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Case study

Finn was an MBA student with a background in the telecoms industry initially at engineer level and rose up through the ranks to a project management and implementation role, managing large-scale roll outs in remote territories including Central Africa and the Pacific Islands. Whilst he had made a firm decision to make a career change to consulting and he had the benefit of a sought-after global background in a growing industry vertical, Finn's biggest career challenge was to choose the right firm to match his career aspirations and sell himself within the cultural fit element. With an overall mental toughness score of eight and scores of eight on challenge, life control, and interpersonal confidence, Finn worked with his career coach to identify that his preference was for an environment where he could make an impact early on, express his ideas freely and have a platform to do so as well as shape his own work pattern to carve out a career path. On further investigation, they drilled down to discover that he was keen to display his credibility and build on experience to join at as high a level of possible and had full confidence in his ability to transfer the knowledge and skills he had gained as well as recognising that there was always room to learn more (verified by a confidence in abilities score of seven). Finn was keen, through his experience working in developing economies, to find an opportunity that could deliver positive social impact. On joining Hult,
Finn's plan was to join a “big name” firm such as Bain or McKinsey, but through matching these aspirations with insight gained from information and mentors provided by the school, Finn was able to identify that the lock-step career paths of the larger and more traditional strategy houses would not meet his criteria for non-hierarchical structure and the possibility to build a career within his own time frame. He also recognised that in order to start out at the highest level (thereby satisfying his need to be recognised as an expert and display his credibility) he needed to find a firm where his telecoms background would be of use. Finn narrowed his search down to mid-sized firms with strong Media and Telcos practices and on graduation received an offer from GSMA the global telecoms association, project managing the mobile money for the unbanked initiatives and working alongside colleagues with experience at McKinsey, Bain etc.

By working with his coach on mental toughness, Finn was able to objectively evaluate his career aspirations free from his views of what an MBA graduate “should” do. In the process of understanding these goals, mental toughness became increasingly valuable as an independent tool to unpack previous role dissatisfaction and assure that the next role would fulfil both technical and personal preferences.

Once students have identified the most appropriate path for them, the key to differentiation in a tough market is to be able to articulate skills and experience in a way that is distinct from other candidates and clearly demonstrates the added value that you can bring. This is a difficult task for career changers and new market entrants who do not necessarily have a direct experience. As part of Hult's research activities through Hult Labs2 we have interviewed over 200 CEOs and Directors of Fortune 500 companies to understand what they want to see from business school graduates. Having identified MBA skill sets as “knowledge-heavy”, these senior decision-makers value particular skills, and more importantly, behaviours within this talent pool. Of the ten key skills and behaviours identified by this research3 all can be influenced and articulated through the lens of mental toughness. Some are obvious (communication, comfort with ambiguity), others are less immediate. For example, business school students are called on for sales skills in a wide variety of areas beyond the traditional sales role, whether this may be gaining buy-in from top management for a change initiative or negotiating deals and terms with suppliers. By examining their mental toughness profile a candidate may be able to identify that their
success in consistently delivering against targets results from a strong mental toughness score in the areas of commitment (characterised by being excited by measures and goals as well as a clear understanding of what success looks like) and emotional control (characterised by being able to build on positive results and not be derailed by failure). With coaching from a careers adviser they can learn to weave this knowledge into their personal branding and interview preparation so that the bland statement “I have a good track record in delivering against goals” can become much more detailed, for example, “I've always found that I am able to deliver over and above my sales goals and on a sustained basis. This is because I find very definite measures of success very motivating, I know exactly what I have to do to meet them as well as being able to use my balanced view to objectively understand obstacles and not let them put me off when deadlines are tight. As a result I build a strong vision of what exactly needs to be achieved and am not distracted from that goal”.

Other behaviours that have been identified as vital for business schools are self-awareness and integrity. Whilst both are difficult to measure and articulate, again, mental toughness provides a useful vocabulary for this. Integrity can be linked to a high score on life control where a candidate recognises the impact of their actions and takes full responsibility for them. It could also be articulated through a high commitment score which is characterised by the ability to see something through to its conclusion.

Another element of mental toughness is the placement of candidates on a spectrum with positive and negative outcomes at both extremes. Whilst a high score on emotional control is often valued for its evidence of calmness and “grace under pressure”, overuse can result in a lack of engagement with others and being perceived as a “cold fish” which will not work well in some environments. At a basic level this is a great aid to tackling the perennial strengths and weaknesses question. In this case and example may be of a more sensitive emotional intelligence score. A candidate may acknowledge the weakness element by disclosing that they “wear their heart on their sleeve” and can be seen as passionate or too emotionally connected to their work. The key in answering this question is to demonstrate self-awareness, showing that you not only understand your flaws but also their impact on others and furthermore a willingness and ability to adapt to mitigate. In this way, the same candidate that defined sensitivity on emotional control as a weakness can use the behaviours identified at the mentally tough end of the spectrum
to demonstrate the benefits of this position (authenticity and rapport building) as well as working with a coach to identify and implement interventions to demonstrate the highest level of self-awareness.

At Hult, the complexity of cultural diversity makes the need for an objective and common language to articulate skills and behaviours even more important. This is not only to balance cultural bias towards self-promotion or self-deprecation (typically those who underestimate their strengths find framing their conversation in terms of “this is what an objective assessment has shown about me” as more comfortable and less arrogant than the sense that they are simply asserting how great they are) but also to provide a useful discussion point with colleagues which allows them to calibrate their skills amongst their competition. It also opens up discussion around the workplace culture in the student's chosen location (which is typically not their home country) to better equip them for the process of changing location.

When positioned as part of the full career services offering at Hult, we have discovered mental toughness delivers a vital element of objectivity and holistic explanation and exploration of preferences and approach, providing differentiation and motivational support to young people at a period of change, high investment, and anxiety. As mental toughness becomes more widely used across Hult's global campuses and across different disciplines within career services and academics, we expect it to provide a common language and competitive advantage to our students.

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