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In conversation with Rick Holt

For the inaugural event of the bar, the Warden, Ben Walker, introduced Rick Holt to the stage. Rick has done talks with students in Slems about success and other career related topics previously, but this was to be more conversational and focussed on the progress of his career: from humble beginnings as an undergraduate in Slems, to internationally influential jobs at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and LockheedMartin.

Q: Can you give an overview of your career?

A: I studied engineering at Manchester, with an RAF scholarship. I knew that I wanted to work internationally later, so the RAF was a progress goal on the way to achieving this long-term goal. After graduating from Manchester, I did an international relations course in Cambridge, along with a few Foreign Office courses. In total, I have spent a third of my entire career in training. Following training, I flew in the RAF for 5 years, then spent the rest of my career in signals intelligence.

Q: What has changed since you left Slems (in the 1960s)?

A: Back in the 60s, only 8% of young people were at university. There was less competition for top jobs then because of the limited graduate employee pool. In the modern job market, there is more variety/choice in the job market. However, there are many other similar employees out there, so try to be different. Some advice for young people now is to not be too pessimistic about job prospects, because it is partly easier for you to achieve the job you want.

Q: What do you think about gig economy jobs? (job hopping etc.)

A: It is creating distance between employer and employee, but it is good for people who have just graduated so that they canjob hop, and decide what area they are interested in. It is vital to avoid stagnation in one job, with more automation, there will be less blue- and white-collar jobs available, so be mobile and adaptable (potable pensions are a must).

Q: How to stand out in the job market?

A: Be open to new ideas, try out jobs in the areas surrounding your goal, you might realise that you prefer something different to your ‘dream job’. Explore your opportunities, but in this search, you must remain coherent and have reasons for trying out these adjacent jobs. In business, some Americans view British people as good communicators and excellent at diplomacy, and some Brits view Americans as enthusiastic but demanding business people. This is important when trying to get international jobs as you’ll have to take into consideration how an employer might see you at interview with prejudices about your character. Some employers think of this generation as the “Snowflake Generation”. To combat this prejudice, you can develop yourself with things like: getting at least a 2:1, working on social skills, public speaking experience, and being well-travelled.

Q: How do you deal with stress? And how do you perform under pressure?

A: Divide your life into thirds: work, family/friends, and you. Keep them totally separate, so keep the work in the workplace, e.g. don’t read or respond to emails after 6pm. You need to have some independent hobby in which you can spend time practicing self-care. I admit that there is more stress today than in the past. Travel and enjoy your life, but don’t be financially reckless! And as usual, get enough sleep, minimise drinking, and stop unhealthy habits.

Q: What should you do when applying for your first job?

A: I would advise people to see the job market as a big game of chess; you may be applying for one job now but try to plan two jobs in advance, otherwise you risk stagnation. In some previous interviews I have been too quiet, it seems that nowadays people are looking for disruptive candidates who see things from a different angle. That is partially why GCHQ are employing more autistic people.

Q: Were there any jobs that you found immoral or hard to emotionally process?

A: I have struggled with a few jobs, particularly when jobs in the MOD were 9 to 5 and then I wouldn’t be able to shut off when I was supposed to be spending time with my family, but my mind was somewhere else. In West Berlin I had difficulty when I had 5 different chains of command, in meetings I had to be very careful with my tongue. Thus, being able to compartmentalise things is vital to doing well. Over time I learnt how to do this very well, but it did not always comenaturally.

Q: How important is failure to being eventually successful?

A: It is a fundamental part of challenging yourself, if you never try anything new you will never fail and never progress. Having early failures was easier in the past, but still don’t fearit. One of my friends failed to get into the SAS twice, this drove him to join the SIS, which was much more suited to him.

Q: What was the most stressful job you ever had?

A: On reflection, it was running the signals intelligence team in West Berlin, for the last 4 years of the Cold War. It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. The stress was part of the job, but the unexpected stress that the bosses were putting me under was the fact that if you muck something up, they will be the first people to knife you in the back. Thankfully it all went OK. I enjoyed my time in Berlin (and all the other countries I’ve had the pleasure to work in) by trying to soak up as much local culture as possible, and got to know the people who live around me.

Q: Were there any skills that eluded you earlier, but you have now mastered?

A: Public speaking will always be an area in which you can develop. Some tips I’ve picked up are it’s OK to be nervous, just don’t let it take over. Practice your breathing technique, charisma, clear communication and try to make your voice clearer. To gain confidence in interviews just try to do as many interviews as possible, for practice. Even if you don’t want the job, still do the interview.

Q: How did you adjust to retirement?

A: By 65 I got tired of the stress of work, so I then stopped doing full time work. I got a part time job with Lockheed Martin. I’ve only recently found out how to be “retired”, I try to stay active and in contact with all my friends who are still in the world of work.

Q: Is there anything we should avoid doing at this point?

A: Obviously avoid the cascade leading to jail or the streets. Choose jobs that will be challenging but not so much that you become disillusioned under the stress of the demanding job. If you want a different job to your area of current study, rethink doing a PhD, because you will be seen as someone who made it to 27 without ever working. It will be more beneficial to you to be seen as someone who has worked and experienced various things, and know what they want.

By Alice Codling - on the 04/09/2019


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