When Ian MacRae left high school, he knew he wanted to get into psychology.
He went to the University of B.C.’s Okanagan campus. Then he landed a coveted spot in the master’s degree program at University College London and knocked on doors until he found his supervisor, Adrian Furnham, a leading researcher in organizational psychology.
Furnham is beyond prolific. In addition to writing more than 500 feature articles for newspapers and magazines, and publishing upwards of 40 academic papers annually, he has stacks of textbooks and popular psychology books to his name.
This might help explain how MacRae found himself with orders rolling in as he was wrapping up his first book – High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work –while on a brief sojourn in the Okanagan.
“It stressed me a bit. There were pre-orders before I even finished writing. Pre-orders started in September and the deadline was Oct. 1,” he said.
There wasn’t even a book cover to launch an advertising campaign at that point.
Nevertheless, MacRae can now say the book is headed for the shelves in Europe and North America and he has some very interesting information in his back pocket.
First, it never hurts to find yourself a successful mentor, and second, it helps to have some idea of the elements that help one thrive in a career path. And thankfully, this is what his book is all about.
The controversy on smarts – Are there talented people? Partly, according to MacRae and Furnham.
“There is a component that is talent, but it’s relatively small and needs to be developed,” said MacRae.
“It really depends on what type of domain or career type it i. So, to say someone has high potential, the first thing you really have to say is high potential to do what.”
This doesn’t mean there are different types of intelligence. There are some key components that make for smart people who are likely to succeed, he contends. And that’s not a very popular notion.
This is not a popular idea. If you’ve ever heard of the New Yorker’s popular essayist Malcolm Gladwell, you’ve likely paused to consider his work on how that it takes 10,000 hours to really get good at something. This is not really so, MacRae and Furnham point out.
“Intelligence is sort of a general mental capability that involves ability to reason, plan, solve problems, understand complex ideas and learn from experience,” he said.
“You do need to practice and you do need experience, but someone who is five-foot-three can’t be a high-jumper by practising. And the same is true of intelligence models too.”
In other words, not everyone is suited for every job, MacRae says.
Combinations of traits – There are six attributes MacRae and Furnham focus on when talking about likelihood to succeed. How they are emphasized depends on the job role involved. And what’s good for one job, can be a detriment to another.
Their six include:
Conscientiousness – This refers to goal-oriented thinking, planning and long-term planning. We tend to think of conscientiousness as a good quality, but those who are conscientious are not always best suited for every position. Those with low conscientiousness tend to be more spontaneous and, while they might be late for work, they adapt to new situations well and are often more creative.
Curiosity – It addresses one’s openness to new information and new ways of doing things. Someone with low curiosity is more bound by convention and sticks to their own way of doing things. Those who are highly curious are open to exploring.
Stress – Stress reactivity is the threshold a person has for tolerating stress before it becomes a problem. Those who tend more to the neurotic side are constantly worrying about what others are saying about them and wondering if they are doing things right. Those who can tolerate a great deal of stress can function effectively for a long time with distressing distractions before becoming overwhelmed.
Courage – This is the term the pair used for having an ability to take risks. This is about having the difficult conversations up front, taking risks in one’s one work or, conversely, avoiding it. Those who are low on the courage scale tend to avoid conflict, so they can be a real asset in a collaborative work environment with a defined task.
Competitiveness – A competitive edge is a challenging trait because it can be helpful or it can be a hindrance in a given job. Ideally, someone with a middle of the road approach to competition is most likely to succeed in the average job environment and those who focus on team success are least likely to upset the apple cart. Every once in a while, however, there’s a position where a taste for competition is really just the key to success.
Ambiguity acceptance – is about a person’s capacity to handle complex situations, like sorting through two different versions of events. People who thrive in ambiguous situations can make great leaders, but there are also times when it’s a good idea to find a person who enjoys a really defined, less complex environment.
These are the people who want to have a job, get it done and not have to deal with multiple competing commandments.
The route to success involves figuring out what traits best describe yourself and then matching that to jobs where those traits are really needed.
It’s certainly happened for MacRae. He’s planning a new book addressing generational difference, which he believes should dispel the myth that people of his generation are lazy, entitled and believe they are owed something in the job environment.