A-students need not apply: Aligning the outcomes of education and enterprise
By Juliette LaMontagne, Chief Learning Architect
The mindsets and skills required to discover and build new growth at large enterprises are often at odds with those that drive business as usual. So finding the right kind of talent to lead new growth is among the top challenges that Fortune 500 companies face in their fight to stay relevant amidst disruption from up-and-coming startups. But the enterprise talent problem is indicative of a larger problem inside the educational institutions that are generally trusted to prepare young people for the modern workforce.
A well-documented culture of high-stakes testing has left the vast majority of college graduates unprepared for an increasingly entrepreneurial workforce (McKinsey Report). The entrepreneurial mindset is characterized by tenacity, adaptability, lateral thinking, and a tolerance for ambiguity. It draws heavily on critical thinking skills and creative, collaborative problem-solving.
Because these skills are hard to teach and even harder to measure, schools default to content standards and standardized tests. And because what gets measured is what gets taught, schools persist with didactic methods and siloed disciplines. The result is graduates with vast amounts of decontextualized knowledge and little experience in applying it to real-world problems. Our educational institutions, from kindergarten to college, are places where children learn how to take tests rather than learn how to learn.
Leading new growth initiatives in an enterprise requires entrepreneurial grit. Entrepreneurs are often misfits who speak candidly, have a low-threshold for bureaucracy, and are not motivated by traditional incentive programs. Classic “high-performers” are fast-tracked for leadership roles but are seldom the best bets for building new businesses, despite their advanced degrees or years of industry experience. They thrive on predictability and mitigating risk. They get promoted for being right when what actually drives new growth is a willingness to take a non-consensus view and risk being wrong.
In an attempt to strengthen their workforce with the skills that matter most, top-performing companies build training programs, corporate innovation labs, and in-house accelerators. They support a $150 billion-dollar recruiting industry in an effort to identify and attract competitive candidates. But the pool of available entrepreneurial talent is shallow.
Most importantly, they learn that–counter to their training in school–failure is productive learning.
Solving the talent problem requires educational institutions to be better aligned with the outcomes of an enterprise. Industry leaders can use their influence with institutions and policymakers to reform curricula, integrate new learning goals, and prepare students for the modern workforce. For example, Houston Next is a strategic civic design developed by local government, industry, and educators working in close concert with a shared purpose.
Unfortunately, existing grassroots partnerships that bridge the divide between schools and companies are generally relegated to Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and fail to be utilized as a potential talent pipeline. But we are starting to see development in this otherwise underutilized space between education and enterprise. A number of alternative education organizations like Breaker, Pencil, Build and others think differently about learning outcomes and how they align with the needs of the industry. Breaker (where I’m a board member) challenges teams of students to solve industry-relevant problems with triple-bottom-line business solutions. For example, The Future of Food challenge resulted in a brand concept called Ugly Fruit: a line of products created from fruit tree seconds not suitable for market. Breaker works with local industry sponsors like Pacific Foods to frame a growth opportunity and then leaves it to the students to investigate and determine for themselves the problems worth solving. They learn to differentiate customers’ wants from needs; they generate creative solutions to problems; they work collaboratively to build and test them; and they cultivate the skill of disagreeing while still committing, as a team, to difficult decisions that move the work forward. Most importantly, they learn that–counter to their training in school–failure is productive learning.
Cultivating this type of talent needs to be a joint venture between industry and education. Young people need relevant skills and mindsets to build careers in an unpredictable economy; the world’s largest enterprises need a new breed of talent to meet an unpredictable future. Without strategic partnerships, learning outcomes focused on skills and mindsets will continue to be subordinated to content knowledge that can be taught in silos and measured on standardized tests. The talent problem costs more than enterprise disruption. It costs us solutions to the world’s biggest problems designed by those unbridled thinkers and doers we call entrepreneurs.