Jan Marsli – BSc Psychology
From Psychology to Consultancy
The Insight Consulting practice is in effect the research and tailored diagnostic practice group of Hay Group, a global management firm. We typically work with large regional or multinational organisations to help them understand drivers of specific outcomes, such as staff retention and succession risk, operational efficiency and value chain flow, workforce motivation and engagement, organizational effectiveness and so forth.
Nationalising the workforce is a big thing we get involved with a lot here in the GCC. Human factors are usually aligned with bottom line metrics such as revenue growth, sales or customer loyalty to help define the right climate, fitting the workforce to strategy and ultimately business performance. It often has a strong element, one way or another, of talent management (in the organisational, not artistic sense).
It’s a fairly broad role, with a primary focus on building the business around the Insight Consulting practice of Hay Group, in short, to go out and hunt for clients across the Middle East and Northern Africa region from our Dubai base and then define, deliver solutions and retain client relationships.
In parallel, it is also broadening the deeper understanding across the region internally of our services and integrating into cross practice business solutions, and developing competencies in a region where the war for talent is very much alive.
It’s a fairly young practice across a diverse region of rapidly developing frontier and emerging markets, so a lot of my time is spent coaching and developing others at the moment.
I have been in similar roles with Hay Group in the UK, working across Europe and prior to that Towers-Watson again in the UK and a shorter spell in the US, so one way or another I have been in the applied research business since finishing my MSc and BSc. I think the pace, ad-hoc and practical focus of applied research fascinates me. It’s in a rather nerdy sense the desk based version of being an explorer looking for new discoveries without some of the constraints of academia – that said, I do probably travel more than sit at my desk.
But what really drives me is the opportunity to work with leaders, executives and CEOs in understanding the impact of the work we do for them and defining workstreams that need to happen. CEOs are often unique and intriguing characters in their own right and almost always very likable and enjoyable to work with.
When we present results, which usually feels more like a facilitated top team workshop there’s always a feeling of jointly discovering some elements of truth, appealing to my achievement drive. But as a true ENTP it’s really just being there in those moments, centre stage which really energizes me.
No matter how bad the week has been, or whatever challenges await when you return back to base – in those moments with an executive team you are allowed to forget the world, and reap the harvest of what has often been months of focus groups, interviews, surveys, desk study and design work.
Opportunities and experience
I pretty much walk out ready to take on what’s next. I would lie if I didn’t also say the last few years here in the Middle East has been quite exciting in itself, literally living through history, seeing the Arabian spring up-close, understanding the impact it has on people and our own work. I would highly recommend young students to consider a few years in Dubai, Qatar, or even Saudi.
Not only is it a great opportunity to kick start your career – but you will likely also be able to kick-start paying off those student loans. It’s a region starved for talent in many fields, especially areas such as management consulting and many hire graduates for rapid development, especially in the last few years as European labour has become cheaper than local.
It’s not easy work, but it pays well and you really get exposure to stuff it would take years to in the UK or elsewhere in Europe to get to. Dubai certainly also has a lot to offer on the social side as well. Most expatriate graduates out here have a pretty good time.
How to consult
In terms of getting started in this career, you have to start at the bottom and it won’t be easy. It can take a long time in consulting until you actually get to do real occupational or work consulting. Young graduates often get very disappointed when they realize that management consulting is as much about relationships, communications and emotional maturity as it is about skills and technical know-how.
In all honesty, a key is confidence in yourself and the ability to understand others and communicate well. Practice your presenting skills, actively engage in verbal workshops but don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel ready. There are plenty of technical roles to start off in until you have built your confidence up and feel ready – I personally thought I could never go out and sell, network and build relationships when I left university – now, I am pretty happy out on the road or client side.
It’s where I like to be. But regardless, be prepared to spend a few years doing primarily coordination, project management and repetitive work. In consulting day rates and margins are key. The lower down you are the more cost effective it is to have you do what is usually, but not always, the boring stuff. It doesn’t hurt to get some basic project management skills either.
Thinking outside the continent
I genuinely think, also with the general financial situation in Europe, looking for work in the emerging markets might be a rather clever thing to get ahead of the game, and frankly expatriate life is a good old healthy life lesson broadening your perception of the world and life. I did and MSc in Occupational Psychology after Northampton, then moved into a technical role, gradually shifting over to project management and eventually into a consulting role.
Looking back on University
Seven to eight years ago I would have probably said that my study hadn’t helped my career or personal development much – I genuinely spent my early years at work feeling I had wasted my time doing a degree in Psychology and then on top, a Masters in Occupational Psychology.
I even remember back in the days at University, both me and my fellow students struggled to get to grips with how we would apply this knowledge and make a career out of it.
Now, it’s of immense help. I find I draw on old teachings all the time. I seem to often go back to some of the classic studies in motivational or social psychology. Frankly, because they often are just great stories and stories are always effective at getting messages across – or perhaps because I remember them the most.
Certainly in change and transformation situations, it is almost more about what you cannot draw on from your studies. Change is all about emotion, and effective change management is helping people get through the different emotional stages, and because you know it’s hardwired and fairly fixed you just got to work your change programmes around people giving them the time and support they need to cycle through it all.
It’s all psychology at the end of the day, be it dealing with large organizational transformation programs or doing 1-2-1 sessions with managers.
It took me a while to figure out, that half the learning I was given at university was not really about technical competencies but the learning in its own right was giving me the tools to help people do things better and sometimes in psychology what you learn is nothing but a verbal tool of persuasion.
To quote Aristotle: “Metaphor, moreover, gives style clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can: and it is not a thing whose use can be taught by one man to another”. At some point you just get there and realize story telling is half your trade, and you feel pretty happy about that.
All of the skills, knowledge and understanding gained on my degree are useful in my work. For me, because I usually deal more with workforces rather than individuals, social and group psychology has been invaluable. But also a lot of the motivational and cognitive theory and obviously in an applied research role a good grasp of Statistics is pretty fundamental, but luckily we mostly have specialist researchers to slug out the big stuff on SPSS.
More important than Statistics however is reasoning, and logical thinking. I did some of that during my MSc and another course, but what I picked up at the University of Northampton in Cognitive Psychology as well as a module on Expert Systems and Artificial Intelligence has been invaluable.
There are so many fallacies and traps in drawing conclusions, that SPSS won’t warn you about. You can even read published research, and think “dear lord, significant or not, running this conclusion through a simple truth table would invalidate it” – learn your truth tables, if for no other reason to start training your brain to stop cherry picking what you already know and approach problems with a degree of tabula rasa.
Regarding advice for undergraduates interested in this line of work – don’t wait for opportunities to show up in job adverts, go out and network – our HR departments really DO keep relevant CVs and dig them out for us before we spend money on recruiters, so even if we don’t have the right role now, it might be available in a few months – that actually happened to me.
LinkedIn is good for the management consulting industry. It is used a lot by the sector, but keep it 100% professional and don’t bother getting all your fellow students writing you recommendations – we’re not entirely stupid.
But also go to conferences and events, many are free and just chat to people. If you get an interview or chance to send a CV to us, do your due diligence. Your CV needs to point to what we are looking for and interested in, not what you find interesting or feel proud of.
If it’s not directly relevant for us, it’s not relevant. I usually only look at CVs and most recent education and experience, and I only browse headlines. If they don’t grab me, I move on to the next CV. We get so many and I don’t have time for more than that.
You have to be creative within the truth but it needs to scream out from line one, I know something about what you do and I am interested in it – so dig into your course modules and get out what’s relevant for us – YES, it means you have to have a different CV for each job you apply for. It helps if it looks good, but don’t worry about a specific formal format.
Also, “Curriculum vitae – your name” is not a good headline. If you get to interview stage, be 100% clear on what we do. In the UK many interviewees keep thinking we’re Hays Recruitment, not Hay Group – it offends some of us. You got to know what we do, and be clear on why you want to join – but don’t scare us off with expectations of advising and coaching CEOs – you’re not going to do that for many, many years – nor tell us how we ought to do things, we don’t like it.
How to make it
Find as many opportunities as possible to practice your presenting, facilitation and general communication skills – as a third year student, perhaps you could practice helping first year students doing lectures or facilitate workshops. Find the recruiters specialising in management consulting and HR, and treat them like your best friend and connect with them – how you behave with them will determine how they see you and whether they feel confident sending you in front of us.
They are as important to you as we are. We need you to work well in front of clients, so if you don’t come across well and clearly in front of us we got an issue – the recruiters know that.
Don’t be afraid to go for a more technical role, such as within our administrative teams, project management/coordination or event technical support (we use a lot of tools). You will in some ways get more direct exposure and experience that way early on, and you got time to learn the ropes and build your confidence up before you transfer to a consulting role.
Many of my colleagues also started out in recruitment consulting – it can be an easier route, and gives you some of the core competencies around empathy and understanding people, assessment, communications and so on – and you build a network of HR managers in the industry for when you want to move over.
Most of all, don’t worry if you’re a little shy, lack a little confidence in public situations – it will come with time and you just cannot force that, there’s no rush and you will have fun in one of our other teams until you’re ready – that’s what I did.
I really enjoyed the course at the University of Northampton, it was great. Intimate and with a great trust between lecturers and students – that trust really fostered a good learning environment. I really think the quality of the lecturers and the approach many of them took was very refreshing, and there was a lot of focus on workshops, dialogue and discussion. I learned a lot, and as an overseas student, it was really a great learning environment.
I have fond memories of Northampton and I would love to one day if I find myself in the UK to drop by and visit the faculty.