Thursday, 25 March 2010

So what have you achieved lately?

March is always the maddest month. Most of my clients are keen to ensure that they have fulfilled their obligation to the financial year, which means that approximately all of them have 31st March as a deadline. Meeting their needs invariably occupies the evenings, weekends and scattered hours of downtime in which I might otherwise be converting the various ideas for blog essays into proper pieces of text.

Hence the recent quiet.

Even now time is pressed. This pressure certainly focuses the mind, and if diamonds and coal are anything to go by then this is not necessarily a bad thing. I have, in any case, hewn a small chunk of space-time and shall now purify and forge it into a compact riff on the nature of achievement.

The matter has been on my mind for a few weeks, ever since someone I don’t know told me that I had not achieved very much. The story began when a head-hunter invited me to put myself forward for a position on the board of a public body. I had not, prior to the call, been considering such a move; but it is of course flattering to receive such an invitation, indicating to one’s fragile ego that (a) someone you don’t know has heard of you and (b) that some sort of process has identified you as a potential candidate to do something prestigious.

My ego thus tickled I completed and submitted the highly structured application form. Squeezing oneself into little boxes is never comfortable, I find, and is not something I have chosen to do very often in my life, but the opportunity that had been dangled was genuinely rather enticing, so I did my best.

A few days later I received a call to say that I would not be needed for an interview; and a few days after that I received a call providing ‘feedback on your application’.

There had been many applicants, the anonymous recruitment consultant intoned, and the panel felt that I didn’t have as many achievements as the shortlisted candidates.

“Achievements”.

I wonder what this means. Does it mean the achievements I listed in the little boxes didn’t seem ‘big’ enough? Or they were the wrong kind of achievements? Or that what seemed like achievements to me did not seem like achievements to them?

If I say, for example, “I wrote a report”, how big or small an achievement is that? If you say “I built a bridge” – big or small? [Did you build it yourself?] How about “I set up and grew a business”. Is this an achievement? How would you know what kind of achievement it is unless you have done it yourself?

There is a useful analogy here with ‘behaviours’. [Among my few achievements is a small body of research work in and around what is called ‘behaviour change’, so I’ve read a few books and talked to a few people and given a few lectures on this sort of thing.] Imagine a behaviour such as ‘smoking’ or ‘drinking’ or ‘driving’ and we may think that, perhaps, we ought to do less of these things.

But look closely. Let’s take ‘drinking’. I decide to go to a pub. I shall be meeting a friend. I shall be walking to the bar. I shall be choosing an ale. I shall be holding the glass. I shall be sending volleys of invisible electronic messages to my elbow and my mouth, commanding myself to take a mouthful. Which part of this is the behaviour ‘drinking’? Is it all ‘drinking’? If I want to drink less, which level or element of the elaborate and compound behaviour ‘drinking’ should I address? Do I stop going to the pub? Or could I just use a heavier glass?

Back to achievements. “I set up and grew a business” conflates: I do recruitment, training, business planning, financial management, risk assessment, strategy, professional indemnity insurance, software development, authorising the purchase of a new sofa, marketing, management meetings… Are any of these ‘achievements’?

“I am a dad” = I cook, launder, drive, cajole, support, love, josh, play. Any achievements there?

It depends on your perspective. If you’re on the lookout for multi-tasking capability, organisational management and effective prioritisation skills, then the lumpen achievement “I am a dad” is shorthand for a whole load of relevant stuff. If you’re on the lookout for coaching and development skills, then it’s only the ‘cajole, support and josh’ achievements that you need to hear about.

So, if you’re on the lookout for a member of an under-represented group, with a track record of sitting on committees, supporting or initiating charitable work and of having useful political affiliations, then an iconoclastic white male intellectual with a commercial background will clearly not have the achievements you are after.

It would be nice, next time, if you could be a little clearer, then we’d all waste a little less of our finite, valuable, compressed and irretrievable time.

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