‘You play to your separate strengths and respect them’

Jackie Sykes and Chris Welford talk to Ian Florance about partnership working.

Many psychologists now lead portfolio careers, mixing independent consultancy, one- or two-day-a-week contracts, lecturing and writing. Others are self-employed ‘lone wolves’. These sorts of arrangements make up in variety what they lack in security and work–life balance. Partnership is often seen as the most fragile of organisational arrangements: if two people who own a business fall out (and the cliché is that they usually will) there’s nowhere to turn.

But here’s a counter instance: Jackie Sykes (nee Scullard) and Chris Welford have not only run a company (Sixth Sense Consulting Ltd) since 2010, they’ve also just completed the even more mysterious process of successfully writing a book together. They describe themselves as ‘rather different people’. I quizzed Jackie and Chris about these issues, and others, in a quiet bar near the Festival Hall in London.

I began by suggesting that if they are different they must have taken different routes to psychology andtheir partnership. Jackie answered first. ‘I wanted to be a psychologist from my early teenage years. I’ve been asking why people do what they do and why they are different since I was very young.’ Were there obvious other influences? ‘Some of my parents’ friends were psychologists and I read about the subject from a young age. I quickly decided it was a way of helping people – of contributing to the world.’ This motive often leads people into clinical or educational psychology, but for Jackie occupational psychology was her first and continuing love. ‘People spend so much time at work that psychology has a critical role. Doing bar and other work as a teenager I got interested in teams and how you could work efficiently together. I studied at Hull and became Professor Dave Bartram’s research assistant. Dave is one of the UK’s leading experts on psychometrics, so it was logical that I should in turn move on to work at a leading psychometrics publisher. But I wanted some client-facing experience and I cut my teeth at leading assessment-based companies.’

A big change came when Jackie moved in-house as Head of Talent and Assessment in Centrica’s HR department, then became a business partner for Centrica’s call centres. Jackie had moved from study, to psychometrics to consultancy to in-house work. ‘Working in-house is important for younger occupational psychologists – it teaches them the reality of work environments, the language that’s used, political aspects of work life. Without that understanding you can’t be credible in any role. You also learn how to sell yourself and what you’re offering in a less target-driven and risky context than, say, a consultancy. But, after all the diverse experience, I found I particularly enjoyed working in consultancy roles. I love working with people to enable them to be the best possible version of themselves.’

Jackie and Chris met at the consultancy Penna and stayed there for five years. ‘We’d won a half-million pound deal in the first three months. We were always wondering if we do could this on our own.’ This seemed a good moment to ask Chris about his road to psychology, and just how different they are became immediately apparent.

‘…here I am, 30-odd years later’
‘I have no idea why I did a degree in the subject – maybe my interest in the human condition springs from an unhappy childhood. Anyway, I originally wanted to study medicine. I loved biology as a subject, but I hated chemistry so, in the end, medicine didn’t appeal. I got interested in thinking and feeling rather than the physical aspects of humanity and ended up at Manchester studying psychology. I suspect I got more out of the supplementary reading than from anything else. When I left I wanted to become a psychotherapist, but I felt I was too young and inexperienced. I liked work and enjoyed working in HR at ICI – I found pharmaceuticals interesting and ICI was embracing the whole idea of a learning organisation.’

When ICI, as Chris puts it, ‘did the splits’, he thought about becoming a management consultant for a short time. ‘It sounded fun and glamorous, and I thought I might do it for a couple of years before deciding on a proper job. And here I am 30-odd years later. I worked all over the world in public and health sectors for KPMG then moving to PA Consulting began my love affair with London.’

Chris did a postgraduate degree specialising in employment law. The connection between law and psychology is something I’ve noticed a few times in these interviews.

‘In the later years at PA Consulting I got interested in the human development movement and formally trained in psychodynamic and gestalt approaches. I realised I still really wanted to be a psychotherapist.’

‘You need the same values’
Both Jackie and Chris agree that, after all this time, they still enjoy working together and that their success in cooperation is as much to do with their complementary differences as with anything else. It’s been apparent from the way they’ve answered my questions: Jackie is very considered, careful and precise in what she says, Chris is more emotional, perhaps more self-critical. In their written self-description they describe it this way: ‘A strategist and conceptual thinker with a deep and sometimes disruptive curiosity into the human condition, and a pragmatist who plans, organises and gets things done! Different people, different styles but with a shared vision of bringing the very best in business psychology to everyday organisational life.’

Chris in particular sees this difference as one of the keys to their success. ‘You play to your separate strengths and respect them. You may have different skills but you need to have the same values, otherwise it won’t work. Jackie is a great project manager and saw setting up the business as a mega-project – an area I admire but can’t necessarily do.’ The other key to working together seems quite simple: ‘People who get on get things done.’

They talk about the company in a way that provides a model for others seeking to follow their path. ‘We’re on the cusp of changing,’ Chris adds. ‘You need to develop continually and up your game. There’s always more meaning to squeeze from the world.’ Jackie: ‘We have offered a fairly standard menu of services – assessment for selection, talent strategies, reacting to change, coaching, leadership development and team building. But we’re differentiated by going into things at a deeper level and by our understanding of the roots of behaviour. Originally we seemed to be a me-too business, but that’s not sustainable. So we introduced the psychotherapeutic concepts which Chris had been particularly interested in and which are often ignored in organisational work. I got very interested in transactional analysis.’

Chris says that ‘a key question is how to bring the principles of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis into this area… Psychologists have a fetish about the scientific paradigm, but in my view it’s not the only way of understanding the world. The other issue is how to get invited to do work because of a strong reputation rather than because you’ve had to go out and actively sell your services. Again, this is a transition any partnership or company has to make otherwise you die of exhaustion.’

The democratisation of knowledge
They describe their new book Staying Sane in Business (see www.sane.works) as a ‘calling card, a way of establishing our reputation professionally’. It’s perhaps no surprise that with the advent of e-books, self-publishing systems and online book marketing sites that a large number of professionals, including psychologists, are writing and releasing books at the moment. A quick leaf through the contents suggests it does exactly what it says on the tin – looks at how you can stay sane in the often insane world of work through your own efforts and the help of others. This implied cross-over of clinical, therapeutic and business disciplines is critical in a highly pressurised business world and raises questions about the organisation of psychology as a profession.

‘It’s the most frightening and exciting project I’ve ever undertaken,’ says Chris about writing the book. ‘I was haunted by questions like – Is it interesting? Is it insightful? Why should anyone care?’

Did they find it easy to write together? Jackie is clear. ‘The key thing was to discuss the base ideas and agree on them. Then we divided up the task of writing. I researched and penned the resources section, which is a major part 000000of the book. Chris wrote the base text. In a sense it’s easier to write a book together – if one of you loses impetus the other can help you keep going. And you feel responsibility to your co-author. Deciding who the readership was going to be was critical. We decided that we wanted to write specifically for people who find business books boring.’ Chris adds, ‘I see it as an attempt to democratise knowledge. We’re saying that work can be a dangerous place, that it is OK to ask for help, but that techniques like mindfulness are not something you have to get someone to do “to” you. You can practise them yourself. It’s a privilege to share knowledge you’re lucky enough to have gained, and I think psychologists should think more about this mission.’ Jackie adds, ‘That’s why each section of the book can serve as the basis of a workshop and why we’re also creating a website to go with a book to which anyone can contribute.’

The book is now launched, the workshops are available and the website www.sane.works is up and running. This integrated approach seems a good model for psychologists who are thinking about writing something beyond a research paper. It’s not just about putting words on paper but on conceptualising the book as another business project and reflecting some of the networking ideas that social media have introduced.

We’ve reached the end of our conversation, but Jackie succinctly sums up one of the main themes while posing a wider challenge. ‘I wish people would embrace the idea of dual qualification coaches – that a diversity of approaches can create real effectiveness in applied psychology, not to mention in businesses.’

Perhaps we should leave the very final word to someone who hasn’t been quoted too often in the pages of The Psychologist. Kim Kardashian is quoted as saying: ‘It’s fun to have a partner who understands your life and lets you be you.’

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