‘People and their growth are at the heart of what I love’

Simon Boag, Principal Psychologist of Assessment Services for PSI Middle East.

Several times in my career I’ve wondered, how did I get here? Standing in a prison yard at unlock with hundreds of convicted offenders going about their daily duties. Shovelling sand in the desert under the instruction of former military officers. Facilitating a three-day regional strategy meeting for 120 project directors and lead engineers in the oil and gas industry. I’ve always sought out opportunities to push myself outside of my comfort zone, to take action. That’s what ultimately leads to learning about yourself and others.

I started my career as a Psychological Assistant delivering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-based Offending Behaviour Programmes to groups of offenders. I realised quite quickly I was as capable as my peers, but that they had strings of qualifications that I didn’t. Having not completed my A-levels, I undertook Open University credits that gave me access to apply to study psychology at Hull. 

Peter Clough, my head of year at Hull, introduced me to the concept of Mental Toughness. He encouraged me to think about why some staff in a prison setting thrive, whilst others burn out quickly. It was this application of psychology that took me down the occupational rather than the forensic route, and I completed my master’s in occupational psychology at the Institute of Work Psychology at Sheffield. Peter Totterdell my supervisor at Sheffield, encouraged me to experiment with qualitative methodologies, and Rob Briner inspired me to question everything! 

Towards the end of my masters, I was reading the Yahoo group for Occupational Psychologists in Training, where someone had posted about an opportunity to work for six months in the United Arab Emirates assessing senior leaders in the government. Following a spell heading a graduate development program for a local construction company, I was appointed as Learning and Development Manager for a multi-national contractor in the oil and gas industry. During that time, I worked closely with the QHSES Director, who recognised the value of psychology in his field. Together we introduced new approaches to training and developing people in safety, quality and technical skills. 

After three years I was asked to move to Kuala Lumpur as part of the team to revitalise the corporate university, which quickly turned into the becoming the HR Transformation Manager for APAC following a merger. Assuming a generalist HR role had development benefits for me, including managing a team of ten vastly more experienced HR managers, but ultimately my passion lies in development, talent and people rather than operational HR issues. 

I reached out to a former provider during my time in the UAE who were recruiting senior psychologists, and I find myself back in Dubai since 2017 as Principal Psychologist of Assessment Services for PSI Middle East, formerly Innovative HR Solutions. We’re one of the largest teams of Occupational Psychologists and learning and development specialists in the Gulf. We empower people in their careers and drive organisational success by working with organisations to select, assess and develop talent and teams. We exist to help people meet their potential.

A varied role

A typical day often involves reviewing an assessment design for one of our projects, ensuring the competencies being measured are observable and the psychometrics and business simulations being proposed are suitable. I usually act as centre manager on assessment centres, ensuring the team has everything they need to do their job and candidates have the best experience they could have. Sometimes I still need to assess, depending on business requirements, write reports and provide 1:1 feedback to centre candidates. 

Increasingly I need to assume managerial responsibilities, checking in with the team to ensure they have everything they need to move forwards with their projects. I meet with prospective clients to establish their requirements for talent services, and propose solutions to help inform critical decisions about the people in their organisation. I meet with existing clients to review services and explore how else we can support them. I respond to emails – lots of emails – and chase people for contracts and invoicing. Less often now I get to facilitate teams to help them perform better or agree on the best direction for them to take. I usually have a couple of ongoing coaching clients I’m working with as well. As we undergo a transformation ourselves, I find myself increasingly focused on ensuring the integration is taking place with the right foundations in place to ensure our continued success.

Highs and lows

In one of my previous roles, I was asked to put together a training plan for 1,500 people in a week. The only ‘data’ available to me was the wish list that had been captured during performance appraisal conversations. Needless to say, year one was unsuccessful! Today one of my high points is helping Learning and Development Managers to leverage the trend data we are able to provide them based on a range of measures to prepare needs driven training plans for their employees over three-year cycles. I also enjoy the talent review conversations with senior leaders exploring the people data, especially when the data challenges the bias and assumptions they hold about their ‘high potentials’.  

My passion for development of people starts with those I work closely with on a daily basis. Helping them to deal with day-to-day challenges, by asking the right question at the right time or giving them a steer in how to approach a situation, and ultimately seeing them grow in confidence and experience, is a great feeling. I have the pleasure of working with people from across cultures and nations, which helps encourage divergent thinking and a great sense of perspective and reality testing!

Whilst people and their growth are at the heart of what I love, I also enjoy the commercial aspects of my role. Helping the business to enter new and challenging markets such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; following our own acquisition and the subsequent acquisition of Cubiks, supporting the business to position a unified platform and approach to help our clients maximise their potential; managing scope, schedule and budget to deliver profitable projects with high levels of client satisfaction; and seeing our revenue and profits grow year on year bring the ultimate satisfaction.

Being on the ‘other side’ of the consulting table does have its drawbacks. We typically engage with an organisation to conduct leadership assessments over a three to six-month period. Whilst we are able to help them put plans in place, we do not often get to experience the implementation. That can be positive as well as negative. We miss out on those intangible adjustments and changes in organisational culture, which can feel like the sense of a light switch at the point of flipping on.

Long days, particularly on assessment projects, and extensive travel across the region, are fairly typical. Recently I delivered an offsite annual retreat in Riyadh for a client I have worked with for three years. Following a two-hour flight, I arrived at the hotel at 9pm to set up. I was up at 6am and facilitated 28 people through a series of processes during the day to help set them up for success in 2020. Back to the airport for a 9pm flight and back home in bed by 2am the following morning. Great for the Air Miles, but it requires a sustained commitment to deliver results.

Having an unwavering commitment to your professional life can have a significant impact on your personal life if you don’t pay attention. I have experienced ups and downs in both, and recently I’ve focused on embracing my ‘inner geek’ and finding meaning and purpose in what I do more broadly. 

Current challenges

Our clients often have extraordinary and unrealistic demands and constraints placed upon them from their own stakeholders – this can extend to their expectations of us. A client with employee engagement survey results from 2018 may want to start conducting assessments of 80 leaders next week, despite the fact they have no competency framework in place, no budget for subsequent development, or any intention of communicating to the employees the purpose or outcome of the proposed assessment! Our role quickly switches between trusted advisor and coach to help them look great in front of their stakeholders and to deliver something meaningful for the people being targeted for assessment and development. We constantly need to flex to accommodate the uncertainty and volatility in our client organisations. 

Apart from the challenge of finding the right balance between leading the team and delivering work for clients, the biggest challenge is staying up to date. As a practitioner, accessing peer reviewed evidence-based research is not always easy or cheap! In a world awash with information finding the solid signals amongst all the noise can be time consuming. It adds additional complexities when our clients also have to navigate information overload… it can be easy for them to jump on the latest #buzz or #trend because they have to deliver. 

If I look back at how I got here, I think I’ve had to strike a balance between ‘I can do that’ and ‘I need to do this’. At the outset of any task, role or project there is often an associated feeling of being uncomfortable or uncertain. Framing those fears as excitement helps to drive my determination to be successful and not let others down. Ultimately, that brings me a great sense of pride. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber