"Tell me about a time when you did your work WITHOUT BOTHERING ME!"

Job descriptions are not always the best examples of creative writing. Hiring managers the world over follow the example of those who came before them by cutting and pasting previously used job description content. It is interesting to me that those same hiring managers will complain about the student candidates for the "cut and paste job" who have used a form cover letter to apply. But, regardless of how the job description is put together, there are common requirements that appear time and time again regardless of the function, industry, or level of the position. "Problem Solving" may be at the top of the list.

A quick review of the top companies to work for in 2015 according to Fortune Magazine (see the 2011 list in my other article), shows that they are all looking for this ability in our kids (well, the top 3 are at least...).

  1. Google: Strong problem-solving and analytical skills, with an ability to see both detail and big picture issues.
  2. Boston Consulting Group: The objective of the interview is for us to learn about your approach to solving business problems...
  3. Acuity: Analytical problem solving skills

The quotes for all 3 companies above come from job descriptions for new graduate roles. I did not look too deeply into the mid-career opportunities at these companies but I suspect that we would find similar requirements all the way up to the CEO job. Great, this is the kind of thing our kids can get into. They like puzzles and games and if they are given/assigned a problem they can usually come up with a solution or answer. But is this what the hiring managers are really asking for? Maybe for some situations that are clearly labeled, "THIS IS A PROBLEM, SOLVE ME" but how often does that happen? Perhaps I should step back a second and explain how the hiring manager likely came up with this requirement in the first place. We are talking about the very first one who wrote it down to then be later copied by countless managers into the future. Imagine that it is the 2nd year of hiring at Big Company and the hiring manager is thinking of all the challenges she had with the new recruits from the 1st year. High on her stress list is the fact that she spent 90% of her day running around telling them what to do. Determined not to make the same mistake again she writes as the first requirement on the job description:

  • Able to get their job done on their own without bothering me!

Already she feels better about the future as she imagines all the time she will have to focus on her own overdue projects. Re-reading the bullet point though, she realizes that perhaps it does not sound attractive to students who might be interested in her company. How to make it more appealing...? Since most of the interruptions to her work day come from problems the new employees are facing while trying to complete their jobs, she adds "problem solving". Still, it is not exciting enough so remembering her own college life and how "analysis" was fun and sounded professional, she also throws in "analytical". Thus, the age of problem solving as a specific bullet point in the job description is born:

  • Strong analytical and problem solving skills

What does this mean for our kids? Well, when the various questions related to problem solving come up in the interview, if we can advise our sons and daughters how to answer them they will be a step ahead of the pack. The stock answer to any question related to problem solving is to bring up the assignment (school or work) and explain how they succeeded. However, the better answer, the answer that gets to the real concern of the interviewer, is the story of how our son or daughter not only solved a problem, but also identified it and took care of it without pestering their boss! Identification of the issue is half the problem and if your daughter's boss has to point them all out then she is wasting the boss' time. The nice thing about a problem solving question is that it does not require our kids to have work experience. Everyone deals with problems growing up and we can help our kids to remember and categorize these experiences for use in the job hunt.

By the way, not all the companies on the Fortune list hide what they really want to say in common job description jargon. I think Wegmans, at #7 on the list, states it the clearest:
Able to problem solve, anticipating, analyzing, and identifying problems, responding quickly when situations arise and preventing problems when possible.
My previous article on problem- solving discusses a method for helping our kids develop and apply this skill .


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