Like many finance professionals, Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, has a long list of qualifications. He’s a certified professional coach, the holder of both a Scottish national diploma and a higher national certificate in accounting, a veteran of PwC and EY, and a former board member of a healthcare trust.
It’s clear these facts would get him in the door for countless job interviews. But acronyms and job titles on a CV are the last thing he highlights when talking about himself — and that’s because he understands an important fact about psychology.
“People think success is a straight line, when in reality it’s much more of a twist, goes down alleyways and different directions,” said Brodie, the director of the consultancy Goals and Achievements Ltd.
Instead of reeling off achievements, Brodie constantly tries to convey those twists and turns, whether he’s speaking to large audiences or coaching an executive. He talks about his journey. He talks about leaving school at age 15, about the bumps and stumbles along the way. He talks about being human — and it works.
“I think a lot of people tend to be quite attracted to this story,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s more attractive than, ‘I one day got my CIMA qualification and leapt 15 steps up the career ladder and it’s wonderful.’”
The research backs him up. A recent study by Janina Steinmetz, a senior lecturer at the Cass Business School, showed that many people make a potential mistake when they talk about themselves.
“One pervasive strategy of impression management is self-promotion, which means to emphasise one’s successes and accomplishments,” Steinmetz writes.
Emphasis on effort
In other words, as Brodie put it: “A lot of people think that the way to get on with your career is to keep acquiring more and more qualifications.”
This kind of blind self-boosting misses the point. A success story, Steinmetz wrote, “is hardly complete or convincing without an explanation for the success: Did the success come easy, thanks to one’s talents, or was it effortfully attained through hard work?”
A failure of storytelling could explain how even the most impressive CVs fall flat if the presentation’s wrong. So, to test this theory, Steinmetz ran a series of experiments in the Netherlands and the US. She asked hundreds of people to imagine themselves conducting and participating in job interviews and other scenarios, then measured the results.
She found a dichotomy: Talking about talent and achievements signalled competence. But it also turned people off.
If you run a marathon, “nobody’s going to think you’re an incompetent runner,” Steinmetz said. “There’s much less need to talk about the competence.”
Instead, audiences preferred to hear more about the effort people made and the difficulties they encountered, she found. In romantic scenarios, they were more likely to want to date those that tried hard.
And while her research didn’t focus on storytelling, she suspects that people who can spin a good yarn will make that good impression last longer.
That’s a sentiment Brodie agrees with.
“You’ve got to just understand that story, and the background story, actually creates an awful lot of connection. It creates rapport,” he said. “It actually shows an element of what I call realism about you.”
Focus on relevance and truth
So, we’ve all got to tell compelling stories about ourselves. Simple, right?
Not so much, and especially not in accounting, Brodie said. Accountants are “serial understaters” when it comes to their own stories, he said. Our stories of ourselves don’t have to be epic tales, nor the stuff of TED talks — although that would be nice. They just have to be true and relevant.
“I don’t think people really appreciate the power of real-life examples and real-life experiences,” Brodie said. And that can be solved with a little homework.
“Generally, what I’ve found is part of the reason that so many people struggle when it comes to things like interviews … is actually down to a severe lack of preparation,” Brodie said. Anything less than ten hours of preparation is likely unacceptable, he said. “We’re not really great, thinking on our feet. We have to have done the groundwork.”
In fact, Steinmetz’s research found that people’s social graces grow worse under pressure. “Their impulse is to brag,” she said. Worst of all: Most people don’t realise they’re doing it, because audiences rarely give criticism.
To fight this instinct, Brodie encourages clients to first interview themselves.
“What I encourage them to do is, first, to actually step back and look at the totality of their career,” he said. “Often, the reason why people struggle is they don’t sit down and actually think about their achievements.”
It’s a challenge, even for high-achievers, but it provides the fodder for a compelling conversation. If the ideas aren’t coming, he offers up “trigger words”, asking people to think about process improvements, cost reductions, or ways that they raised the profile of their team. Then, they practise those stories by themselves and in front of colleagues, looking for the perfect balance of “impressive” and “engaging”.
The stories themselves can adhere to a framework called the STAR technique that can help play up the effort, according to Lee Owen, a senior business director at Hays Accountancy and Finance in London. S stands for the situation, which an interviewee would describe. T stands for task, and A signifies the action taken. R stands for results.
This shouldn’t be just an interview-prep exercise. By maintaining achievement lists or even journals, people can keep a firm grasp on the story of themselves.
— Andrew Kenney is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.