Transcript #77. What are employers looking for in assessment tests, featuring the founder of Strengthscope and Plexus Leadership James Brook.

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Renata: A few months ago, I was delighted to connect with James Brook, who has an amazing wealth of experience in HR, leadership development, and talent management. Many of my clients have done Strengthscope, an assessment platform founded and led by James, which he sold in 2018. James helped Strengthscope grow and become a successful global assessment and talent consulting business, with its flagship assessment now used by companies all over the world. 

 

Renata: During his time at Strengthscope and now as the Founder and MD at Plexus Leadership, James led the design, development, and customization of award-winning solutions to improve leadership, coaching, and organizational performance for a wide range of the UK and global organizations. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know James and his work a bit more, and in this episode, we discuss an important topic for the first time in this podcast:  What are employers looking for in assessment tests. James and I also discuss the importance of knowing and leveraging your strengths for better career alignment, progression, and advancement.

 

Renata: But before we continue with the interview, I want to update you briefly on what I’m up to! The week that this episode is released is the final week of my first 2021 Job Hunting Made Simple group coaching program. I’m absolutely on cloud 9 with the engagement of the group, the positive feedback, the results for far, and so happy to see this group come out of their shell and do so well in their job search. Managing the group coaching plus my private clients, LinkedIn audits, and consultation has kept me super busy, so I will be taking 3 weeks off, and during these three weeks, I will only work with my private clients when they need my help. Other than that, the plan is to switch off completely! But don’t worry, I have pre-recorded great episodes for you, and the newsletters will also continue to reach your inboxes. If you are not yet signed up for the newsletter, why not??! Find the link in the episode show notes, or go to my website renatabernarde.com and sign up now! 

 

Renata: When I’m back from my well-deserved break, I will be a) looking to sign up new coaching clients for 3 or 6-month projects and also updating my educational platform for another Job Hunting Made Simple group to start early August. So, if you are interested in private coaching, email me asap, as I can only take a few new clients. And if you are considering the group coaching in August, register your interest on my website - I will add the link to it to the show notes as well. Ok, let’s now listen from James Brook. 

 

Renata: Well, good morning to you. 

 

James: Yes. Hi, Renata, good morning. 

 

Renata: It’s 5:00 PM here in Melbourne, and it has been an absolutely glorious day today. And I don't know what to say about the weather anymore. We had the worst summer in terms of weather. It's been so wet. I don't know if you've heard about the floods in New South Wales.

 

James: I saw that. Yeah. I saw that you've had a very wet summer, haven’t you? And a lot of parts of Sydney got flooded.

Renata: Yes, that's right. And then I spent the weekend, a few hours this weekend, putting away all my summer clothes. And as soon as I did that, James, guess what happened? It’s 27 degrees, and I’m so hot. 

 

James: That’s typical, isn't it? We've had some strange weather as well. We had a really nice Easter last weekend, particularly on Saturday and Sunday. But now the temperatures just plunged now. So, it feels a little bit like a mid-winter again the last few days. At least it’s clear outside. It's relatively clear and bright. 

 

Renata: No, we had a great Easter here too. Now, this podcast is going out in a few days, on Monday, because we postponed it a few times, and I didn't want to change the schedule. So this is great because then you can tell me how the situation is going in the UK and, you know, give me some understanding of how things are going. And then we can share that almost in real time really with the listener. So that will be great. But why don't we start by talking about your career? 

 

James: Sure. What would you like to know? 

 

Renata: Well, I like to know, you know, give the listeners a bit of background as to your experience and your expertise and where you are right now, what you're doing right now. 

 

James: Sure. So I started actually as a research fellow and lecturer at the University of Cape town in the area of organizational psychology, occupational psychology. And I realized that I wasn't really cut out for academia. So I left academia and moved into employee relations in South Africa, which was a very interesting time in South Africa because it was still during the period of apartheid. And, you know, it was a kind of a trial-by-fire experience for me because I was dealing with some quite active unions, black unions in South Africa. And, of course, the black majority didn't have any way to express their political frustrations other than through the workplace. So there was a lot of, kind of stay-aways and strike action and that sort of thing.

 

James: And then I came over to the UK a few years later because I was born in the UK, so I wanted to come back. And I came to the UK and got a role with a big financial institution as head of employee relations. I worked in that. I also did quite a lot of work in diversity and got some awards, which was great for the work in diversity that we were doing at the time. And then, I decided that I wanted to move out of employee relations and move into leadership development and learning and development, which created some really interesting avenues for me. Both not just in the UK, but I was actually expatriated to Denmark and also to the United States working in a pharmaceutical company, a global pharmaceutical company, in the area of leadership development and talent management.

 

James: And that really led Renata, to cut a long story short, that really led to several other roles. Including the role of head of talent management and leadership at Yahoo in Europe. And then I left the corporate sector and started my own business, which was a strengths-based business, which we'll talk about, I'm sure, a little bit later. And I spent 15 years building that and sold that three years ago and have run several consulting companies since then as well. So yeah, I've had a very varied career, both in terms of types of roles, sectors, but also in terms of opportunity, which has been fantastic and different challenges along the way, both entrepreneurial challenges, and sort of corporate sector challenges and so on.

 

Renata: Yes. I think that this breadth of knowledge you have in HR and learning and development will be fantastic for the listeners. And I will dive into it in a minute, but this may sound a bit meta, but you probably heard this podcast before, so, you know, I ask my guest’s strengths. It's always my second question. And, you know, what is the strength that you think allowed you to make those very successful career moves? I'm very curious to know what you believe are your top strengths. 

 

James: Yeah. I think I'm a constant learner and a very curious individual. But also, I'm a creative problem solver. And in fact, I do some training now on creative problem solving for my clients, which I think is an underutilized skill area and strength. But some people, I think it comes more naturally too, and I think I combine my creativity with my courage. And so, I'm willing to challenge the status quo. I'm willing to look for opportunities to do things differently. I'm willing also to take risks in the pursuit of innovative ways of approaching things, and even Strengthscope. When I founded Strengthscope all those years ago, 15 years ago, that was really my desire to really challenge the prevailing assumptions and approach to employee development, which was broadly kind of deficit-based; weakness-based at the time. And I wanted to kind of flip that on its head and approach it more from a kind of a, you know, we've all got strengths. And let's focus and leverage and optimize our strengths. Not ignore the weaknesses, but let's have the start point being the strengths.

 

Renata: Yes. Now, with the situation that we have at the moment. Still in the middle of a pandemic, some countries are doing better than others. Australia's doing quite well, UK not so much. Let's talk a little bit about that and then think about the strengths that can pull us out of that as corporate leaders and professionals. How is the situation in the UK at the moment for corporate professionals looking for work or looking for career advancement?

 

James: I think it's still relatively tough. That's what I'm hearing and seeing with my corporate clients and people I know - my network and so on. And clearly, for some sectors, it's better than others. I was talking to a tech founder yesterday, and she was saying that her business has grown significantly during the COVID period. So she had no complaints, of course, about COVID because they've experienced exponential growth during this period. But for the majority, I think, particularly in the large corporate sectors, I think it's been tough. Because first of all, there's less growth, so there's less opportunity for people, there's less headroom. Organizations are kind of flattening their kind of hierarchies and delayering. So, for example, if you look at sectors like oil and gas and financial services, they are closing divisions and delayering, and that means fewer jobs are available. But things are starting to pick up here.

 

James: And, I think, whilst we haven't been successful at managing infection rates and so on - although I'm sure Boris Johnson would beg to differ - but we haven’t been. And, of course, the death rate has been very high in the UK. We've been pretty successful in terms of the rollout of the vaccination program. And so there's a growing optimism now, and that's resulting, of course, the flow-through of that is that CEOs and CFOs and that heads of HR and, you know, CPOs those sorts of people, they starting to spend again and invest again. So we are starting to seek on a more investment coming through in that’s leading to more opportunities in terms of job creation, but it's very patchy. I mean, certain sectors that have been hit like travel, you know, is obviously still on it's knees, that have been hit really, really hard by the pandemic. So my contacts in the travel sector are still frustrated by the fact that things are going very slowly and there's not a lot of optimism there. Growing optimism again, but not a great deal of optimism. Whereas, as I say, other sectors like digital FinTech, those sorts of areas they are really starting to grow up groves again, which is great. So the green shoots are starting to appear.

 

Renata: Yes, yes. Same here, travel and tourism for Australia and our neighboring countries around here. So important. So it's very frustrating. But looking at the strengths that can pull us out of this, that may be part of the selection criteria or prerequisites for executives looking for work. We have a friend in common, Marianne Roux. Marianne and I have discussed this on this podcast a couple of times. I’ll put the link below for those who want to go back and listen to those episodes where we discuss things like Personal agility that she's very fond of, and her expertise is in jobs of the future and industry 4.0. What do you believe are the key strengths that employers will be looking for in candidates in the months and years ahead?

 

James: Hmm. I think agility is a big one. So, the ability to be adaptable and flexible, but I think there's a lot more.  I think also there are things like being open to learning, being curious. So, that learning mindset's really important, the ability to connect with others, both face-to-face, in-person, but also remotely. I think that's really important as the so-called kind of emotional intelligence as well. So the self-awareness, the self-regulation as well as the social skills, those are going to be really important. And then I mentioned it earlier, and it's something that I think is a key strength of mine and I've built experience and skill in, which is this creative problem solving and ability to think differently, I think is going to be so important moving forward.

 

James: And as I always make this point to clients, and I'll make it to your audience as well. This is something that can't easily be replaced by AI. You know, this can’t be done by machines and robots easily. It'll take decades before we’re at that stage. There's a little bit like some of the kind of emotional intelligence competencies around empathy and around social skills, understanding others deeply, and so on. These are really important areas for people to be thinking about for future careers. And companies really value people who can think differently, who can think creatively. Because, of course, we are now moving into an era of what I would call fast innovation. COVID accelerated that; it’s amplified that. So, there's an upward trajectory in terms of the pace and nature of innovation.

 

James: And there's been a lot of disruption, you know, for example, if you look at the FinTech companies. The agritech companies, all these sorts of companies, they’re innovating. Obviously, to outpace their competition, but many are innovating because they have to. For example, if you look at the need to become a green company, to be a more environmentally friendly company, and reduce emissions, that gives rise to the need to innovate. So there's push factors, but there's also pull factors in relation to innovation.

 

Renata: This is really interesting. It's paradoxical to some of the conversations I've had with clients today. Twice. And I'll share it with you and the listeners too because I'd love to hear your views on this. I completely agree with you about the creativity in problem-solving and this sort of thinking outside the box and having foresight instead of forecasting tools that cannot be replicated by bots or anything like that. However, when we look at position descriptions that are brand new and coming out to market now, this client of mine was tapped on the shoulder by a colleague already in this organization saying, ‘you would be perfect for this role.’ But when he looked at the position description, the top must-have, he doesn't have. And the same again with another client of mine, I received a notification on LinkedIn, a personal message saying, ‘Renata, you have such a great network, can you think of someone for this role? We need more applicants.’

 

Renata: And I immediately thought of this client. I thought it was perfect for her. I sent her the position description without looking, I have to say, and she wrote back, ‘Oh, but I don't have the first item in the dot points. And you told me that the first item is usually the most important one.’ And I'm like, Oh boy. So there is this slowness in catching up with what the new mode of working is. In terms of being a bit more flexible and also acknowledging that these are experts and experienced professionals, but the position descriptions I feel like are still being designed for professionals of 10 years ago. I don't know if you have that same feeling in the UK. 

 

James: Yeah, I know what you’re saying. And I think it relates to who's writing those position descriptions. Because it's often the people that are writing them, especially in bigger corporations, more traditional, more conservative type corporations, they might still be relying too much on proven experience and also qualifications. But many of my fast-moving clients, fast-growth clients, they're the ones that are the scale-ups, disruptive clients if you want. They don't rely as much on position descriptions because they know that. And we always used to have a saying when I was at Yahoo, and I was responsible for resourcing at Yahoo at the time, we always used to say, don't pay too much attention to their position description because it will be outdated within three months, because the organization was moving so quickly. And I think that's more appropriate thinking for these current times that we’re in, that we really need to look beyond the experience and qualification requirements, you know, what business school, or, how many years experience somebody has.

 

James: And we need to look at transferable capabilities. We need to look at some of these, especially the so-called softer skills, which are increasingly important in the workplace. And we need to look at mindset as well, have people really got that kind of growth mindset? Are they willing to learn? Are they willing to adapt? Are they willing to grow with the organization? Are they willing to learn how, for example, to think differently? And I think those organizations, and that's proven if you look at the fast-growing organizations. And even if you look at, you know, I'm a kind of a part-time investor as well. And one of the fund management groups that I invest with they are all about picking companies that are the disruptive innovators and the fast-growing innovators, and they've outperformed virtually every other fund management company in the world in recent times, and especially during COVID. And why is that? Well, because these companies hire in a different way, they promote in a different way, and they operate in a different way and manage and mobilize people in a different way. And they're not constrained by position descriptions and limited thinking in the way that they hire people, and they deploy people, and they motivate people.

 

Renata: That's a great point. In the recruitment and selection process, so we have the job descriptions, the position descriptions that usually people need to be very flexible when they're looking at it. Because otherwise, it overwhelms the candidates because, you know, nobody's a Superman or superwoman, and they can't tick all the boxes. So, let's say they go through that first qualifying process. They got through. Usually, now, the second stage is some sort of test, and you're an expert in that. So I'd love to ask you about the different tests that recruiters and hiring managers use in the recruitment and selection process for jobs because we haven't tackled that in the podcast yet. So it will be the first time we talk about it, and I'd love to know why they are important? What is it that the recruiter is trying to know by using tests?

 

James: Yeah, so Renata, it's all about gaining additional insight and gaining additional data, information about the candidate. And why is the recruiter wanting to do that? Obviously, to make better hiring decisions and to reduce the risks associated with hiring. And there's considerable risk for a company, in the same way, that there's risks for the candidate. If they join the company, there's always kind of risk. And what you're trying to do is you're trying to kind of de-risk the decision as far as possible. So yeah, it's both to provide insight and to reduce the risks, essentially, and it provides more objective. I mean, if you're using the rights metrics or psychological assessments, essentially what it's doing is it's, as I say, helping make better decisions, reducing risks, and ultimately you also know your candidates better when they join. So that's the kind of third key reason, and you can kind of get them ramped up quicker. So yeah, it's providing a different lens and a more, hopefully, more objective lens, although I do worry about the quality of some of the assessments out there.

 

Renata: Yes. Well, me too. I am skeptical about a lot of tests, and I wonder if there is built-in bias and if they apply well for diversity and other metrics that are usually hard to measure. What is your take on that?

 

James: I mean, again, there's varying practice out there. Some companies don't do their due diligence on the assessments they're using. It's not just tests; it’s assessments because there's other work simulations. I mean, something that’s very popular at the moment is something called situational judgment tests, which is providing people with a situation. It's a description of a situation that they might encounter. For example, you know, you are applying for a customer service role, and it might be a really tough customer service situation. And you have to choose from a selection of possible responses in terms of how you would approach that situation. And there's work simulations role plays in a presentation type exercise, all sorts of personality tests, ability tests, and so on. But coming back to your point around bias and what we call adverse impact, any good test publisher will research and continue to research the validity of the test, including, ‘does it have any adverse impacts?’.

 

James: And again, any good test publisher will publish the data around the fact that there isn't any adverse impact, or if there is, it will be transparent about that. But unfortunately, there's a lot of poor test publishers out there. And some of the HR professionals, and I was one of them for many years, and corporates, they're not doing sufficient due diligence in terms of asking the right questions. And so there is inherent bias, and there is an adverse impact built into some of these tests. So, for example, the test that's developed in the US might be used in Asia or Australasia without doing the necessary research, and you shouldn't do that. So if you're going to use a test in Australia that has been developed in the US, you need to do what's called cross-cultural equivalence testing to ensure that it's valid within that population group. And as I say, that is often not done, unfortunately, by the test publishers.

 

Renata: James, can a professional practice for tests? Is there a benefit in doing them and practicing before you do them for a recruitment and selection process?

 

James: It's a great question. And I always advise candidates to practice ability tests, because they might've done maths and comprehension and so on at school many years ago, their quite advanced in their career. And many companies will use three types of ability tests, a very common verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, and critical thinking. You can practice all of those. And most of the big test publishers have practice tests. Most of the good publishers have practice tests, so you can practice those. What I would definitely not encourage people to do is to try and practice or fake personality questionnaires or motivation questionnaires because there's no point in doing that. And actually, there's a lot more risk and harm than good that can arise from that. So we should approach those in a very natural, authentic way. Respond instinctively in terms of who we are, rather than trying to second guess what the hiring manager or the organizations are looking for because that will trip you up when you get to interview. And the hiring manager or the recruiters or the HR persons probing some of your responses, and you might give a different response.

 

James: So they're trying to really understand who you are at your best, what are your strengths, what are some of your weak areas, improvement areas. And what are your preferences in terms of personality? So there's no right and wrong answers. So I would dissuade people strongly from doing any practice around those. In fact, some of the personality profiles have what's called a faking scales, which are built-in, so there's another good reason not to try and come across in a particular way or respond as you think the employer wants you to respond. You should just respond as you are. And, as I say, in a very authentic and honest way.

 

Renata: Yes, that's very interesting. In fact, I have seen people receive, for example, the strength scopes test, and be completely surprised by the results and say, ‘this can't be right. I'll have to sit for this again.’ And then, they do a different strengths test, and it comes somewhat similar. And that's when finally they realize that that is, you know, that is the right result, that these are their top strengths. What do we do with them now? But I have seen clients quite reluctant to accept the results of, for example, strengths tests. It's quite funny to go through that. And also, the other funny thing that I think is very human is to check what your weaknesses are straight away to look for all the gaps, instead of focusing on all the good things that you can do and all your top strengths. They are upset by what the results are not showing. Have you had that experience with clients?

 

James: Oh, yeah, there's a human tendency, Renata, and that's proven through research to focus on the deficits, to focus on the weaknesses, especially amongst really high achievers. They will often go to the weaknesses and the deficits first. And we always encourage them to focus on the strengths, but what I would say in relation to the point you've just made, which is a very good point. If you don't agree fully with the profile, when you see it, find an opportunity to share your views about the profile and about kind of areas of disagreement with the recruiter with the hiring manager. At the same time, though, keep an open mind because the test might be uncovering a blind spot for you. It might be uncovering something you don't know about yourself.

 

James: So, keep an open mind, but do reveal if you feel there's any disparity and anything you vehemently disagree with, or whatever the case may be, do speak up, don’t keep it to yourself. And the other thing I would say, and this might be a point you haven't heard before, but if you do a bunch of ability tests and you're feeling really off on the day, you know, maybe you drag yourself into the test situation, or you’re doing the tests remotely, and you really weren't feeling well, just let the HR person know and ask for the opportunity to retake the test. Because I've had some candidates in the past to have done that, and I've allowed them to retake the test, and the results are very, very different. So this is something else, in those unusual, extraordinary circumstances, as I say, something's happening for you. Do ask to retake the test. Don't be afraid to do that.

 

Renata: That's a great advice, and I'm not surprised that it happens because the amount of cortisol in your body if you're stressed or anxious about something. Either the test itself or something else that happened during that day in preparation for the tests can really affect people's performance. How about James, when you do a test as part of the recruitment and selection process, and then you are not considered for the next stage, what can you read into that? Is it possible to get feedback from most recruiters about the outcome of your test? What does it mean for the candidate when they haven't been chosen to proceed after doing tests or assessments?

 

James: This is another great point, Renata, and it's something I feel very strongly about because there's a lot of bad practice out there, in that, the people giving the test - and it's not always the HR department, but often it is the HR department or the recruiters if it's been done for a recruitment company - they don't build time for feedback into the process. And I think, particularly when you've reached a shortlisted stage, you should always ask for feedback and persevere and be quite audacious in your approach if you're not getting feedback because everyone is owed feedback. If they invest time and effort and filling out these tests, and it's really important for your learning and your understanding about yourself and what your strengths are and what your improvement areas are, and so on.

 

James: So, I would say, you know, just persevere and make sure that you get that feedback. Even if you have to kind of break down some doors to do that. It's so important. And I think we do need to, as a profession, I mean, the HR profession and the psychometric profession, we need to start really stressing that as part of the ethical code in terms of administering these tests. And we always say, when we train people in, you know, whether it's strengthscope, or any other tests, whether we train people in these tests that, you really need to give your candidates the opportunity to see the results, but also not just to see the results to be briefed with someone, the results.

 

Renata: Yeah, no, that's a very good point, and it's becoming harder and harder for candidates to get feedback these days, at least here in Australia. Some places in the US as well. Depending on the country, for example, in New Zealand, I believe it's mandatory that you give feedback to all your candidates. And people that have moved from New Zealand to Australia really struggle with the fact that they are not getting feedback anymore. So they don't know what's wrong with their applications.

 

James: And it's the same here, Renata, in the UK. It's exactly the same that a lot of people get very frustrated because they don't ever hear, they don't get feedback. And it's becoming even worse, quite frankly, with some of the AI applications now, where the applications are managed by bots, and they're just screened in or out, and people don't get any feedback. There's just like an automated email that comes out to them and says, no, your application is not getting taken further. So there's a lot of bad practice out there, but it doesn't mean you have to put up with the bad practices. 

 

Renata: Yeah. No, it's absolutely right. Now, when we were discussing what we were going to talk about today, James, one of the things that you were really keen to discuss was the area of strengths, agility, and confidence, efficacy. It's great that we've connected. We both are very interested in focusing on our client's strengths, and you have built a business around understanding people's strengths. Why is it so important for corporate professionals to focus on strengths? I'll give you an example. If you're a tennis player and, you know, you have a great backhand, you're going to strengthen that to win a game. If you're a corporate professional, it's very rare for a professional to know from the get-go what their strengths are. They usually need a little bit of time to identify those. Usually, they get a coach or a mentor to support them or do an assessment to understand their strengths. And even then, they struggle to focus on that for their career advancement. They many times try to invest in their weaknesses and lift those up, rather than investing in their strengths to make those stand out and amplified. I would love to hear your views as to how you have worked in your career to develop the strengths-based approach to career coaching.

 

James: Sure. So let's look at why it's so important. Well, first of all, we've got to love what we do. As Steve Jobs famously said, we spend so much time working in our career that we've got to love what we do, otherwise, we're going to have significant regrets at the end of our career if we haven't enjoyed what we've done. But enjoyment is also really important, enduring, motivation, enjoyment, is really important. Passion, if you want to call it that, for another reason, which is that we can make a bigger impact when we’re loving what we do in whatever field we choose. And we're more likely to achieve success, whatever success means to us because success means different things to different people. And strengths, the definition of strengths, is underlying qualities that energize us and enable us to do our best work. It’s all about playing your strengths and kind of really loving what you do. And your strengths are going to help you stand out through your career. 

 

James: In the same way, for example, I talked about my courage, my creative thinking, also developing others, learning. These are all strengths of mine, and they've enabled me to stand out in my career and make a real difference, make a lasting impact. So I can genuinely say that I've left the world a more positive place when I pass away or when I'd retire. And I think most of us want to do that, deep down, we want to do that. A lot of people clearly never achieve that, but at least aspire to do that. So I'm going back to two strengths. It's really important to understand our strengths, to find opportunities to play our strengths, not be disingenuous with ourselves. There's no point in lying to yourself. For example, if you see a job which has an attractive salary attached, paying for that job, but then we find actually it doesn't play to our strengths, and we're miserable, and work becomes a drag every day.

 

James: There's another reason, and you talked about this, most companies have a deficit negativity bias. We talked about a human condition, it’s that we have this negative bias. And whether it's employers or job candidates, a lot of us have that. And I think the Strengths approach helps us to shift to a much more positive plane, which helps us to start thinking differently about ourselves, start being more confident, think differently about opportunities in our career, to think more expansively. So it opens up opportunities for us, which is very powerful. But there's a final reason. And this relates to weaknesses because a lot of people say, well, you know, if I just focus on my strengths all the time, and I know my weaknesses, then I'm clearly not going to be successful.

 

James: I'm not going to get ahead. And the strengths approach does not mean - and I want to repeat this - does not mean that you ignore your weaknesses—quite the contrary. Through a better understanding of our strengths, we also understand our biggest sources of weakness, which are overdone strengths. Because often what's perceived as our weakness is actually not a weakness at all. It's actually areas where we tend to overdo our strengths or use them inappropriately or in the wrong way. And I'm going to give you a couple of examples of that. So somebody like me, who's very courageous, very bold, I can come across sometimes as overly challenging. Earlier on in my career, I used to get feedback on a regular basis that I was just too arrogant. I was too brash. I was too direct. I was too challenging, all those sorts of words. And some of these words actually hurt. Really deep down, they hurt me a lot, especially the word arrogant. 

 

James: And then later on in my career, I realized when I started to discover the kind of strengths approach, I realized that actually it was perceived as arrogance. Absolutely. But it was actually that challenging nature that was tipping over and not being used with enough empathy. And so I dialed up my empathy, reduced the courage in certain situations, that direct sort of challenge in certain situations, and that resulted in a much more effective use of those strengths. And I've been able to get the most out of those situations now where I have to challenge, for example, people in positions of authority, very senior positions. So that's one example. Another example may be, for example, somebody who's very critically minded. This comes up a lot in my coaching conversations. Critical thinkers are in short supply in organizations. And whenever I see people who have a critical thinking strength, I get really encouraged because it's about having critical thinkers in organizations who can help organizations uncover gaps and cover risks, and do things better.

 

James: But often these people are regarded as negative, as people who are pessimists, who poke on a cold war song, good ideas. And this is another example of a strength in overdrive because if a critical thinker is using that strength appropriately, then they won't be seen in that way. And one of the easy ways for critical thinkers to mitigate the overdrive is just to kind of put their hand up in meetings and say, I'm a critical thinker, and I'm going to help you to spot gaps and weaknesses and flaws in arguments. So to signal that they are critical thinkers and simply through signaling that they are critical thinkers, people won't always see them as the negative person, the negative force in the room, or the critical, pessimistic, overly critical person.

 

James: And then, of course, at times, they'll need to dial down properly on their critical thinking. So there's another example of how this approach can really help you to reduce what is going to probably be your biggest weakness in your career - your strengths in overdrive - but also to help you optimize and stretch your natural strengths appropriately, and build skill and experience in areas of strength. And I'm so glad you raised the sport analogy, Renata because a lot of people never think about stretching their strengths. Building skill, building experience, building agility across situations in areas of strength. What they think principally about is how can I reduce those gaps and improve my weaknesses. Improving your weaknesses will only ever help you kind of avoid some of the obvious flaws and problems and so on. And you might achieve mediocrity, but it will never help you achieve peak performance. Your strengths are going to help you achieve that. They're going to pave the way for that peak performance. Sorry, that was a long answer, but hopefully, that's provided some good insight.

 

Renata: Perfect. And I love all of your examples, and in my work as a coach, I think the most rewarding aspect is the first few weeks with a client when we are identifying the strengths. And I love seeing sometimes the surprise on their faces when they get the results when they really had never thought of their strengths in that way. And we start unpacking what that actually means in a professional setting, or even in a personal setting and how that can be translated in their job applications, in conversations with managers and coworkers. And the examples that you have mentioned are exactly the sort of things that I really enjoy doing. So thank you for sharing those. They're fantastic.

 

James: It's a pleasure. Renata, sorry, there's one more element that you've actually reminded me of that I forgot to mention, which is so important to the strengths approach. It is about not just understanding your strengths and your overdone strengths, but understanding others. Because through understanding others, you can build complementary partnerships and teams. You can't hope to be good at everything. It's not about being an all-rounder. And I always make this point too, when I'm speaking to different groups, there is no such thing as an all-rounder. We are all spiky by nature in terms of - when I say spiky by nature, we've all got strengths, but we've also got weaknesses, we've got pits, we've got valleys. And so what's really important is to understand that and accept that. Accept to have vulnerability and call on others in areas where they've got great strengths. So, for example, I'm really weak at detail and organization, and I have to call on others to help me in those areas. I will never be great in those areas. But by calling on others and building teams of people that have those strengths, we can get anything done together. Anything becomes achievable. 

 

Renata: Yeah. And a good way of translating that to a job-hunting situation is, at the end of a recruitment and selection process, you might have an amazing shortlist of candidates, two or three amazing candidates. They have all ticked the boxes, they're all in front of the decision-makers, and the choice may be led by who they already have in their team. Which one of those candidates will better fit with the existing team that the company has already invested in building a certain structure with certain people in it. And many times, as the decision-maker myself, I have chosen someone who I thought will play well with the people I had already hired. And I felt bad for the other two candidates. They were equally impressive. Many times I felt more connected on a personal level with a candidate that I ended up not choosing because they were a lot like me, but we didn't need another person like me in the team. I really needed somebody else with a different set of skills and strengths, and experience. So this is the thing I think when you're job searching, and you're not chosen for a role after going through what can sometimes be weeks or months of recruitment and selection process, it's important to know and to move on and bounce back quickly because it really is a matter of building that league, that group that performs well internally for the organization. Don't you think?

 

James: Absolutely. And I think the discussions moved away from culture fit to culture add. And we are looking for people who can add something different, something new, something in terms of having different strengths, different perspectives, different ideas, and so on to a team. I think still, though, there's a natural kind of inertia, which is another, unfortunately, problem with most recruitment processes is people don't understand their own biases. And one of the natural human biases is to recruit people in our own image or our own likeness. So people who are like us, rather than people that are very different from us. And so we need to, I think, especially the HR profession and recruitment industry, they need to really challenge the hiring managers to think about that diversity, especially that cognitive diversity. They should be asking about other members of the team and what are the strengths of the other members of the team?

 

James: And what's going to complement those strengths? What haven't you got in the team that you should? If you haven't got a critical thinker, bring in the critical thinker, if you haven't got a creative, bring in a creative, if you haven't got somebody who's empathetic and compassionate, you know, you should be looking for somebody, maybe who's empathetic and compassionate. So these are the sorts of things that can be enormously helpful. As part of that planning to fill that role and deciding on the criteria for the best candidate.

 

Renata: Yes. Oh, that's exactly right. We need to start wrapping up James. So do you have any final advice or words of wisdom for the job seekers out there listening?

 

James: You know, it's really tough, Renata. I remember when I first came to the UK, I spent six months looking for a job. It was a very poor job market at the time. And I remember thinking, am I ever going to find a job? Am I ever going to find something that I really like, and I want to do? And I think, for me, it's about keeping the faith. It's about recognizing your value and believing in yourself, so that’s self-belief. And then it's also about persevering and persevering in smart ways. So, all your audience, your job seeker audience, will know the importance of persevering, but it's about persevering in the right ways, particularly using multiple channels and approaches.

 

James: So don't rely on one approach. Don't rely just on recruitment agencies. Rely on a variety of different approaches. Networking, I always think, is probably the most powerful approach, so leave no stone unturned in terms of your network. And then last but not least, I think just ask for help. Don't feel that you are alone in this, ask for help. I mean, I've got friends now who I'm helping to find jobs. Why do I do that? Well, because I know myself from my own experience how difficult it is, but I genuinely want to help them because they're my friends, and I want to see them succeed. And most people will want to see you succeed and get that job that you really want. So reach out widely, don't be afraid to acknowledge your situation, your vulnerability, and yeah, get the support network in place to help keep you buoyed up and motivated whilst you’re finding your next role.

 

Renata: Excellent. Thank you so much, James. We're going to wrap up now, but don't go away cause I want to chat to you. Thank you.

 

James: Thank you very much, Renata. Appreciate that.

 

Renata: I hope you enjoyed this episode. I have to admit, I was one of the nervous ones when it came to assessment centers and tests during recruitment and selection. I hope this episode helps you get ready for your job search. And if you enjoyed it, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes or on the platform you have found this podcast. Also, make sure you subscribe and if you know someone who will greatly benefit from listening to it, share it with them. Many thanks for your support and until next time!

 

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