The Second Curve

According to social philosopher Charles Handy, the progress of all things human follows a common pattern – the rise and fall of an S-shaped curve. This calls for periodic renewal and reinvention – a second curve.

The Path of Progress
In the first part of the curve, there’s a phase of investment and learning where progress dips and there is little to show for your efforts.  Then there’s an upswing as efforts pay off.  If all goes well, this keeps on rising.  But there comes a time when the curve inevitably peaks and turns down.  The decline is often is often gradual but will lead in time to failure.

Thus, we see the career that sours or ends in redundancy; the company that get into difficulty or goes bust; the institution that loses its way; the empire that goes into decline and fall.

But decadence is not inevitable.  You can start a second curve … but only if you are able to challenge orthodoxies, re-examine assumptions and make a radical change of direction.

In his 2015 book The Second Curve, Handy updates his thinking and extends the model from individual careers to business, education, politics and society in general.

What has worked for much of the recent past will not work so well in the future. The lesson of the model is that you always need to be prepared to reinvent what you do.

If it ain’t broke …
Of course, when things are going well it is difficult to see why you should do things differently.  Only when crisis looms does the need for change become clear.  But it’s harder to transform what you do when you are up against it.   Ideally you need to embark on a second curve while the first is still on the up –  that is, while you still have momentum and resources.

Without the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to call the peak of the curve.  For example, Kodak, had a successful photographic business for decades and ignored the potential of digital photography until it was too late.  It was the electronics companies that created the next curve and prospered while Kodak disappeared.  In corporate disasters there are nearly always some who see where things are going awry but they may get little thanks for challenging the accepted wisdom.

Complacency is a danger signal.  If things reach a crisis, change becomes inevitable but by then the options may be far more limited as resources drain away.

New Landscape of work
Profound changes to working life are starting to happen now as a result of big data, robots and artificial intelligence.  Commentators such as Anthony Hilton suggest that up to a fifth of current jobs roles could disappear in the next five years as processes are transformed and as grunt work and repetitive tasks are taken over by machines.  New types of work will emerge but many of the jobs of the future have not been invented yet.

Handy sees that the changing patterns of work will change the nature of the organisations and institutions that have given shape to working life.  These institutions too will need to start second curves if they are to continue.

Self Reliance
The demise of institutions that have provided direction and support will place a greater emphasis on self-responsibility.  Decisions that in the past were taken for us – about education, skills, health, finances, etc. – will increasingly fall to the individual.

The emerging ‘Do-it-yourself’ society brings opportunities as well as risks.  The rising generation particularly – with energy and enthusiasm, with different aspirations and less burdened by conventional thinking – will be in a position to flourish by pioneering new lifestyles and new ways of working.

Jo Ouston

Talent – the Golden Thread

Often we take for granted our talents yet they provide vital clues to how we can best build rewarding and successful careers

When developing a career, it is not enough just to dream. We need to act and put in the hard work. It helps to use our talent too.

Talent is a word so often bandied about in relation to show business and to competitive sports, the arts and the boardroom. The existence of talent agencies and talent brokers give us the clue that it is a precious resource that commands a price.

We talk about talent in others. We admire it, we seek it and recruit it. We have entire departments devoted to its management. But when it comes to ourselves, we are often unaware of it.

The truth is we all have talent – a natural aptitude, a special gift or things we are good at. It’s just that many of us don’t recognise that talent or know how to harness it.

What comes naturally

In my experience, talent is nearly always taken for granted by the individual. We dismiss as ‘nothing special’ the things that come to us easily. It’s only when others around us – family, friends, teachers or work colleagues – recognise something as special and point it out to us that we begin to own it.

Perhaps this is because much of the emphasis in education is on knowledge and skills. Perversely, students may be directed away from things that are ‘too easy’ for them on the grounds that they are insufficiently demanding or challenging. And yet that facility with the things that are ‘too easy’ is a strong indicator of talent.

Often people think that talent is not relevant in the workplace. For some this is a conscious choice. They work to live and express their talent and create meaning in activities outside work – performing, playing, organising or family life.

Playing to Strengths

But for those set on building a career, working with their talent enables them to harness their passion, play to their strengths and so achieve more. However, that’s when the really hard work begins as any performer, athlete or artist will tell you – it takes grit, discipline, rigour and sheer determination to polish, perfect and make the most of our talents.

The vast majority of clients who come to me for career development advice feel they have unfulfilled potential. Most have already been successful but have a strong sense that there is something missing. Others want a career change, to do something they really love, but what?

The very first step will always be to identify what their core talent is and explore where that might lead. Then, the planning or steps to change direction begins.

We all do best what we enjoy the most. That light bulb moment when people realise their strengths, see how they can use those talents to best effect and are completely energised and bristling with excitement and potential is wonderful to behold.

Jo Ouston

A Sense of Self

Self-awareness and a clear idea of what matters to us is key to building working relationships, particularly in leadership roles

At any stage in a career, relationships are important to success and happiness in the workplace. In forging those relationships, we strive to understand the actions and reactions of others. Getting to know colleagues and finding out what makes them tick is indeed essential. But to be able to build relationships we must also look to ourselves.

Those who operate most successfully at work tend to be those who have a good sense of ‘self’. They have a clear idea of what is important to them, what feels right and what does not, and most importantly what their expectations are – of themselves and others.


This all provides what I refer to as ‘anchorage’ – the self-awareness that helps us to stay grounded and confident as we interact with those around us. Developing a sense of self takes some introspection, reflection and consideration of how our own values and beliefs can be aligned with our role at work. If we know our own mind – our goals, what is essential for us, what is unacceptable – it frees us to look at how best to work with others to achieve common goals or to negotiate optimal solutions.

Being anchored is important at any point in your career but is becoming essential for those in leadership positions.

Recent years have seen something of a shift in perceptions of leadership. In fact today power is something of a dirty word. CEOs and MDs – less keen to be seen as remote dictators – are coming out from behind the boardroom table. Those leading our organisations are now expected to inspire rather than dictate and to discuss rather than pronounce.

Awareness of Others

This development tends to expose those leaders with a less developed sense of self and often I see managers who are struggling with their role, not because they are not up to the task, but because they have never taken the time to work out what is important for themselves before turning their attention to those around them.

One of the most important skills at any stage of a career is being able to listen, which means being aware of both what is said and how it’s said. It makes a difference to relationship with colleagues and with other stakeholders, giving clues as to what is most important to them, which in turn may shape the way you respond.

Being aware of their values, beliefs, aspirations and expectations builds trust and confidence and encourages open communications. Once the relationships are established it becomes easier to find the best way to motivate and develop others. It becomes easier to avoid conflict and also opens up opportunities to identify and then use the disparate talents and approaches of those around you to achieve your own objectives and those of colleagues and the organisation.

Jo Ouston

Do I need a career plan?

A career plan has its place in developing a career … but to provide a sense of direction rather than a fixed route

Today’s marketplace presents myriad roles and opportunities that didn’t even exist 10 or even 5 years ago. This will excite many with the prospects for a varied and fulfilled career. Others may fear that carving out a career path is now more complicated than ever, while organisations are challenged to identify, recruit and develop the skills that they need.

So is the career plan a thing of the past? Are we able to plot a route for our career through the next 10, 20 or even 30 years or should we cast our futures into the lap of the gods?

Job vs Career

The answer is probably a bit of both. We have to take responsibility for our own careers. A career plan certainly has its place – but it should be there to provide a sense of direction rather than a fixed route. You need to be aware of developments and able to respond to opportunities as they arise. The quest for the one right job as a key to success is not realistic and may actually end up hampering career progression.

It’s important to remember that a career and a job are two different things. A career is built on a series of jobs and experiences over the years where skill, knowledge and qualifications come together with drive and experience. A career is a journey towards a goal rather than a destination.

Career Ladders

It is helpful to view your career as a series of ladders you must climb – first your qualifications, second the knowledge and experience you gather as you progress through life and third the sector and industry knowledge you gain. You can use this perspective to think about your progress and understand what you need to do at each stage to get to where you want to be.

Every job will equip you with new skills and experience and, whether that job is your dream role or not, you will most likely use those skills again. (My first temp job in the complaints department of a well-known dry-cleaners gave me a crash course in customer relations that I still draw on today!)

The Right Balance

At whatever point you are in your career you should keep a weather eye on each of those ladders to ensure that your progress is balanced, identifying gaps where you may need further qualifications, knowledge or experience. In organisations that encourage and support development, discussing those needs will often lead to opportunities for interesting projects and secondments.

With greater experience comes greater clarity about what makes you tick and what you want to aim for. Ultimately, it is those values that will give shape and direction to your career.

Regardless of background or generation, there is no one correct career pathway. If we have a career dream or ambition we need to pursue it and not worry too much about the exact route up the ladders to get there.

Jo Ouston

Recruiting: Beyond Dumb Process

Recruiting has been turbo-charged by technology but with no guarantee of better results for either the employer or the individual

Technology has transformed society, changing the way we communicate and do business. Ten years ago, most people didn’t do their weekly shop online or stay in touch with far-flung friends and family through social media. But for all the technical know-how and gadgetry, we seem to have created a lot of dumb ways of doing things along the way.

A prime example is the automation of recruitment. Candidates now submit their CVs to thousands of companies at the click of a button. These CVs are rarely seen by human eyes until towards the end of the recruitment process.

Instead, applicant tracking software plays a kind of ‘buzzword bingo’ selecting those applicants who’ve learned to play the game and filled their CVs with empty jargon and stock phrases such as: ‘ambitious’, ‘highly-motivated’, ‘passionate’, ‘self-starter’, ‘excellent communicator’, etc. that often sound false and that say little about their true character.

Method in the madness?

Recruitment always involves selection – the need to sort the wheat from the chaff. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of automation. And there is method in the madness of these dumb processes.

The sheer number of applications that can be generated has unleashed an arms race with an inherent logic – if machine processes enable applicants to ‘spam’ employers, perhaps only machine processes can cut down the pool of potential candidates to something more manageable.

But we’ve gone too far. The processes often mean that applicants cannot tailor their CVs or show any real initiative by researching before applying. In taking out the personal and relying on machines, human judgment has been relegated to the bottom of the pile.

Companies bemoan the shortage of suitable candidates but they often fall into the trap of looking for the wrong thing. They look to fill standardised slots rather than recruiting promising individuals with skills and talents that can be nurtured and developed.

People not processes

Instead, as Peter Cappelli writes in his book, ‘Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs’, firms often view recruitment rather like replacing a part in a washing machine. They try to find someone they can swap in like the replacement for a broken part, plugging them into the wash cycle and pushing the start button.

If they don’t succeed in finding the exact replacement part, they keep the vacancy open in the belief that the right person will come along that ticks all the relevant boxes they’re looking for. They fail to realise that there are costs associated with keeping positions vacant.

In this impersonal brave new world, many relationships are purely transactional. Viewing candidates and employees as standardised parts may appear to reduce risks but it is ultimately counter-productive. The process is wasteful and opportunities are missed.

Go against the flow

The present system provides a convenient shield for recruiters when the number of applicants exceeds the number of vacancies. In due course, the wheel will turn. As its shortcomings become apparent this way of doing things may fall by the wayside.

Meanwhile, I would encourage both applicants and organisation to go against the trend and avoid relying on dumb systems – seeking intelligent conversations wherever possible. An interview is a discussion with a purpose that works for both parties.

Individuals should take the initiative, making their own approaches, in order to get in front of a real person where they can make the case about their skills and experience in ways that may not be completely obvious from the CV.

For the employer, interacting with a human being rather than an bland data record adds precision. Crucially, it helps establish the motivation, energy and potential that are key to success. More rewarding and satisfying all round.

Jo Ouston