‘I still see myself as a psychologist’

Ian Florance talks to Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School.

Lynda Gratton has just co-written The 100-Year Life – the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year – with the economist Andrew Scott. She is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, among many other activities. Born in Liverpool, she did a degree and PhD in psychology there, and tells me that she still sees herself as a psychologist. I was looking forward to hearing more from someone with strong views on the future of work.

Early in the book it states that ‘a child born in the UK in 2007 has a 50 per cent chance of living to be 103. In every decade since the 1840s, life expectancy has increased on average by two to three years.’ Discussion of ageing often revolves around continual reference to the pensions crisis, the incidence of dementia and stark ‘warnings’ that we’re all going to have to work longer. So much for earlier visions of leisure-filled decades of retirement! But Lynda and Andrew try to give a positive account by stressing longevity rather than end-of-life issues. The book, which has received huge media coverage, suggests that the models we’re using are based on a 70-year life. Some of them, such as the three-stage education–work–retirement model, were created by social forces in the 19th century. This doesn’t (and can’t) work for an 85-year life, let alone one of a century and more. So Lynda and Andrew’s book starts to rethink a lot of seemingly given structures, looking not just at traditionally hard issues but at the transformation of personal relationships, the increasingly reduced relevance of chronological age in work, and social networks and the issue of health.

What route led to Lynda co-writing this book and (as I found) to her other activities?

‘I was born in Liverpool and we moved to the Lake District… I just possessed a lot of curiosity and was fascinated by people. I was interested in Maslow, in particular.’ During her first degree Lynda taught at the local Workers Educational Association and suggests that this was important to her later career. ‘I still teach and love doing it; I was named best teacher at the London Business School in 2015. Teaching is a craft – it needs practice and dedication.’

Two of her other interests are travelling and writing. ‘I’ve always travelled. When I was younger I hitchhiked through Syria to research children in kibbutz in Israel. My work is increasingly international. I’ve recently been to Rwanda and North Korea for instance. But I also love writing and have always written, not just when I’ve been studying or teaching.’ More of this later.

‘When I was studying at Liverpool University I did, like many psychology students, want to specialise as a clinical psychologist. In fact, I applied to Glasgow but got turned down. Instead I discovered through my PhD a fascination for occupational psychology. I’ve never forgotten that the work I do with corporations is still about individual people, their aspirations and the choices they make.’

After her PhD, Lynda moved to London and worked for four years at British Airways. ‘There were a lot of ex-armed forces psychologists there. I learnt a great deal from them: about assessment centres, about how corporations work. In a sense I was beginning to learn my trade and understand how organisational development worked. From a personal and career perspective I also began to learn that keeping your options open can create agility later on in your career. Even though I was working very hard at applied psychology, I continued to undertake research with academics, and to publish research papers. This held me in good stead when I later decided to return to teaching and research. But in 1982 I moved to PA Consulting Group where, among other things, I learnt a lot about the positive impact that ideas can have on corporations – and that’s something every occupational psychologist should know.’

Round about that time, Lynda began to develop her own writing voice. ‘Consulting is a very good place to develop a non-academic, genuinely communicate writing style and to learn to write against the clock.’

After three years Lynda became the youngest (and at that time the only woman) director at PA Consulting, but she ‘yearned to get back to academia. I was fortunate to be interviewed by Professor John Hunt and I’ve now been a professor at London Business School for over 25 years. I started in the Organisational Behaviour Group so had to master the OB curriculum pretty quickly.’

Lynda Gratton’s achievements are too various to describe in detail. She directs what is considered the leading programme on HR in the world – Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Organisations – and is on the School’s governing body. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by HR Magazine, in 2013, and was amongst the 15 top thought leaders in the Thinkers50 ranking. She is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum. She’s written eight books on issues as diverse as new ways of working and how the changing world affects employment.

But I was particularly interested in the Hot Spots Movement. ‘I received a significant grant from the Singapore Ministry of Manpower to study performance and creativity of teams. We collected data from 150 teams in Europe and Asia, and that led to the framing of the idea of “Hot Spots”. These are, put simply, the areas in any sort of organisation from a country to a business where collaboration creates superb creativity and innovation which will really improve performance. I now have around ten people working in the group, based in offices at Somerset House. We bridge research and consultancy and are particularly fascinated by how organisations can react to and prepare for the future.

One of our ventures is the invitation-only Future of Work Research Consortium, which we founded in 2009, and which draws together representatives of the world’s leading companies.’ One of Lynda’s most successful books – The Shift – came out of the research and was the best-selling business book in Japan. Her latest book, The 100-Year Life, published in May 2016, has been already been shortlisted for the Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year prize. Written with a hugely influential macro-economist, it is influenced by London Business School as a multidisciplinary centre. ‘Talking with Andrew has helped me to understand how economics illuminates human choice and options. And increasingly I see sociology as a key area of study. It informed one of my books The Shift: The Future of Work Is Already Here.’

Lynda still has a full-time job, her own practice, she writes and gives presentation and is also involved with a number of not-for-profit organisations such as the Royal Opera House and one dedicated to supporting socially focused young leaders. ‘I love the diversity of my life – my overriding characteristic is curiosity so when I travel I’m always getting side-tracked by new sites and new experiences.’

I asked her, finally, what advice she’d give to someone who was thinking of going into psychology or was starting on their career. ‘Despite my later emphasis on multidisciplinary work, I think it’s essential earlier on in a career to specialise, to really learn a craft. That can then underpin everything you do. It’s also about dedication – you have to
be prepared to work hard, to build your craft and keep your options open’.

See www.lyndagratton.com and www.100yearlife.com for more insights into Lynda’s life and work.

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