How to succeed if your face doesn’t fit

frownSome people seem born for success. They do well in exams, and are great at interviews. They often end up leading organisations.

Why are they successful? A crude way of putting it is to say that their face fits. The people who take decisions on hiring and promotion have an ideal in mind, and they are impressed by the qualities that this type of person shows.

As a society, we are starting to recognise that this approach is deeply flawed and unfair. Put simplistically, it favours the self-confident, white, male, gregarious, neurologically-mainstream conformist.

Organisations are being pushed and prodded to consider a more diverse range of candidates. Many employers are still at a very early stage in this process. It is a good start to consider the number of women and people of different cultural backgrounds that an organisation employs in senior positions. But it is only a start, and some organisations are not yet on solid ground on these criteria.

True diversity comes when recruiters are genuinely open-minded about the type of person they want for a role – when they see behind job-specific background and interview performance, and consider such factors as whether a person would bring different qualities, act in the best interests of the organisation, and be able to learn and improve. A good start in this process is to focus on a person’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. Of course, this involves looking at intangibles, which are not as easily measurable as whether someone is black or female.

In IP Draughts’ case, his route to success was starting his own firm. This enabled him to develop his career in his own way, without being judged against a narrow ideal. It also meant he could implement his own ideas on hiring criteria. Put simply, he tries to find people who meet a high threshold of competence and attitude, and have an engaging personality. That gets us to the shortlist. The successful candidate should also have a “superpower” – a positive quality that sets them apart, and which may well be different to the superpowers of other people in the firm.

He has started other initiatives. The annual UCL IP Transactions course has now been running for 9 years. This blog is close to its 10th anniversary. When he starts things himself, he can be successful.

When it comes to other people’s initiatives, IP Draughts’ experience has been mixed. He has been grateful to have been invited to chair or be a director of several organisations. When he gets these opportunities, he has had good feedback on his performance.

But when he applies “cold” to organisations that he thinks he could make a good contribution to, he has been spectacularly unsuccessful. His most recent application was to be a non-executive director of UK Research and Innovation, a public body which funds UK research. He thought he could bring a different and valuable perspective to this role, as well as 35 years’ experience working with the beneficiaries of UKRI funding. This week, he received a standard letter which included the following deadly lines:

“We received a very large number of exceptionally high-quality applications, and given the need to cover a wide range of sectors and disciplines, and bearing in mind the overall composition of the board, regrettably on this occasion you were not shortlisted.”

IP Draughts has had similar letters from other public bodies. He is coming to the conclusion that he is wasting his time with applications of this kind. He needs to be patient, and wait for people to approach him.


Podcast of this article here.


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5 responses to “How to succeed if your face doesn’t fit

  1. I don’t know what the application rate is for positions these days but have seen hundreds of over qualified people applying for bar work in one news article. Perhaps this cuts across the board regardless of the position. Your standard letter from the employer implies that either they are too lazy or they have had a substantial number of aplicants. I am also aware of an increased use of artifical intelligence software to create a short list and reduce the filtering effort for the employer. Perhaps the old computer adage, garbage in, garbage out is applicable here and employers don’t get the candidates they should be looking at. Serendipity is taken out of the equation and it appears difficult for recruiters to take any risk or time on someone who doesn’t conform to their shopping list.

  2. Whilst I agree with almost all of this post, I do also think that it is important to consider how we define “success”. Times are changing and maybe money, power and status should no longer form the key criteria.

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