Solve the problem, and you’re hired . . .

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Dear matriculants.

You’ve survived 12 years of school. Congratulations. Now, the pressure is on. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?

If you’ve signed up for and have been accepted at a tertiary institution, you've probably been thinking about this for a while.

Or you might now be looking at your results and trying to consider what your options are. Let me give you a hint of what it is like from the other side.

For me, as an employer, I keep coming up with new and creative ways to find prospective employees on whom I am willing to expend time and energy in training. For example, here are some of the questions I've asked recent candidates in interviews:

“You’re on a battlefield during war. You come across an enemy who is badly wounded. Do you shoot him or save his life? Tell us why?”

“Tell us a funny story.”

“China is kicking our ass economically – how do we beat them?”

There is no “correct” answer to any of these questions. The first question is a moral dilemma, the second tests ability to think quickly, the third tests ability to think on a global scale.

In each case, I'm looking for hints of one specific skill: the ability to solve problems.

If you think about it, problem solving is the most basic skill that is required in every vocation and it is not something that can be taught.

Let me give you some real life examples.

Let’s say you're a human resources manager. You've got your diploma, you know the ins and outs of your company disciplinary code, and you know how to fill in forms for the CCMA. You go through to the toilet and find two employees beating each other up because the one accused the other of flirting with a third employee that they both fancy.

Let's say you’re a doctor, you’re called out on an emergency, but you can’t get to your patient because the road is closed for a cycle race.

Let’s say you’re a waiter carrying food and as you’re about to place it on the table, you see a cockroach crawling under the table toward the unsuspecting guest.

Let’s say you’re a baby sitter. Your charge locks him or herself in the bathroom. You hear glass breaking inside the bathroom.

I make these points because in each of these cases, you have been hired to do a particular job and find yourself unable to do so because you’ve come across a situation that is completely unlike anything you might have learned from a textbook.

But in each of these cases, there is a reasonable expectation on the part of the person paying for your services that you will find a solution.

This, dear matriculant, is the single quality that I look for in any employee – the ability to find solutions to problems.

If I have hired someone to do something and I get told “it can’t be done”, I've wasted my time and money. No employer wants a person who is going to throw up his or her hands and do nothing.

Problem solving has got nothing to do with how many distinctions you received in your matric exams. It does, however, require you to think about everything you encounter every day and try to understand what’s going on.

So don’t stress too much if your grades went awry. I have a friend with 7 A grades and a PhD who remarked earlier today about herself: “I should probably have studied economics and become a financial analyst and made fat bonuses and bought a nice house.” (She lies. She has a very interesting life.)

Instead, pay heed to Michael Jordaan, former FNB CEO-turned-entrepreneur, who made this comment: “Advice to matrics: travel, learn another language, learn to code, start a small business, think for yourself.”

It’s a succinct set of guidelines, which I echo because each of those was pivotal in enriching my life.

Good luck.