Consulting on talent

Ian Florance talks to Charles Bethell-Fox, Deputy Managing Director of Personnel Decisions International (UK)

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.



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