As a teenager, Neil Cowieson had a passion for science and a keen desire to help people. A growing interest in how people tick, led him to study psychology and now, as Senior Human Resource Consultant within The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited, he applies rigorous scientific analysis to the business of understanding people at work.
A chartered industrial/organisational (I/O) psychologist, he says that his work is often confused with psychiatry. "When I tell people what I do, the most common response is 'so you know what I'm thinking, right?'"
However, the field of I/O psychology has little to do with mind-reading. Instead, it is concerned with the objective measurement of people and the application of the resultant data to optimise organisational performance. "It's all about identifying talent and facilitating 'fit' between people, jobs and organisations," he says
"It's a specialist field, with a limited supply of qualified candidates. If you choose the right organisation you can progress quickly"
I/O psychologists' activities include skills assessment, psychometric testing, interviewing, job analysis, competency development, appraisal programmes, executive coaching and career transition work. Whilst Mr Cowieson now works as an in-house specialist, psychologists might also move into academic research or generalist HR roles, work as HR consultants, or specialise in training and development, recruitment or career transition.
For those passionate about the profession, success can come quickly. "It's a specialist field, with a limited supply of qualified candidates," he says. "If you choose the right organisation, you can progress quickly."
His is a case in point. Five years after qualifying in the United Kingdom, he was appointed general manger of SHL Hong Kong, an international leader in HR assessment and development. A year later, he expanded operations to include mainland China and Taiwan and became managing director - greater China. Ultimately he became vice president - international business development, prior to moving to his current role within the bank.
"Organisations now need to implement standardised people solutions across the world," he explains. "Technologies are a driver. For example, when an organisation launches an online recruitment portal, they may want to offer standardised assessment tools globally. That's where psychologists can come in. We make sure that personality assessments reflect the cultural differences of each country and measure exactly what they are supposed to."
A professional career path
Whilst career paths vary, most graduates begin as junior consultants or executives and support senior staff on a wide range of projects. They may learn to administer psychometric tests, conduct structured interviews, write assessment reports or act as assessors in an assessment or development centre.
With experience, psychologists move up to senior consultant or executive, with greater responsibility for key account management, business development and project coordination. In a senior role, they are responsible for the management and development of a team and, ultimately, the profitability of the business or department.
Hard work and consultancy skills
Mr Cowieson is frank about what makes a successful psychologist: "It takes sheer hard work to succeed. When running an assessment centre, we often work from 7 am until 10 pm. We put candidates through a range of assessments during the day. In the evening, we collate the data to make a hiring recommendation. It's fun, but it's not a good profession for clock-watchers."
What else? "In both consultancy and in-house roles, psychologists need to build strong relationships with clients and business managers, so professionalism and credibility is essential," he adds. "You need to be able to listen, probe and understand your client's needs, so that you can propose the most appropriate solution."
Analytical ability is also essential: "I/O psychology solutions are founded in scientific research," he says. "However, psychologists need to be business-focused. There's no point in being academic if solutions are not acceptable to clients at the front line."