This Is Why Hiring Only Domain Experts Limits Potential

Everyone wants to excel at what they do. Entrepreneurs, artists, writers, bankers, technical professionals — we all want to be masters of our trades. Take Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, all key figures of success within their realms. We know of them for their success in a particular domain, but as Steve Jobs once emphasized, an obsessive focus on a single domain actually contrasts the practices that have created great leaders and innovators.

“I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves,” Steve Jobs once said of the intersection between science and the humanities. “In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side.”

Despite Steve Jobs’ talent as an entrepreneur, he understood that Silicon Valley’s model of success, which insists on focusing on one “trade”, is not backed by empirical evidence.

Unfortunately, most fields hire narrowly, and there are many examples of companies doing so. Instead of focusing on breadth of skill and knowledge, Google instead focuses on four particular attributes: general cognitive ability, leadership ability, role-related knowledge, and “Googleyness.” But what about other skills and other passions? What about the need to be creative even as a techie, or perhaps technologically skilled as a creative? In writing about Silicon Valley’s diversity problem, the New Yorker states that recruiters “ end up relying only on candidates’ traditional credentials: a computer-science degree from a notable university, a previous position at Google or Facebook.” This speaks to a much larger diversity problem (in a racial, gender, and socioeconomic sense), but also an issue of diversity at skill level. Take the problem of venture capitalists focusing their funding on purely technical founders, or companies recruiting and hiring only from select universities.

In order to achieve success, it’s absolutely critical to divert an extraordinary amount of energy towards a single goal or discipline. But, past and present examples assert that hiring in a domain-specific manner hinders growth, and that we instead need to invest in people with a wide breadth of experience — breadth that provides the ability to innovate and detect new opportunities.

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Several people in particular stand out when it comes to this kind of philosophy. Take, for example, Leonardo da Vinci, whose “Salvator Mundi” recently shattered auction highs by selling for $450 million. Despite his world renowned mastery of art, however, his notebooks reveal a different kind of mind: one fascinated by geology, anatomy, math, engineering, astronomy, flight, gravity, optics, cartography, and a multitude of other sciences. As BBC explains, da Vinci “‘invented’ the bicycle, airplane, helicopter, and parachute some 500 years ahead of their time.” His true genius, as they assert, “was not as a scientist or an artist, but as a combination of the two: an ‘artist-engineer’”. As such, his deep knowledge of the human body and physics greatly influenced his artistic work.

Elon Musk is another prime example of someone defined by more than his innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, Musk’s background in energy physics and economics ultimately propelled him towards the potential of space exploration and sustainability, embodied by the Musk Foundation.

“(Physics is) a good framework for thinking,” he’s said. “Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there.”

So how do we put a non-domain specific hiring process in place? It begins by understanding the value of a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education has once again become appealing and valuable, because it teaches individuals how to think across multiple disciplines. And, as the Huffington Post asserts, that has become critical in the era of artificial intelligence. Recruiters need to take a look at the successful leaders in the world around us, and understand how diverse ways of thinking and diverse skill ranges have gotten them to where they are.

I’m not arguing that expertise in a given field isn’t mandatory for leadership. As Harvard Business Review notes, “When you begin to look at any of the core skills that leaders have, it quickly becomes clear that domain-specific expertise is bound up in all of them. And the domains of expertise required may also be fairly specific.” Domain specific knowledge and expertise does matter, as HBR notes, but it is also critical to understand that having a narrow field of experience can prevent leaders from seeing beyond the horizon. Interdisciplinary minds are critical for company growth. They elevate the work of leaders and innovators by enabling them to draw connections to the world around them, connections that would otherwise be missed. Interdisciplinary minds are necessary for leaders that need to be one step ahead.