The key to lifelong employability? Be a problem-solver

Be the solution for any company by developing problem-solving skills. This attitude won't just increase your employability for the first job, but the fifth one too.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

Clayton Christensen is one of the world’s experts on innovation and growth and has written many books on the topic of disruption. One of his most frequent recommendations is that companies — and for the purpose of this piece, people — should define “the (most important) problem to be solved” and then go ahead and solve it. As a worker, there are two problems that if you solve, can offer you the chance for lifelong employability.

Problem No. 1: Figure out how to solve the problem(s) of the company you want to hire you.

This is the same advice I give to college freshmen as well as workers who are looking to be employed for life. Sure, it’s great for you to have interests and passions. I’m not advocating that you aim for a job or career that you hate.

However, I have seen too many people who followed interests and passions that did not mesh with their companies. Then 10 years later, when they couldn’t support a family or even themselves financially, those interests and passions were not able to override feelings of foolishness, regret, and embarrassment. Their peers passed them by, doing things that the world needed and wanted enough to pay for and pay well for.

Therefore, whether you’re a freshman entering college or a worker needing to find a better job, identify the industry that you would most like to be working in (you do at least get to pick that based on your interests). Next, identify the jobs most in demand, and that will pay the most. In this economy, look for sectors that are facing a shortage of qualified workers. Then pinpoint the tasks that such a job requires and the associated skills to perform them. Finally, set out to not just learn those skills, but excel in them.

Why commit to excellence? Because excellence in any field is rare and people notice it more often than not. Even people who don’t follow basketball or football or golf will be impressed by the overall excellence of a LeBron James, a Tom Brady or a Tiger Woods.

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Becoming excellent at skills and a job that companies are most seeking to fill, will not only add to your credibility but even create a mystique about you that can result in your being sought out for your entire career.

Years ago, investor and executive coach extraordinaire Mark C. Thompson interviewed former General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt on the secret to getting promoted (or fired) faster. In retrospect, Immelt should have followed his own advice.

In the video, Immelt advised people to focus on the job they are doing as if they’ll be doing it all their lives. If you’re a dishwasher or valet parker, be the best dishwasher and valet parker you can be. Immelt explained that too often people become distracted by moving on to the next thing instead of being the absolute best — i.e., excellent — they can be at what they’re doing. He was also implying that you should become focused and excellent at what you do because that will get noticed more than people who are always distracted by where they want to go next.

Problem No. 2: Finding the company that is interested in the problems you want to solve.

This is the challenge and downside for college freshmen and workers who exclusively pursue their interests and passions. You can do that, love doing it and be excellent at it. But, if you don’t solve a problem that anyone cares about, you will be like that tree that falls in the forest and doesn’t make a sound. Or, less figuratively, you will be that person in the unemployment line with special interests, passions, and skills that will never be hired.

That might be okay for you if you’re willing to live the life of a starving artist. But if you never find gainful employment or appear unemployable, you cannot afford the luxury of pursuing your interests and passions without any success. Instead of lifelong employment, that can lead to lifelong depression.

Here’s how to solve both of these problems.

First, become excellent at solving the problems that companies most need to be solved. Then when you do that and people are impressed with your being capable of excellence, they will be more open to other things you do, because they believe that you will be excellent at those too. If that happens, you get to pursue the career of our dreams.

Stephen Covey in his iconic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, advised, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”

By analogy, if you first seek to be excellent at solving the most challenging and demanding issues for a particular company, you then have the chance of their being interested in what other problems you can solve. Your company may ask you to solve the problems you care about the most, making you a valuable employee that is ready for the long-run.

Join the Conversation: How should workers align their passions and interests to the working world? Tell us your ideas on our Facebook page.

Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

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