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Could a philosopher be your most valuable recruit?

Could a philosopher be your most valuable recruit?

In a working world where initiative and emotional intelligence are crucial, your next best hire could come from an unlikely background

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Back in 2013, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously declared that a degree in philosophy was a fast track to a job in a shoe store. In fact, a philosopher would be a superb shoe shop worker, manager, or franchisee. That’s because recruits with philosophical insight will be those who you can most rely on in our turbulent, uncertain, highly demanding and highly rewarding times.

Digging deeper
Recruits who are armed with philosophical insight don’t expect to be told what to do or how to do it. They will always raise the question that lies at the heart of philosophy and keep probing until they get close to an answer. Their question is a simple one: “Why?”.

That can, of course, be a profoundly irritating question if all we want is simple obedience from our recruits. But managers cannot simply be the conduit for orders, and frontline workers cannot simply be robots. Recruits at any level need to seize the initiative and make choices based on their understanding and internalization of the purpose of your business. They need the appetite and encouragement to learn what your purpose is: not a rule book, not a list of wordsmithed corporate values, but live principles that they can apply in daily life when faced with ambiguous situations.

Any of us will recall our small children forever asking “why?”. Annoying, maybe, but that is what drives learning in the most formative stage of human life, and we will want that urge to engrain in any of our recruits – unless we really do seek to employ them to do robot jobs (which will soon be done by real robots).

Improvised success
A renowned German military philosopher – the older Count von Moltke – drew out that insight when reforming the Prussian army after the disasters of the Napoleonic wars. The Prussian soldiers had been the best trained: they could march in perfect step, raise their muskets as one and fire together on command. But the finest army in Europe (as the Prussians saw themselves) was annihilated by the seemingly disordered citizen army of the French at the battle of Jena in 1806.

Sifting through the wreckage, von Moltke understood that his army had indeed been the best at following orders. But what would happen if no orders came, given the confusion and fog of war, and the inevitable breakdown in the chain of command? There might be a masterplan covering everyone’s movements, but, as he put it, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

His discovery was that – instead of relying on orders (‘befehlstaktik’) – those recruits who could improvise around the “commander’s intent”, executing against the purpose of the organization (‘auftragstaktik’), would win again and again. When the chain of command was broken, instead of stopping, hiding or heading for home, his recruits would use their informed initiative. They would pass on the minimum of orders required to their subordinates and minimize the escalations up the chain of command, creating an extraordinarily nimble organization that was to challenge and often overcome armies with vastly greater resources through to the mid-20th century. To discover and apply the “commander’s intent”, the most important question is “why?”, and the call to action is one that lies at the heart of philosophy: “Sapere Aude”, or “Dare to Know”.

Teaching excellence
London Business School and other top management education institutions have always trained students to excel in critical thinking, which for many years has been one of the skills most highly prized by leading MBA recruiters such as the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, and other consulting firms. Increasingly, the leading business schools are extending this skill set beyond rigorously honed argument on paper or in the classroom to a broad range of sophisticated MSc programs in data science. Information technology multiplies the power of those who can ask the philosopher’s question, “why?”, in a disciplined and courageous manner.

But these skills and the underlying philosophical insight matter more and more at the sharp end, not just in the heady world of MBA or MSc graduates. Take Inditex, arguably the world’s most successful retail business. The group’s flagship brand, Zara, has outflanked Benetton and many others in the fast fashion world – not because of a fundamentally different strategy, but through excellence in extraordinarily nimble execution.

“Managers cannot simply be the conduit for orders and frontline workers cannot simply be robots”

Zara does excel in IT backed data science, with outstanding data scientists working with vast, up-to-the-minute qualitative data sets. But the firm does not rely on hard data alone. Store workers on the tills are valued individuals who bring great insight into consumer behavior and motivation through the curious conversations that they hold with shoppers. At the end of the day, when the stores are closed, all Zara staff sift through the piles of garments that were tried on but then rejected, and recall their shopper conversations to reveal patterns that will shape the central design team’s work. Even if they never read a philosophy book in their entire lives, Zara’s people are working as philosophers.

We know that success in fast fashion, fast food, health clubs or any franchise domain depends on seamless integration up and down the supply chain. Those seamless flows of information can be enabled by smart structures and smart IT. But fundamentally, the flow of knowledge rests on people who we have allowed to become or remain smart by encouraging the curiosity and engagement that have been the hallmark of philosophers from time immemorial. The poet-philosopher T.S. Eliot told us that “hell is where nothing connects”. Your philosopher recruits will move you closer to a connected heaven.

Finally, back to Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist who told us that a degree in philosophy was a short step towards work in a shoe store. That was in 2013. Last year, in Entrepreneur’s webzine, Marc was asked to identify his seven top reading recommendations. All seven were books rooted in philosophy.

Dominic Houlder is adjunct professor in Strategic and Entrepreneurial Management at London Business School

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