No Degree? No Problem. How Self-Belief Beats Limiting Beliefs

I was just 19 when I made my first big “transformation”. I didn’t recognise it as such then, though I did know in my second (and last) term at University that where I was wasn’t for me. There was a big world out there and I wanted my bit of it. The French classical authors would have to wait - to be fair four decades on they are still waiting!

But what to do? I didn’t have a particular calling and no apparent skills beyond consuming improbable amounts of Younger’s Tartan Bitter (it was the ‘70s) and having a laugh. A chance conversation with an old school friend was my saviour. He was working in what is now UK Border Force and he recalled me speaking a couple of languages, having plenty to say for myself and being pretty unflappable. They were recruiting – why not have a go? A few months later I was driving my Triumph Herald down the M1 to start a new life at Heathrow Airport.

Many years and many “transformations” later, I was in Japan as a visiting United Nations expert on drug related offending, waiting to give a presentation to Japanese public prosecutors and Ministers. I wondered how that 19 year old or even the 20 something “Border Guard” had ended up here.

Looking back, I realised that experience at 19 had started to open my eyes to what I would come to recognise in later years as some of my best friends: – understanding my transferable skills, seeing the perspective of others and taking charge of those self-limiting beliefs with some solid self-belief. While some of my working life changes have been promotions in the same line of work, most of the big ones have been into areas where I had no previous experience or particular subject matter expertise.

So, how did it happen and what did I learn?

Well I have to admit in the bigger moves there were some surprises. People genuinely were more interested in what I was capable of than what I knew, which came as a shock to someone whose early promotion system involved catching you out on obscure bits of law. And it turned out that I was the worst judge of my own skills because I tended to talk about what I had done successfully rather than what it was about me that had enabled me and those things to succeed. And of course I didn’t have that degree which made me assume everyone else was better educated and therefore better qualified for the job.

I was fortunate to have people at various times in my working life who believed in me and reassured me (and others) that I had something valuable to offer. I guess they were my coaches although we never talked in those terms. I learned from them to focus on what value looked like to future employers and how to describe me and my skills in a way that matched that value. I learned that even the jobs that I hadn’t enjoyed in the past had added to me and that whatever job you do is capable of developing some part of you – if you let it, rather than spend time ranting against it.

I learned that if people were more concerned about whether I had obtained a particular qualification 20 years ago (I recall one conversation with the Chairman of an organisation that started “So what is your first degree in?”) than the skills I had developed since, then I probably didn’t want to work there. It helped me put that demon to bed.

I learned that nearly every job and organisation is about people. The world revolves around how we interact with each other. So by the time I decided to leave the public sector and make my biggest transformation to a senior role in a FTSE200 global private company, I really had worked out that all organisations need leaders, they need skilled communicators, they need relationship builders, they need people with and from diverse backgrounds and histories and they need people who are smart and can get things done. I knew I could lead, build relationships and get stuff done, even if I had not done so in that particular world. And I had abandoned false modesty – I knew I could do it and I knew how to tell my story convincingly.

We shouldn’t be surprised then that we can move successfully between apparently unconnected worlds. My best advice would always be to look at yourself and your history to see what value you can bring, not just record the things you have done. Believing in yourself is crucial but none of this is easy and you might need the perspective of others to help you. This might come from a particularly insightful friend or some professional cv building or coaching.

Many years later I saw the report of that first job interview. It said I was “self-confident but with a pleasant manner, refusing to be flustered in argument or confrontation”. I guess I got lucky. But if only I had worked out what it was they were looking for and how I could provide that, I wouldn’t have needed the luck.

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