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Making your own luck with a little help along the way

We all need a little bit of luck to kick off our careers. Mine came shortly after leaving university when I received a mystery email from the No. 10 Strategy Unit. The unknown sender wanted my comments on a report that would be presented to the Prime Minister the following week. I did the obvious thing - I replied telling her she had emailed me by mistake, and I attached my CV in case she had any jobs going.

A fortnight later I had a job as a policy advisor in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and got to work with some of the most impressive people I have encountered in my career. My luck was that the person who sent the email was trying to reach James-hyphen-Morris at Hotmail, and at the time, I was James-underscore-Morris.

I remembered this story last week when I spoke at a PRCA event for graduates considering a career in communications. The lesson I drew was that, while it can be tempting to think your career is determined by your talent, the truth is that luck makes a huge difference. 

The good news is you can influence your luck. In the words of Samuel Goldwyn, “I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more luck I have.” If you work hard you are more likely to be in situations where you can be lucky, and you will be better able to take advantage of good fortune when it arises.

There is no escaping the fact that hard work takes time. But hours alone are far from the most important thing. What you do those hours matters much more.

A simple example is putting a CV together. One fellow panellist at the PRCA event said he received 800 CVs for a single graduate job opportunity; but only a small fraction had decent spelling and grammar or said anything that showed more than a cursory understanding of the job. The majority of people applying obviously hadn’t worked hard at their applications. It doesn’t matter how many they send off, or how many hours they spend emailing them, they have no chance of getting the kind of job they want.

Once you have an entry level job, the onus is on you to make decisions about your career. Work is not a conveyor belt where you automatically progress. You need to make choices. In my case it involved shifting industries several times, sometimes taking pay cuts so I could move to jobs that fit my long-term plans. It can be tough going, and takes resilience. It also takes kindness, humility and honesty. People want to work with people they trust.

However talented or hard working I am, it is ridiculous that my career hinged on someone mistaking an underscore for a hyphen – a stroke of pure luck. And it is unfair too, because luck is not randomly distributed. The world of work is tilted towards people who are lucky enough to be able to do internships, pay for post-graduate education or know people who know people.

So there a huge task for employers to reduce the importance of luck. Companies, particularly those with scale and resources, need to take active steps to encourage applications from a diverse pool of applicants who lack the good fortune to be born with a leg up. When firms receive those applications, they need to be careful of filtering them based on ‘cultural fit’. It is fine to think there are basic values employees should share; it’s not fine to think new recruits should be like the people already in the building. Once people are in, it is important companies have flexible working policies and anti-discrimination policies that allow them to maintain and strengthen diversity.

Our Edelman Open initiative is part of our efforts to do just that – an entry level programme that removes the need for a traditional CV and instead asks potential candidates to answer two creative thinking questions as part of the application process. Because we know it’s more about how you think creatively and problem solve, than where you grew up or went to school that allows us to bring the best solutions and teams to our client challenges.

We were proud to have over 500 applicants for this year’s scheme, reinforcing the deal firms can and should offer: if you have talent and work hard, we will help you achieve your ambitions.

If you’re interested in applying for our Open scheme, the next application period will be live from October 2020 to early Jan 2021. More details will be available our website, so stay tuned!

-James Morris is Managing Director in Edelman’s Corporate practice in London.