You Really Did Learn Everything in Kindergarten

Glassdoor’s annual list of the “25 Best Jobs in America” would lead you to believe that all you need to succeed in business today is a degree in computer science, statistics, accounting, or math. Undoubtedly, the list, heavily dominated by tech and finance careers, will send thousands of anxious students (and their parents) to career counselors seeking ways to add a technology minor to their liberal arts credentials. I hope these same parents and college students will think twice before they start tinkering with degrees, majors, certifications, and graduate school. Maybe it’s my own liberal arts background talking, but I believe the business world is a lot more nuanced than this list suggests. Let me explain.

Every year, I review more than 20,000 resumes and talk with more than 1,200 people who are looking for work – technologists, accountants, environmentalists, association executives, HR professionals, and editorial assistants to name some of the roles we’ve filled this year. Additionally, I interview dozens of hiring managers about what they are looking for in the perfect employee. As shocking as it may sound, a rock solid set of competencies is important, but it’s not the only thing that gets you hired in today’s marketplace. Often, how well you play in the sandbox is equally as important.

Robert Fulghum popularized a credo twenty-five years ago in his timeless book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which still speaks to me today. His list includes a variety of rules for living that if followed would make our world a much more palatable place to live, work, and play. Like Fulghum’s list of life lessons, a person develops an EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), a combination of the social graces, communication, language, and interpersonal skills that enables him or her to build relationships with others both inside and outside the workplace. Unlike whether or not you can design a pivot table or write an Access database, these qualities define an individual’s character and can make or break whether or not she will be hired or how far he will progress in a job, company, or field. As today’s employees are pressed into increasingly diverse workplaces and faced with difficult challenges requiring innovation, flexibility, and creativity, they and their managers might spend more time thinking about what worked for them on the playground and less about their formal training.

1. Empathy and Cultural Competency. Today’s workplaces are much less hierarchical and more collaborative. Gearing up to contribute effectively requires empathy – the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Further, being able to acknowledge where a colleague or manager is coming from and being able to articulate how that point of view dovetails or conflicts with your point of view is extremely important. This goes beyond tolerance to connection. If you can’t connect with your employees or managers, it might be time to think about what’s off. Are you feeling stifled or are you stifling others? It didn’t work for Archie Bunker back in the 1970’s and its certainly not going to work in 2016.

2. Critical Thinking. Solving problems is a lot more than resolving an issue, settling a dispute, or making a customer happy. Resolution requires an individual to get up underneath a concern and figure out what is really happening. Asking questions like: ‘Why are customers buying A and not B?’ and ‘How do I fix that bug so it never happens again?’ are indicative of an individual’s ability to think holistically, to analyze situations from different angles, to recognize patterns, and to apply those patterns in other seemingly unrelated areas of the business. Occasionally this thinking goes from preposterous to profitable. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. The best example of this is FedEx: the business Fred Smith founded on the basis of a paper he wrote as an undergrad at Yale.

3. Adaptability. Failure is inevitable. If you are not failing, you are not learning. Adaptability is the ability to recognize failure and adjust to it. It requires mental agility, which means the ability to be comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity. Developing a heightened tolerance for what you don’t know and the ability to adjust what you do know in light of new evidence are the cornerstones of this trait. Of course a healthy dose of humility – accepting the fact that you might not know everything – and the willingness to clean up your own messes, including learning how to apologize effectively –ask Amy Poehler – are icing on the adaptability cake.

4. Intellectual Curiosity. Many school systems nationwide are taking on as their mission the creation of lifelong learners. I like the sound of that especially when I’m in a meeting with hiring managers and someone says, “this may sound crazy” or “I’m having this wild idea” or “did anyone hear that?” Having the ability to wonder out loud about something and being able to draw in references from another context not only shows creativity, it also says that the environment is willing to support someone who wants to challenge conventional thinking.

I became a recruiter because I am passionate about workplaces and how work gets done. I love helping hiring managers find great people. I love working with candidates to make good decisions about where they want to use their talents. I am constantly weighing skills and fit, competencies and soft skills, workplaces and cultures. As you make your decisions as a hiring manager or as an employee, don’t overrule those things you know in your heart of hearts. Sometimes those lessons you learned in kindergarten might just be your “secret sauce.” Live long and prosper.



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