The Top Skill Most Job Applicants Don’t Have

According to the 2011 Society for Human Resources Management Poll that addressed recruiting and skill gaps, the following percentages of HR professionals indicated that job applicants lack skills in these key areas:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving: 54%
  • Professionalism and work ethic: 44%
  • Written communications: 41%
  • Leadership: 39%
  • Teamwork and collaboration: 36%
  • Verbal communications: 36%
  • Information technology application: 30%
  • Creativity and innovation: 25%
  • Lifelong learning and self-direction: 21%
  • Ethics and social responsibility: 19%

The one item on this list that will catalyze your professional career is critical thinking and problem solving. You can possess just about all the other skills on this list and be an “exceptional employee,” but it is critical thinking and problem solving that will catapult you into the realm of game changer and solutions provider that hiring managers value highly. Critical thinking and problem solving encompass not just an ability to reconcile quantitative challenges and task-focused skills, but also people-focused and self-focused skills.

Today, more employers and hiring managers are seeking candidates who possess “executive intelligence,” not just leadership and personality. But being able to assess so-called executive intelligence has proven difficult because, outside of IQ tests, no such standardized assessment exists, though IQ tests do a good job of predicting managerial success more than any other assessment. But high scores on an IQ test by academicians does not guarantee brilliance in the corporate world because it’s a different type of intelligence. Hiring managers can’t tell just by reviewing a résumé whether someone has business or executive intelligence because most candidates emphasize duties and responsibilities rather than achievements and accomplishments that contribute to higher strategic objectives.

However, for hiring managers to predict a candidate’s ability for success in a particular skill, they first must examine the cognitive knowledge that candidate possesses that directly influences success with that activity in a business context.

Nearly every type of work can be divided into three basic categories, each with dependent sub-skills: (1) getting work done (task focus); (2) cooperation between individuals and other functions (people focus); and (3) personal behavioral flexibility (self-focus).[1] Table 1 is a detailed breakdown of the sub-skills that comprise these categories.

Table 1. Three Categories of Work and Associated Sub-skills

Task-Focused Skills People Focused Skills Self-Focused Skills
Identify and define problems along
with their immediate and secondary
Acknowledge and anticipate how
different perspectives can lead to
different conclusions
Reflect on honest feedback that
identifies errors in decisions and
adjust accordingly
Foresee obstacles to solving
problems and create alternative
Be aware that others may have an
agenda different than your own
because of different priorities and
Be aware of your presuppositions that may limit your perspective and temper your thinking and actions with this awareness
Review the soundness of your underlying assumptions before working toward solutions Anticipate different responses by individuals to actions or communications Don’t hesitate to acknowledge errors in thinking or actions or implement drastic courses of corrective action
Rephrase in your own words the pros and cons of the arguments of others so that you are working from common context Avoid focusing on issues or positions peripheral to the central one(s) that is at the heart of disagreement or difference Communicate the critical errors or weaknesses in the positions of others while recognizing any strong suites
Understand the knowns, the unknowns, and the best approaches for acquiring the missing information needed to move forward Anticipate probable and possible unintended consequences from any course of action Know when to resist objections and to hold fast to a sensible, reliable course of action
Explore all viewpoints to uncover any possible unintentional results from implementing any action Stakeholder management requires an awareness and balance of different requirements
Approach projects with a sense of ownership, which is a quality mindset–a get-it-done-right-the-first-time attitude Maintain a desire to help others succeed without expectation of anything in return the same way a candle loses nothing to light another Maintain an attitude of being self-employed regardless from where that paycheck comes; it is an empowering attitude that will be recognized by the right people
Approach projects with a sense of urgency, which is a purposeful, resolute focus to getting things done Maintain a sense of the graceful exit because your reputation will continue to linger in the hallways and cubicle neighborhood for some time after you leave a company

Modified after Menkes, Justin. “Hiring for Smarts.” Harvard Business Review, November 2005 pp 1-11.

[1] Justin Menkes, author of Executive Intelligence (HarperCollins, 2005) refers to three categories of managerial work as: (1) accomplishing tasks, (2) working with and through others, and (3) judging oneself and adapting one’s behavior accordingly. I see these as basic categories of work at all levels, not just managerial.

Read more about critical thinking skills in my White Paper, “Critical Thinking Skills and Business Intelligence: What Hiring Managers Look for In Experienced, Professional Candidates” at

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