Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Problem-Solvers - The world's most attractive employers and what they want

In my previous article, The world's most attractive employers and what they look for in our kids, I listed the competencies that the top 10 companies require from new graduate job seekers.  High on the list and present in almost every company was Problem-Solver.

Your child does not need to be a genius to be a good problem-solver.  Problem-solving can be a process.  There are countless interview questions designed to assess our children's problem-solving skills.  Ultimately, they all look for one thing.  I often hear an interviewer explain that they are not looking for a "right" answer.  In most cases, the facts are irrelevant.  What the interview wants to know is whether our daughters and sons have a method or analytical approach to problem solving and can be creative about it. Preparing our children with a methodology should take care of this question easily enough.  Actually, many college students can and do learn about this in their senior year and fake it in the interview with a reasonable hope of successfully fooling the interviewer.   But there is another aspect of problem solving beyond the hypothetical world of "what if" questions like, "What if you had to move the great pyramid from Egypt to Arkansas, how would you do it?"  Questions like this look for methodology, however a question such as, "Give me an example of your problem solving skills." is geared towards results.  It is fine if our kids can come up with innovative solutions to problems but in the corporate world it will be the person who carries it through that gets the promotion.  Wouldn't it be great if our kids could learn how to approach problems logically, analytically and consistently and then build in a habit of following through?  They might find that this methodology is more than just a means to get a job but a tool that they can use every day.

Here is a method I like.  It is fairly simple and therefore easy enough to explain to a 6 year old.  It also includes the key element of execution at the end.  Too often, recognizing the problem and coming up with a solution is where the process ends.  We should teach our children to take that final step and implement their ideas.  Certainly there is a risk of failure but that should be part of the lesson as well.  Making mistakes is all part of the process of improvement.

  1. State the problem - stating the problem obviously means identifying the problem first.  Using the 5 "Whys" approach is another easy method to teach.  Start with whatever is going wrong and ask "Why?".  To whatever the answer is, ask "Why?" again and continue through another three "Whys" until you have an idea of the basic cause of whatever is broken.  That is the problem now state it.
  2. What are the possible solutions - or in other words, brainstorm.  There are a thousand and one methods for brainstorming and they can all work.  The basic idea here is to come up with a lot of different solutions that our kids can then choose from.
  3. What will happen if I try each one (positive and negative consequences) - choose the more promising solutions from the list and imagine how they would work or not work.
  4. Pick one to try first and do it - self explanatory?  If it doesn't work try another one.
Having a method or framework to fall back on will make it easier for a child to tackle an otherwise intimidating challenge.  The other added benefit to teaching our kids problem-solving methods early on will be the increase in self confidence they gain from being able to... well, solve their own problems.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The world's most attractive employers and what they look for in our kids

We were job seekers once ourselves and even with all our years of experience to draw on, most of us may still be unsure as to what interviewers are looking for when they interview and screen a new graduate.  Someday, in the not so distant future, it will be my son or daughter heading off to their first interview or sweating over an online application to their dream company.  What if we could look into the future and see what they will need?  If, for example, we could get a list of requirements from their dream job now so that we could help our kids develop those skills and competencies.  They are not going to be able to learn Spanish the night before the interview so we should start teaching them now, right?   But how do we know that Spanish is going to be the tool that makes the difference?  What if it is Italian or Japanese or C++?!  

The truth is that we don't know for sure.  There are so many jobs and companies in the world with a host of specific requirements that it is impossible to prepare for all of them.  However, there are more general attributes that cross job and company boundaries and will be valuable to our kids in their applications and their careers afterwards.  These we can work on. 

Fortune magazine comes out with the 100 best companies to work for each year.  The companies are chosen through an employee survey with the minimum requirements for inclusion being at lease seven years in existence and more than 1,000 US employees.  I am going to make an assumption here that the requirements to work for the top 10 companies on the 2011 list will be similar to what top companies look for in 2021.  I am also going to assume that our kids will probably want to apply for the companies that are considered the best to work for.

While researching this article, it was interesting to note the similarities among the top 10 but also the differences.  Not all companies required a college degree. Wegmans and Nugget Markets for example had jobs available for high school graduates. All of them required some ability to deal with technology.  Microsoft Office knowledge was the most common brand name software referred to and was required by almost all of the companies.  Not a single one mentioned speaking a foreign language either as a requirement or as a plus.  I am not sure what that says about the future of America's competitiveness in the world.
Counting down, number...

10. Dreamworks (Film Studio)
The makers of Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon are looking for energetic, dedicated, resourceful kids who are full of ideas.  They expect solid foundational skills in whatever area they have focused.  They also prefer candidates who are professional, organized, self-motivated, confident, proactive, and excellent communicators. 

9. REI (Retailer)
REI also wants graduates who can communicate effectively with others.  They look for people with the ability to exercise sound judgement and display initiative. Given their niche, they also like kids with an interest in outdoor activities. Teamwork and problem solving round out their requirements. 

8. Nugget Market (Supermarket Chain)
Nugget seeks a strong work ethic and candidates with a dedication to provide world class service.  Given their business it is not surprising that they also want someone who is outgoing and friendly.

7. Camden Property Trust (Property Management)
A strong attention to detail was right at the beginning of the list of requirements for Camden. I pulled this next requirement as is from their website as it was unique among the companies on this list, "Be able to apply common sense understanding on a continual basis to determine actions and priorities."  Excellent interpersonal skills, the ability to handle stressful situations, emotional stability and personal maturity were clearly required.  They also want a self starter and team player who has strong communication skills and is honest, reliable, accurate and enthusiastic!

6. Zappos.com (Online Retailer)
Zappos wants people who are passionate about customer service (I am not sure how they screen for that though). The ability to adapt to change and problem solve were also high on the list.  Related to customer service again, they require friendliness, and excellent communication skills.  Zappos was the only one to use the phrase "sense of urgency" and they also specified "Internet savvy" as a need. Time management, ability to meet deadlines and multi-tasking added to the image of a high paced work environment.

5. NetApp (Data Storage)
NetApp requires strong oral and written communication skills (anyone surprised to see this one again?). The other requirements were: the ability to work collaboratively within a team environment, a strong aptitude for learning new technologies, and a creative approach to problem solving

4. Google (Internet)
While all companies require a transcript for new graduate applicants, Google makes it mandatory for any applicant applying within five years of graduating from university (grades matter). Google values talent, intelligence, group spirit, diversity, creativity and idealism.  These are all tough to judge.  They also like to see awards and references along with concise, important details on specific accomplishments and the impacts those accomplishments had.  Problem solving ability is a big one along with leadership and communication style.  Lastly, the candidate should also show their passion for Google.

3. Wegmans (Supermarket Chain)
Wegmans at #3 took a simpler approach.  If the candidate has an entrepreneurial spirit, potential for leadership, can work well in a team, has demonstrated problem solving skills and is a self-starters, they are hired. 

2. Boston Consulting Group (Management Consulting)
The top consulting firms have a reputation for only hiring from the best universities and looking for high GPAs.  For the purpose of this article, I focused on BCGs softer requirements.  Skills they look for are: observation, judgement, decisiveness and problem solving.  Someone who is curious and cares about their work is attractive to them.  Demonstrated leadership and the ability to be persuasive will help.  Finally they look for achievements whether in school or a pre-graduation job.

1. SAS (Business Analytics Software)
And the #1 company to work for in 2011, SAS!  I imagine that by now you could write the requirements yourself.  SAS does not deviate from the pattern set by the previous nine companies.  They are looking for graduates with the ability to learn and work independently.  They want proactive problem solvers who are analytical and can multi-task and of course, people who can communicate well.

The conclusion?  To get a job, our kids will need to be great communicators who are also mature, confident, proactive problem solvers and work well with others.

No problem!  Now that we know the goal we can focus on how to get there.  Look for upcoming articles on all of the above. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Teach your child to negotiate win-win solutions

I think that kids are born with innate negotiation skills.  They don't seem to hesitate to ask/beg/plead/demand their own way and they are quick to jump right into deal making on almost every issue.  Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Dad: Time for bed, let's go.
Son: Aww, can't I stay up a little later tonight?
Dad: No, it is a school night.
Son: OK, let me just watch this one more commercial on TV, I really like this one!  The dog on the scooter is so funny!
Dad: No, come now or tomorrow night bedtime is 30 minutes earlier.
Son: Fine.  I just need to get a drink [as he heads toward the kitchen].
Dad: [blood pressure rising] Hurry up!
Son: What if I promise to go to bed early tomorrow night, can I stay up later tonight [moving back towards the couch]?
Dad: Stop arguing with me and go to bed!

That last sentence is the one I want to eliminate from my repertoire.  Not that it is undeserved but rather that it is re-enforcing the idea that when someone in authority tells my son to do something, he should just do it.  "Don't ask questions, go directly to bed."  Don't misunderstand, I am not promoting democracy in the house, that is just silly.  Mom and Dad are still in charge but I think there is a balance where the kids can retain some independence and still be obedient.  One rule we have made is that the kids can ask "why" or try to make a deal only AFTER they have done what they were told to do.  Try it at your house and let me know if it works.  I think we succeed with it about 50% of the time.

Looking through a list of negotiation techniques, I can see three right off the top that my son and daughter are already using: 1) Asking for more than they expect, 2) Using drama (they are great actors), 3) Never take any rules as set in stone.  We as parents are bigger, stronger and most of the time smarter than they are.  We hold all the cards.  If they are going to get anything out of us they need to learn some techniques and the ones above very likely came from trial and error, beginning at an early age.  Cry (drama) and Mommy gives you a bottle. Once they know it works our kids will use it every time.

Despite the frustrations involved with negotiating with a 5 year old, there are many benefits to helping our kids develop some skill in this fine, ageless art.

Negotiation benefits in school (grade school, high school, college).

Now, hard work and study are important.  We want out children to learn whatever is being taught in school as it is probably going to be useful to them someday in the real world.  But what happens when they are faced with a grade they think may be a little unfair.  As with any negotiation where your child will be starting from a weaker position (the teacher does not have to change the grade) it is important for your son or daughter to control their emotions.  Crying and throwing accusations at the teacher will not work.  A well reasoned and prepared argument may help to raise that B to a B+ thereby keeping the overall GPA above the range where many companies will make an arbitrary cut.  It never hurts to ask.

Negotiation benefits when interviewing.  
Merriam-Webster defines Negotiate as: to confer with another so as to arrive at the settlement of some matter.  That sounds like a job interview to me. Typically when we hear the words job and negotiate the salary discussion is what immediately pops to mind.  I tend to believe that for a new grad entering the workforce, salary should be the last criteria they consider for a new job.  As long as it is not slave labor they should be looking at the learning opportunities they will receive which will in turn allow them to boost themselves up to a better job later.   The advice for a good negotiation is easily applied to a job interview.

  • Be prepared!  This one should be tattooed on the back of every jobseeker's hand.  
  • Try to build trust with the other party. 
  • Don't be emotional or take things personally.  Many times and interviewer will test a young candidate with a put down or outright insult and getting beyond that to the real issues will help our kids to pass.  

Negotiation benefits at work.
While this and my other articles are mainly about preparing my kids for getting a job rather than what they will need to do afterwards, there are many skills that will carry over into the workplace and the ability to negotiate is certainly one of them. There are also many books already written on negotiations for business.  The one I read and liked in grad school was Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

While Getting to Yes was a great book, it might be a little too much for a 5 year old.  A good start to negotiation training for our kids is to explain to them what it actually is and is not.  Negotiation is not arguing or demanding or forcing someone to do something.  It is two people working out a mutually satisfactory agreement or win-win situation.  After the definition it is up to us to take advantage of each learning opportunity as they arise.  Kids (at least mine anyway) do not seem to enjoy lectures so explaining about the need to prepare before negotiating and to remember to consider the other person's needs will be met with blank stares and mindless nods.  But, the next time my son asks if he can go out to play before doing his homework I can send him back to his desk to prepare his pitch.  That, he will remember, especially if I let him go out afterwards.

Here are a few other techniques to keep in mind the next time a learning opportunity presents itself:

  • Remain calm, don't get emotional or let it become too personal.
  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Timing (Don't ask for something when Mom is on the phone).
  • Be prepared to compromise.
  • Ask and understand the other party's needs.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stressed about your career? Guess what, your kids are too.

Stress.  Work life balance.  Pressure. Driven.  Achievement.  Success!  Every day we are inundated with these words and others like them.  They are in articles and on the news and at schools because of how socitey pushes us and our kids to compete more aggressively (success) and then inevitably forces us to deal with the side effects (stress).  Unfortunately, the negative side of this equation seems to be more prominent.

An article in the New York Times stated that college freshman in 2010 were more stressed than ever. http://nyti.ms/f7luBU.  In the 25 years that they have been conducting the survey of over 200,000 students, the results show record low feelings of well being among new college students.  The article also goes on to say that these same stressed out students are also rating themselves as more driven and ambitious.  While drive and ambition are good things for the most part it seems there is a lack of education or preparation for our kids on how to manage the pressures the modern world throws at them.

At a meeting of HR professionals this month the question that was foremost in manager's minds was how to promote balance in the workplace.  The common response to this issue was that it has to be top down.  Management has to take the lead in setting an example.  This is true also at home for our kids.  Unfortunately, in the workplace even if the management encourages their staff to head home early, the promotions at the end of the year will still go to the employee who worked harder and longer and therefore achieved more.

Fighting to improve the work life balance of workers around the world is a noble goal but in the meantime we can help to prepare our children to meet the inevitable stress of life and work.  Teach them how to manage it and in the best cases, use it to motivate themselves.

Managing stress and dealing with stressful situations is a critical skill in the workplace.  It can also come in handy in an interview.  While a normal job interview is a stressful situation for most people, the stress interview is even worse. Techniques involving speed, anger, disappointment and even disgust are used to put our kids on edge and see how they handle it.  In an interview situation such as this when the hiring manager has just told your daughter that her answer was the worst he ever heard, it will be fantastic if she can respond calmly and assertively.

Our kids can feel stress from the day they are born.  Infants are hit with something new and strange and scary almost every day.  Fortunately if they have someone to pick them up and hold them they can get through it.  It is amazing how many stressful issues our children deal with every day.

   1. Homework, tests and grades
   2. Being different from other kids (bigger, smaller, etc, etc)
   3. Social (being part of a group)
   4. Death (their own or a loved one)
   5. Separation (from parents or friends)

And the list goes on.  We cannot control all the situations in our kid's lives and they are going to be confronted every day with something that causes stress.  As our children get older though they are often told to "stop crying" or "act their age" thus taking away one of their most basic forms of stress release.  This has to occur at some point if our kids are going to function in our society as it would be considered strange for a grown man to break down crying in his office when someone told him his budget request is declined.  But, we should give our kids new methods to manage stress.

Stress was mentioned in my previous article about grades.  In the article I listed 4 ways to identify that our child might be stressed.

   1. Change in sleep patterns
   2. Change in eating habits
   3. Easily annoyed
   4. Social withdrawal

I would like to add a few more that I have come across:

   5. Stomachaches or headaches
   6. Moodiness
   7. Nervous habit (nail biting)
   8. Refusal to go to school (may also be an indication of bullying)

What can we do?  Number 1 on the list is "Listen".  Not just to the sounds that are coming out of their mouths but really listening to what they are saying.  If we can give our kids a safe place to come and release the frustrations of the day they can start the next one refreshed.  While listening we can try to refrain from jumping in to solve their problem.  We all know what they should do since we are grown ups and have been through it all but it is important to let them get it all out.  Once they have finished, ask them what they think they should do.  They will need to solve their own problems some day.  Remember to watch them while they talk.  Let them know they have your full attention.

Deep breathing is one that you can teach them to do on their own.  Counting to 10 (forwards or backwards) also falls under this category.  This will help your son or daughter to slow their heart rate (a considerable achievement in itself) and hopefully give them a chance to give a little more rational thought to whatever is causing the stress.  It can sometime help to role play a stressful situation with your child so that they can practice their response in a safe environment.

Physical activity is a great stress release for kids and adults.  Exercise decreases the "stress hormones" and increases endorphins (the good ones).  Even a moderate walk can help.  If you make it a habit to take a walk with your son or daughter after dinner it may also offer opportunities for them to talk about something that would not have come out while sitting in front of the TV.

There is much more information available about dealing with stress both online and through doctors and guidance counselors at school.  I would love to hear if anyone has methods that work.  We cannot eliminate stress from our children's lives but starting early and teaching them the skills to manage it will be a gift that keeps on giving!