understand only a fraction of what goes on in our heads. I remember at school – the clash of interpersonal relationships, the pain and anguish of triumph and defeat at exam time, and the various levels of achievement that defined us before we even realised it. I don't remember anyone talking about why we did what we do, and how to manage ourselves and others in myriad complex situations that came our way.

And so I studied for a Geography degree – yep, because at the age of 18 at my school psychology wasn't on offer and, looking back, I don't think I was ready for psychology either. But I had a curious fascination with the world around me, with people and places – and developing a career in editorial and storytelling seemed like a good idea. It was an opportunity for variety, to meet people, and to develop my communication skills, which I had always enjoyed. I professionally describe myself as a connector, communicator and collaborator.

Through my journalism career I increasingly found myself turning towards features, people interviews and what drove these people to do what they do. I wanted to know what made them tick, not just how much profit they'd made. Some people wondered what I was up to, but it made for great interviews, and people wanted stories they could connect to, stories that felt real. 

And it didn't stop there. I started studying psychology at the Open University in 2011, and module by module I began to start a new story; one that combined my curiosity with an interest in people. From child development, the Skinner box, and Mr Milgram's electric shocks, science began to add more to my ‘university of life’ back pocket. I was also fortunate to research my passion – mindfulness – and apply it to a project on memory at a Nottingham University summer school in the final year. I loved the Open University. So simple, yet accessible and supportive – at a time of change for UK universities, I couldn't recommend them enough.

I think my current role combines all of this experience together: I am the head of business relationships and communications at Carter Corson, a business psychology consultancy founded 18 years ago by Hazel Carter-Showell and John Corson – and Hazel remains with the business today. We work with entrepreneurial companies, private companies, the public sector, and UK universities, among many others.

I am taking everything I have learned and am meshing it together into a mix of storytelling, communications, business development – and coaching. Yes, I wanted to find another home for that curiosity, and a combined role with the business helps when having conversations. 

We create leadership development programmes which are anchored in the context of the organisations we work for; we give people enough psychology to make it mean something, and the space to reflect on how they could behave and interact differently, or take an alternative perspective. We get them to work on stuff they can directly apply and help them measure the impact of what they do.

We support people through coaching, Board facilitation and post-deal transitions, and give them a safe space to talk. We help them reflect on what is working well and what is blocking them. Sometimes we help people get out of their own way. In a world where people say they are ‘busy’ as the stock answer, time out to reflect is few and far between; being heard even less so.

We help companies profile candidates, using validated psychometrics, which remain the strongest objective measure of human behaviour we have. We give feedback, encourage challenge and then use them as a basis for future development. People have behavioural preferences, but we are all different.

Our version of psychology brings it all together: clinical, social, cognitive, psychotherapeutic, positive, and neuroscience. We call ourselves business psychologists because we understand business – and psychology. In the team, we have a range of interests and professional contexts, which all adds to the functional eclecticism that exists – or as we like to call it, a ‘model mash up’. People are complex and they need different things: what works for one, might not for another, and it’s important psychologists hold the context of the people they are working with alongside the research.

I think companies are interested in this world; they just need a bit of help to see the benefits. An entrepreneurial founder might be driven by his or her intrigue, and is happy to lift the lid on things – a board director is much more driven by the return. It’s a careful blend of helping to solve the challenge they are facing, developing their awareness using psychology, and giving them the space to work out what it means for their own context. 

I enjoy building connections and advocacy for the business and having different conversations; conversations that help people and the people they work with. Ultimately, it’s about doing something with more purpose. There are cynics and naysayers, and that can make the role feel quite challenging – to communicate the seemingly intangible and to answer questions about return on investment. But it’s amazing to watch the light bulbs go on in coaching and on development programmes. And there is a wave of interest in understanding people at work.

Ultimately, in the knowledge economy, we are paying people to think in the best possible way. And knowing what we do about human behaviour, are people really developing this heightened level of awareness, and thinking in new ways? There are no doubt some excellent leaders and businesses out there, adopting new practices and challenging the status quo, but I still see people trying to do more with less – with brains that only perform at their optimum under very specific circumstances. There is a reason that stress, resilience and wellbeing are moving up the agenda. We are humans, not robots, and research is helping to tell us more about performance, attention and reflection.

Recently, we have also been commissioned to research the emotional and psychological impact of selling a business, talking to former business owners in a series of semi-structured interviews. We read a lot about the financial gain of a deal, we hear little about what it was actually like. This qualitative study is lifting the lid on some of the stories that have underpinned the headlines – stories of emotion, tension, pain and letting go. We’ll publish it in 2018 and it will help smooth the road for people going through the same thing – and their advisors. We have also been a partner on the European-wide Fincoda project, which is developing a tool to measure innovative capacity in individuals – with a group of universities and businesses working together for the benefit of others.

It’s been interesting to land in the world of applied psychology; with all its possibilities and challenges, and there probably hasn’t been a more interesting time to communicate the story. Bridging academia, business and people is what we do and there is no doubt we are still in a period of education. People are seeking to understand themselves more, and organisations would like to unlock their potential, we’re just not quite on the ‘must have’ list yet.

So, with a degree in psychology, what’s next for me on the academic path? I have deliberately taken time away to reflect after studying for nearly five years with a young family and a full-time job. I am interested in the way we manage ourselves in the collective system of an organisation and our daily lives, and research on mindfulness and emotional intelligence continues to be an interest, alongside some of Paul Gilbert’s work on compassion. The place where psychology meets Buddhism will always be an area of fascination, so watch this space…

What does a business psychologist do? We listen, inform, shape, challenge and encourage; we facilitate, enable and provide space for the conversations that aren’t being had. And where it’s necessary, we’ll tell you a bit about the science behind it all, and make you laugh.

I hope that all makes sense, dad.

-      Rupert Cornford is the head of business relationships and communications at Carter Corson, a business psychology consultancy based in Cheshire. Prior to this he was the deputy editor of North West Business Insider magazine. He holds a BSc in psychology from the Open University and is a graduate member of the BPS ‘currently working out his next academic move’.

Photo: David Lake Photography

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