For Superstar Employees, Hire Critical Thinkers

By Tom Harnish on 4 February 2011 (Updated 8 March 2011) 0 comments
Photo: AdamGregor

There are few tasks for a small business owner that are as important as hiring a new employee. There are also few tasks that are as frustrating. A bad choice can be a colossal waste of time at best, or a threat to your company's survival at worst. But do it right by hiring someone really good, and that person could become the star of your show.

But there’s a problem. Many potential employees haven’t learned the skills necessary for success — theirs or yours. That's not a "these kids today" gripe from an old grouch, it's a fact.

A recent study followed more than 2,000 college students from 2005 to 2009 at 24 different U.S. colleges and universities. What the researchers found was that many college graduates leave school without critical thinking skills or the verbal and written communications skills that used to be the essence of a college education. 45% of the students didn't improve their reasoning or writing skills at all in the first two years of school and 36% hadn't improved higher-order thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) by the time they graduated. Those that did improve, on average across the group, only went from the 50th to the 68th percentile.

The Skills Employees Really Need

They aren't what you may think. Sure, if you’re hiring a truck driver, he needs to be able to back up an 18-wheeler; if you’re hiring a programmer she needs to know the programming languages you use. But those are what are called “content skills.” What you need to look for are core competencies.

In his best seller, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need — And What We Can Do About It Tony Wagner says there are seven crucial skills to look for:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Tasks and information peculiar to your business can be taught, but fundamentally, what you need to find are people who can ask the right questions, think, and communicate.

Schools are drilling kids to regurgitate the right answers, but there are no right answers in business. Besides, managing and dealing with change is perhaps the most important talent anyone can have today. In a global economy, with an accelerating rate of technological change, you need to be able to do things that have never been done before. And that means your people have to be able to think.

How to Find Critical Thinkers

How do you find candidates who can make decisions and evaluate actions? Ask them. Job interviews aren’t your opportunity to brag about how well you know your business. They’re your opportunity to find out if the person in front of you can make plans and see alternatives, form a hypothesis and defend it, or think of reasons why that hypothesis might be wrong.

Tell potential employees about a business problem or opportunity you face, real or hypothetical, and ask what they’d do. Ask them to explain why they decided on the approach they chose. If you think they might be a keeper, ask them to email you a three-month plan for what they’d do if you gave them a job, real or hypothetical.

If they can’t look you in the eye and carry on an intelligent conversation, if they can’t put together a plan and maybe a PowerPoint outline for it, how will they work in project teams or interact with customers? If they can’t communicate with you or other people, how will they find out what they need to know in a rapidly changing world?

Today, when information is only a Google search away, you need someone who can do more than just repeat something they’ve learned. When was the last time, for business reasons, you’d wished you’d learned more algebra or calculus or history? But you probably have wished you could explain something better, write a more convincing letter to your bank, or create a more compelling presentation. You probably have wished you were better at solving problems.

Find someone with those core competencies, not just content skills, and you’ll have a superstar who can make your business shine.

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