Q&A with Paul Allen, author of The Ethical Careers Guide: How to Find Work You Love
Paul Allen is a journalist, editor, careers expert, and the director of Lark, a specialist content agency. He currently writes for the Guardian, and has worked with numerous organisations including the BBC and Macmillan Cancer Support. Here, he discusses the best ways to seek out your ideal job, and gives us a preview of his forthcoming book.
What are the top skills that companies are currently seeking? How can candidates demonstrate these?
It’s competitive out there – and candidates have to find qualities that will really make them stand out. I think you should always remember that a job adverts only reveal part of the picture – and you should research and ask as much as possible about the organisation to fill in the blanks. Remember that the employer isn’t just recruiting for a particular “role” – they need someone who can solve a particular problem in the organisation. So you don’t always have to be the most qualified or experienced person to be the best candidate; if you can show them you’re someone who has the energy and intelligence to think about the world from their perspective – and solve their problems – you’ll immediately impress.
Do you have any tips for the more introverted jobseeker?
First, there’s nothing wrong with (and often a whole lot right about) being introverted. If you’ve not read Quiet by Susan Cain, that’s a good place to start. Watch her TED Talk too.
The problem is that introversion can hold you back – especially in the job market if you have a short amount of time to make an impression. It’s good to remember that, even if it’s not your natural territory, you need to be the energy in the room; it’s (unfortunately) not just about having the best ideas. If you’re not a natural extrovert, you’ll need to work a bit harder on that part – but the more you practise, the more comfortable you’ll be in interview situations. Finally, check out another great TED Talk by Amy Cuddy on positive body language, which is about faking it until you make it. Remember that these are just tactics though – and there are many brilliant qualities to being an introvert.
Do you have any tips for students who are undecided about their career path? How can they find their ideal career?
If you’re starting out, think about the kind of difference you want to make, what matters most to you, and how you like to work – the situations where you feel like you do your best stuff. The smartest advice I’ve received was to keep making decisions. Unless you’ve always wanted to do something, it’s rare to find the perfect career first time round – and that’s okay. The concept of ‘jobs for life’ doesn’t really exist now, and the more you experiment when you’re younger, the better you’ll know what you do and don’t like.
How should jobseekers go about scouting the ‘hidden’ job market?
Be entrepreneurial. Most jobs aren’t advertised, and employers are always aware of the problems they have before anyone writes up a job advert. Get organised, research the kind of organisation you’d like to work for (LinkedIn is useful), and get in touch with people directly. You’d be surprised how amenable often very senior people are to someone just asking for their advice over a coffee. You may inadvertently hear about a potential role, or find a mentor along the way, who can fight your corner.
We’ve heard that you run the copywriting and content strategy company Lark. Can you tell us a bit about how it was founded and built up?
I originally studied languages at university and worked as a translator in Germany for a bit. But I always wanted to write my own copy, so retrained as a journalist, freelanced for a few years and ended up as an Editor at the BBC. When I left six years ago, my partner and I started Lark to work with the kind of organisations that inspire us, and have a better work-life balance. Our big break was co-writing the Sustainability Strategy for the London 2012 Games (when it was still just the two of us). Since then, we’ve grown the agency and worked with lots of brilliant companies and charities along the way, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Kew Gardens and the Prince’s Charities Foundation.
How did you find and secure your first job (in the field you were interested in)? How did you made a good impression?
That would be becoming Editor of BBC Green, a digital sustainability project run by BBC Worldwide. I could prove my passion and credentials as I’d written about social enterprise and environmental issues as a freelance journalist for a few years, and I’d also written a book called Your Ethical Business – a start-up guide to ‘creating a company with a conscience’. I didn’t actually have too much digital experience at the time, but those were practical skills I could pick up quickly. It was more important to show I understood the (many) challenges of talking about climate change to the general public, and had lots of ideas on how to do it better.
Your latest book, The Ethical Careers Guide: How to Find Work You Love, comes out later this month. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it written from experience?
It’s a practical guide aimed at helping people find careers that aren’t just about making money. We spend a huge amount of our life at work, and I think we should do everything we can to find careers that we really love, and which make us proud. The book helps you how to understand where to focus your energies, and shows the incredible number of ways you can find a job that has a positive impact on other people or the planet. From charities to for-profit businesses, there are more options that you’d think.
I’ve always been inspired by people who’ve found work they love, pursuing careers that really make a positive difference in the world. I’ve interviewed lots of them over the years – and many are in the book, sharing the decisions they made, and the advice they’d give to graduates.
It was a personal project too, as I almost had a big career change – towards working in conservation. I soon realised, though, that I wasn’t a biologist at heart, and my passion was for language and writing. The most rewarding (and effective) thing I could do was to help those organisations committed to positive social and environmental change to communicate better. If The Ethical Careers Guide had been around at the time, I might have realised that a bit quicker!