As the school year drew to a close, I said goodbye and good luck to a group of young people I’ve been working with at a local Academy.
The scheme where I’ve been a volunteer mentor is run by the organisation Career Ready, which links people in business with schools. By sharing our knowledge with GCSE students and mentoring them, the scheme aims to prepare them for the world of work.
As part of the final activity there was an opportunity to reflect on the learning from the year and I asked my group to think about the skills and knowledge they had identified. And then to prioritise those which they felt were going to be most useful as they looked at their next steps. Things like political views, interpersonal skills, personal management, good GCSE results, team work and ICT and tech skills were some of the areas to consider.
The conversation roamed around these topics and it was interesting to see the value they placed on each of them. Some members of the group felt that they had all the knowledge they needed for the world of work as they saw it and that the ability to learn didn’t seem important. Others expressed the view that in today’s world they didn’t want to feel dependent on others and therefore couldn’t see the need to work as part of a team. Maybe they’re missing something? Or are they right? How do we actually know what skills and knowledge we are going to need to demonstrate when we are at work?
This morning I came across an article in the Guardian which described the continuing woes of Marks and Spencer (a place where I suspect my young mentees never go!) and the problem of identifying, sourcing, stocking and selling clothing in today’s fast-moving and competitive market. And it made me consider what is actually the most important thing to get to grips with in a new role? Is it demonstrating your skills? Using your experience? Making things happen? Solving underlying problems? Making change? Possibly all of those. And as I asked my young people on Wednesday to do, these different aspects of the role need to be prioritised? But how?
A number of my coaching clients are facing just these dilemmas. They have skills and experience but some of them feel they are missing the mark, not getting recognition, failing to achieve. To help them talk their way through this, one of the experiences I share with my clients is that during the latter part of my career in IT I had a series of varied roles in different parts of the overall organisation in which I worked. I had been primed, as my CEO had explained it, to be a senior manager who could be placed anywhere, could quickly identify what the underlying issues were, fix them and then move on. At that time my Mother used to say: “I never know what your job is called, so when people ask me, I say you’re a troubleshooter”. That’s right, Mum.
The skill I prioritised most frequently was therefore to get clarity about about the brief. What was someone looking for me to achieve? Not my “job description” because if I had one it could be out of date or might be a shopping list of things that somebody had thought might be useful at some stage of its evolution. Anyone who has worked as a contractor will be familiar with the importance of knowing what’s the brief? What’s the timeframe? And as a contractor, what’s the risk of taking this on?
Based on this idea of the brief, I encourage my clients to talk about the skills they use, how they use them to deliver what’s required and to reflect on whether there are other goals, which they may not have recognised as being important to their boss. And to consider whether they feel they are getting clarify from their boss on what’s expected of them. If the brief isn’t clear, how can they get clarity?
So looking at the “brief” for Jill McDonald who has sadly been ousted from M&S, there are a few interesting observations in the Guardian article. One person thinks it’s about knowing the fashion world:
“The former staffer suggested it would have been a “miracle” if McDonald had succeeded: “It is a massive, 24/7 job and you don’t have time to learn it. There’s so much you have got to already know. I struggle to understand how you could put someone with no fashion experience into such a senior role which is a heavily exposed role when it comes to delivery.”
Another says the role needs leadership:
“Maureen Hinton, global research director at GlobalData, said McDonald struck her as pragmatic and capable but “to really get a clothing business off the ground takes an inspirational leader” ”
It certainly needed someone who could take the pressure if former bosses are anything to go by:
“Getting sums wrong often result in frank boardroom exchanges without people getting sacked though. As one former M&S executive recalled of the retailer’s former chief executive: “Stuart Rose used to say: ‘Fantastic that it’s sold out… Why the f*** is it sold out?’” “
Driving change was clearly required:
“But with less than two years in the job, the odds were stacked against McDonald leading a revolution. In this year’s annual report, Norman pointed to “a siloed, slow and hierarchical culture that has proved resistant to change”.”
And the article is summarised by saying:
“The whole point of bringing in someone like Jill McDonald was that she came from modern differentiated businesses which would help her say ‘we can do this differently’,” added Irwin. “She was brought in to change business practice, not to be a great clothing guru, and probably where she has gone wrong is not being able to change those practices fast enough.”
So perhaps my young people have the right attitude. Until their feet hit the ground and they get clarity on what they are expected to achieve, how can they prioritise their skills, knowledge and experience? When the demands of a job change from week to week and leaders swap in and out more often than you get paid, how do you know where to put your effort? One final observation – these students kept me on my toes with their insightful questions and their energy on Wednesday morning. So I think they’ll be OK.
Just to be clear, my observations are in no way intended as a criticism of Jill and I’m sorry that M&S decided to end her role with them. I’m sure there are many factors going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.
And here is the article from the Guardian:
Izzy Ixer MCMI BWY DIP
Coach and Yoga Tutor