Career guidance counsellors, Ragnhild Struss and Jalée Gheiby spoke to Sandra Stein about how career counselling can help people to recognise their own inner potential, and why it’s so important to repeatedly question your goals.
Ragnhild Struss is the founder of the career consultancy Struss & Partner. Along with her team, she advises school leavers, students, graduates, professionals – both entry-level and experienced – on questions of professional and personal development. What kind of course or degree programme is worth pursuing? Which professional fields should I explore? She also offers executive coaching, and supports people in finding the right career path for them.
The key to their process lies in getting to know each individual’s strengths and talents, and how those potentials might be best put to use. Struss & Partner assist people in answering two fundamental questions: what is my innermost purpose and how can I use it most effectively?
I spoke with Ragnhild and her colleague Jalée Gheiby about finding purpose, what for them constitutes a career, what young people need to do to develop a fulfilling career, and why it is so important to constantly question your own personal and professional goals.
Ragnhild, people come to you to find their inner purpose. Can this initially be independent from one’s career?
Ragnhild: Indeed it should be! We advise: sit down with yourself. Get to know yourself and figure out the direction in which you’d like to develop. For us, personality is not just composed of your characteristics. Your personality is significantly influenced by your motivations, your life’s purpose and for example, your values or beliefs.
These have to be completely detached from your current job, because when you analyse yourself from the outside in, you come from a perspective of what the market could provide and which positions are available. The probability of errors is extremely high because it’s so unlikely that you already know all the potential jobs out there. Thus you restrict yourself from the beginning.
Jalée: This is also a topic that we commonly discuss with the parents of our young clients. Parents often raise questions about whether it’s sensible to follow up a certain profession. But this is precisely the approach we choose not to take. When you know what really suits you, then you’ll find a job that suits you too.
This approach gives people a lot more responsibility for their own careers. Do you think that everyone is capable of dealing with such a direct personal responsibility?
Ragnhild: I believe that it poses a new social responsibility. I think that the whole education system shouldn’t just be geared simply towards equipping students with knowledge, but should also focus on teaching the ability to self-assess and self-observe. It’s about sharpening their emotional intelligence. Repetitive tasks can be taken over by computers or intelligent systems., but soft skills cannot be so easily replaced. Thus, there’s a great need to catch up on these. Every individual must understand that soft skills are also competencies.
Do you feel that something has changed in the years you’ve been offering career counselling? Is awareness different now?
Ragnhild: Totally. However, it hasn’t only changed for the better. It’s striking that young people are often enormously insecure. They are worried that they won’t find a job, are overwhelmed by the range of possibilities, and have the impression that they should be better in order to achieve anything. When I started 13 years ago, these weren’t central themes. At the same time, some people who contact me today have a lot of self-confidence and say: “I would like to do something, where I can further develop myself’. This is great progress.
Another change is that things that would have once been really important are moving into the background, like intelligence. Previously, intelligence would have been the best predictor of professional success. Today, we know that you can’t make such a sweeping statement, because depending on the profession, different skills are needed.
It’s also a question of how one defines intelligence, whether it’s drawn from a high logical capacity or from a particular sensitivity.
Ragnhild: Exactly. And so you have to teach people to confidently distinguish this. In our work, we see that there is a social contract in which we make clear: individualisation means that you have to have the courage to stand by your inner strengths, and asserting your authority when dealing with other people making use of your talents. By authority, I don’t mean in the sense of suppressing, but in the sense of self-confidence.
“…individualisation means that you have to have the courage to stand by your inner strengths and talents”Ragnhild Struss
You say that young people at school should be supported in self-observation and self-assessment. Have you seen any progress there?
Ragnhild: Yes I do, because schools are extremely results-oriented. You have to already be skilled in order to recognise what your strengths are. What we tell young people in our consultancy, and take to heart everyday in our private lives, is not to look at what you are already good at, but to search for underlying talents. What is the source of these strengths, and can we tap them differently? Often, when it comes to ourselves we are downright blind!
The second step then is to think of possibilities. What can you do with your strengths? And this means that you have to be more open to many options, because many people are put off when they don’t have the right training or equivalent experience. In addition, people are extremely interest-driven. We alert people to this, because interest always implies opportunity. Your hobbies are shaped by the way you were socialised, where you went to school and what your friends do. A hobby that might be perfect for you may not be on your radar at all if no one you know does it. Therefore, instead of existing interests, we look at what might interest a certain character in the long-term. What could become burning passions for you?
You advise many young people, especially those from the so-called Generations Y and Z. Through your work, can you confirm the impression that these generations have higher professional demands, and increased expectations of work-life balance? To what extent do they differ from their parents’ generation or the one before?
Ragnhild: I think particularly when it comes to the “Soft Facts” of a job, these generations are much more demanding than their parents. In earlier days, it was a case of “Arbeit ist Arbeit und Schnaps ist Schnaps” [“Work is work, and booze is booze”, i.e. don’t mix business and pleasure]. There was a clear boundary between work and freetime. Generation Y no longer makes this distinction. For them, this is just life. Therefore, the demand for work that helps one evolve personally has increased significantly.
“Joy and depth of understanding […] don’t just come from enjoyment, but also from developing endurance, perseverance, patience and tolerance for frustration.”Ragnhild Struss
Is that a problem?
Ragnhild: Yes. It is especially problematic for them. In many ways, this generation is very fun-oriented and sometimes see hard work as a sign that the job is not right for them. People quickly start to think ‘it’s no fun, so it must be the wrong job’. We try to work on this strong consumerism, on the idea that you need an external stimulus and that this demand should be placed on your job, and to communicate that productivity can come from within yourself. Joy and depth of understanding of a particular topic don’t just come from enjoyment, but also from developing endurance, perseverance, patience and tolerance for frustration.
Do you think this generation is less able to deal with conflict?
Ragnhild: I would much rather say perseverance, because conflict management, in my opinion, depends on the individual’s character. This is less about generational tendencies and more about individual traits. Can I distance myself when things get unpleasant? Do I have the courage to clearly formulate my own ideas, even when I’m fighting against a headwind? But it is true that the willingness to change is much higher, because the unfamiliar holds a lot of charm for this generation.
Are there any problems related to this high willingness to change?
Ragnhild: Yes. People leave as soon as something gets unpleasant instead of recognising the potential to learn. We call these “Avoidance Careers”. However, what one shouldn’t forget is that there are always difficult parts of every role, regardless of the job. At some point one must ask oneself if the reasons lie within oneself and if there’s a chance for personal development.
How can you work when you have this strong impulse to leave?
Ragnhild: The first thing is to become aware of it. Secondly, you have to keep in mind the goals that you want to achieve. Initially, every behaviour serves a certain survival or coping strategy. In most cases, you learn that the goals you want to reach simply don’t fit with this kind of behaviour. Most patterns develop very early in life. Maybe I learned during my childhood that it’s better to put on a good face for parents, rather than just arguing against them. For my current goals, different approaches are probably more useful.
So this means that you have to continually set new goals, and then decide on the best methods to help you achieve your objectives?
Ragnhild: This is exactly what we mean by career development: re-positioning again and again. Take the time to ask yourself: ‘am I still satisfied or not?’. It always goes back to the principle of responsibility to yourself.
“‘Career’ means ‘I am developing my personality and unfolding my potential’.”Ragnhild Struss
“‘Career’ means ‘I am developing my personality and unfolding my potential’.”Ragnhild Struss
Jalée: We all know people who go through life in frustration. The question is why are they so frustrated? It’s probably not because their boss is stupid and the company sucks. But perhaps they just no longer fit into it.
Do you make it clear to people when something really isn’t right for them, even when they’re completely convinced?
Ragnhild: Definitely, it’s our duty as career counsellors to hold up an honest mirror. If everything in life were good and clear, there would be no need for career consultancy. If you’re in a job that’s completely terrible, or you’ve sent out 100 applications and have received 100 rejections, then you have to start thinking. In the face of all psychology, ultimately it’s about productivity. Nobody is bad at everything, so it’s important that you find what it is that you are good at. Everyone is super at something! And I feel that everyone has the right to do what they do best. And I’d ask everyone to internalise this: the perfect place for you exists! I am 100% certain of that.
So you tell people there’s nobody who can’t find something they can do well and someplace that suits them. That there is a place for everyone – one just has to find it!
Ragnhild: Correct. For us, ‘career’ does not mean ‘I am becoming richer, greater, more powerful’. ‘Career’ means ‘I am developing my personality and unfolding my potential’. The aim is to make conscious decisions about your work and your life that are in harmony with your own personality.
In the startup-scene, employees are frequently expected to work independently and to set their own goals. Do you think that this is also the case in corporations or SMEs? Or do they need to catch up?
Ragnhild: Natural development takes place as the next executives grow from within the new generation. That means they place demands on themselves and their employees, that possibly corresponds more with the values of the younger employees. I think however, that traditional companies are in need of a complete re-think. The work of tomorrow will not be the work of today. In the future, P2P business will be the clear focus. You have to look at who occupies a position, what they can do well and where they can be further developed.
So has the balance of power changed, not only when it comes to finding a job, but also in how a company maintains its staff?
Ragnhild: Absolutely! But the question is also: do you need to keep employees at any price, or might they be useful for you in a subsequent role? Maybe you should think not only in terms of retaining people, but in developing them.
This is exactly our approach. As an employer, you have to empower your employees. You have to give them as much freedom, and make them so good that even though they could go elsewhere, they – as long as it makes sense for both sides – stay with you.
“That’s my motivation: I want to raise people’s potential. I want people to see what is special and great about them, because I believe that will have a huge impact socially.”Ragnhild Struss
I believe that it’s better for you in the long-term when you prioritise people, because as an entrepreneur you not only have a responsibility to your product and company. You also have a social responsibility. Ultimately, it’s about networks. It’s not about ‘within my company/outside my company’. No. You develop networks with people. That means that, for example, it can be amazing for an entrepreneur when your employee founds a company themselves. Then it’s advantageous if you have a good relationship.
Ragnhild, alongside your work at Struss & Partner, you have recently started Be Brilliant, a web app for personal development. At the moment it’s still in Alpha, but the Beta is coming in autumn. Users can get an online analysis of their personality. What drove you to develop this?
Ragnhild: I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I believe that the world will be a wholly better place when everyone can understand themselves. When one can act consciously, and understand where one’s motivations come from, one can communicate better with others. You learn to see where others are vulnerable and can react morally.
“…comparing yourself to others will not help you to define your goals. The point is not to check out photos of other people’s cool lives on Facebook and Instagram, but to turn your gaze inward.”Jalée Gheiby
I think that when one has the chance to help other people to think about themselves and to shape their dealings with other people, then you’re not just helping the individual, but also society. That’s my motivation: I want to raise people’s potential. I want people to see what is special and great about them, because I believe that will have a huge impact socially.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who is searching for new professional prospects but still don’t know where they should direct themselves?
Jalée: First you must know that comparing yourself to others will not help you to define your goals. The point is not to check out photos of other people’s cool lives on Facebook and Instagram, but to turn your gaze inward.
Ragnhild: And give yourself time for it. Many people believe that it’s really easy to find your ‘inner calling’. It’s not. Treat it as its own project, that you need to put time and energy into.
Jalée: It is all about tackling it in a structured way. For example, in an old job I went through exactly this phase and – unusually for me – I sat down with a pen and paper to create a mindmap. I wrote out what I liked about my job, what I didn’t, and what else could possibly suit me. When you see it all in black and white, the mess in your head doesn’t seem so intimidating.
Ragnhild: Exactly. View it as a process, that you have to work for your insights and that it’s not something that you just naturally come to. Secondly, it’s important to talk about it. Talk to people that you admire. Ask them for help with your external assessment. Finally, the third step is to create opportunities. If your goal is, for example, to find a new job, when you have to throw your hat in the ring. You have to go to job fairs and read the literature surrounding the area you want to get into. You have to create a reality.
And how can one create realities?
Ragnhild: Someone put it beautifully: ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity’. When I can imagine a way, then of course it’s cool if I’m already on the right road.
Jalée: Professionally, moving to something new can mean for example that you take on a side-job as a backing performer, or as a cable-runner on a TV show, if you’d like to move into film. You have to meet the right people, and that means you have to be where they are!
Ragnhild: We have also had people who had amazing careers already, but they had a desire to undertake some personal development or analysis. They often say at the beginning: ‘I have had a lot of luck’. That might be true, but they were also capable of grabbing the chance! To get there, I have to know what my vision is, what motivates me, and what suits my personality. Then, I can create my own opportunities. And then you have everything you need to create that luck. Ultimately, it comes down to believing in possibilities. To trust that life can show you its best side, and that you deserve it.