Despite being fundamental to effective leadership, recruiting future leaders with adequate problem-solving skills is surprisingly difficult.
Complex problem solving is an essential leadership skill. Leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman recently surveyed over 300,000 managers and found it was the second most-important competency for effective leadership (next to inspiring and motivating others). The 2016 OECD Survey of Adult Skills showed that complex problem-solving is critical for fast-growing, highly skilled managerial occupations. Company recruiters polled last year by the Financial Times consistently rank the ability to solve complex problems among the five most important skills of MBA graduates.
Yet, despite being fundamental to effective leadership, recruiting future leaders with adequate problem-solving skills is surprisingly difficult. In surveying organizations that hire MBA graduates, Bloomberg Businessweek found that the second-biggest skill gap recruiters faced was with candidates’ creative problem-solving skills. Another survey of company recruiters showed the biggest skill gap in new college graduates was in problem solving and critical thinking.
Technology To The Rescue? Not Likely
Organizations need effective problem solvers, but they’re telling us our business schools and universities are failing to meet this need. Such training is critical because, for most of us, problem solving doesn’t come naturally. Research shows a host of pitfalls trip us up: we’re quick to believe we understand a situation and jump to a flawed solution. We seek to confirm our hypotheses about solutions and ignore conflicting evidence. We view challenges incompletely through the frameworks we know instead of with a fresh pair of eyes. And when we communicate our recommendations, we forget our reasoning isn’t obvious to our audience.
Technology is unlikely to remedy the situation anytime soon, if ever. Most analysts believe the rise of artificial intelligence and other new technologies are likely to place an even bigger premium on human problem solving. For example, the World Economic Forum predicts that 36 percent of all jobs across all industries will require complex problem solving as one of their core skills by 2020—by far the most important skill identified in the study.
A Management Consultant’s Raison D’être
What can be done to close the problem-solving skill gap facing leaders and their organizations?
One place to look for inspiration is an industry that exists to solve some of the most difficult problems organizations face – management consulting. In fact, the lack of problem-solving skills in corporations can help explain why so many of them rely on consultants.
For a management consultant, solving problems that are outside of the day-to-day job of their clients is the day-to-day job. Consulting firms, such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain, exist to solve business problems and convince clients to act on their recommendations. McKinsey, for example, employs some 10,000 consultants globally and hires around 3,000 rookies every year, and views problem-solving as the most important skill for success in the firm.
Transforming Rookies Into Professional Problem Solvers
Consulting firms therefore take problem-solving skills very seriously. Hiring teams strive to assess the problem-solving skills of applicants using anxiety-inducing “case interviews,” in which bright young candidates must demonstrate their analytical prowess.
But raw intellectual horsepower isn’t the only ingredient. Strategy firms turn rookies into trusted advisors partly by teaching them structured and robust problem-solving techniques. These include deductive, top-down analytical approaches such as issues trees and hypothesis pyramids, and inductive, bottom-up approaches associated with design thinking. The rapid succession of client engagements presents new consultants with challenging problems on which to hone their skills. The best firms provide a combination of formal training and on-the-job coaching to raise the problem-solving game of their staff.
The focus of consulting firms on equipping their professionals with structured methods for solving complex problems doesn’t just reflect the tried and tested wisdom of practitioners. The value of such approaches is also supported by research in cognitive and industrial psychology. When we face non-routine, complex business problems, we need reasoning skills that apply across domains of knowledge. We also need to harness expertise and intelligence and overcome our powerful temptation to jump to ill-informed solutions. Research shows that a disciplined problem-solving method along with a set of tools for each step of the process can greatly increase the quality of solutions. While the idea of a structured and generalizable problem-solving process may not sound exciting, the guidance and discipline it provides can give leaders the confidence and ability to crack the problems that matter most to their organizations.
Business Schools Step Into The Breach
This realization has recently led business schools like HEC Paris to create problem-solving and communications courses and the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University to develop an integrative, problem-focused MBA core curriculum. We have taken an active role in these efforts, as well as co-authoring the forthcoming book Cracked it! How to Solve Big Problems and Sell Solutions Like Top Strategy Consultants (Palgrave MacMillan). This experience has taught us that problem-solving methods can be successfully taught and applied outside of consulting – provided they are adequately adapted to suit the needs of managers.
Like all skills, problem solving cannot be learned simply by taking a class or reading a book. It requires practice (ideally in teams) and greatly benefits from feedback and coaching. But, like all skills, its fundamentals can be learned. It’s time to make teaching them a core part of management and business schools’ curricula.
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