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John Bennett at SchoolofThought.life, a speaker at Generation CFO Live, explains the importance of identifying employee motivation when it comes to business success

After 20 plus years in financial services recruitment and HR, John Bennett, founder of SchoolofThought.life, knows a thing or two about human psychology, having worked across recruitment and HR where he took an all-together different approach to his roles.

“My first year as a recruitment consultant back in 1997 when CVs were still sent by fax, was the best rookie year anyone had ever had,” he recalls. “I excelled in my role, which I put down to my natural inquisitiveness and curiosity. I took the time to get to know each candidate’s motivations and needs.”

Despite his beginner’s success, his approach hadn’t met with everyone’s approval. Frustrated over a run-in with his boss, John left to set up Genesis Partnership in 2001.

John’s new business was built on supporting, mentoring and coaching both candidates and clients. “Often, there’s a mismatch between what an individual wants and the actual reality,” he explains. “Clients may want something that isn’t available on the market or a candidate may have unrealistic expectations, so you sometimes have to have conversations managing the differences. You learn more when you ask questions and actively listen.”

John’s person-centred approach may be unusual in a sector driven by automation, which is why he believes it’s all too easy to forget the human side. And that, he insists is what businesses need to remember. “We’ve seen a massive acceleration in technological and digital advancements over the past year and businesses are investing in automation to improve efficiencies. Yet many are forgetting that organisations are built on employees, so there’s a real danger it could be detrimental to the point where people become data.”

Want to learn more about digital transformation and how to get your
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In John’s view, technology is advancing quicker than it’s being adopted and understood. Without people, he says, it’s academic what technology can do. “Skills and knowledge should be valued and the need to allow people to bring their best selves to work takes on greater importance.”

John’s way of doing things may have ruffled a few feathers in his early days in the financial recruitment sector, but he doesn’t regret his methods.

“I never felt putting a candidate in a job without finding out about their motivations and expectations first was very ethical,” he explains. “I cared about getting to know our candidates, finding out about their motivations and drivers and what they’re ultimately wanting in their career.”

John’s business was ultimately successful, thanks in part to his person-focused approach. Then, in 2013, he and his family moved to Dorset, but major flooding three months later all but ruined their new house. The financial implications as well as the difficulties working remotely within a primarily London-focused industry had a knock-on effect on his recruitment business. By 2015, John says he had sunk into a deep depression and he decided to close his business and refocus.

Given his person-focused mindset, moving into HR seemed like a natural progression, although not before a bit of soul-searching first.

“It was a very dark period for me,” he recalls. “I ended up working for several companies with toxic working environments.”

John pushed himself to embark on a series of coaching and HR qualifications including CIPD and Action for Happiness, after finding his recovery in the great outdoors, running and cycling. A chance meeting with a Texan Icelandic fisherman during a charity cycle during this period taught him two valuable pieces of wisdom which made a big impression on him.

“He said ‘wisdom is only wisdom if you are ready to hear it’ and if you want greener grass, water your own. So I did.”

Realising it was the time and space to think that enabled his progression, John set up his current business in 2020. In other words, he watered his own grass.

SchoolofThought.life is the culmination of years of experience in the financial services recruitment sector, his personal experience with depression and the subsequent years of research he spent learning about the human psyche, behaviour, mental fitness and human motivation.

Learn more about mental fitness in the workplace, here!

In fact, one of the most valuable lessons John learned early on in his business was about the assumptions he’d held about motivation. “I’d assumed wrongly that everyone was motivated by money,” he recalls. “I offered great salaries, packages and excellent commissions and then expected my employees to work like I did – long hours and focused. It just wasn’t the case. Looking back, I realise it was a naïve assumption and people are more complex. And moreover, motivations change through the course of one’s working life.”

John believes motivation ‘under pins everything’, from people’s behaviour to decision-making. “That’s important in a workplace setting, because if you’re not motivated or driven to get up in the morning, it doesn’t matter how good you are at something. The motivation needs to be there.”

This is the focus John brings to his business at SchoolofThought.life, creating a positive company culture built upon psychological safety, engagement, values and individuals’ motivations.

“I help support businesses to create a business culture where employees can thrive,” says John. “Schoolofthought’s ‘thinking space’ bridges the gap between coaching and therapy, whilst focusing on opening communication across all levels. Traditional coaching can be seen as privileged as it tends to be performance-based, whereas therapy, although widely available, is typically reactive. The provision I offer sits between the two. I help employees realise their own true potential by supporting their personal development and emotional fitness.”

In a world where the pace of technological change is faster than ever, the human-centred approach has never been more needed.