Is Experience Overrated?

Image Courtesy of Pixabay

When you, as a manager, are building out your team — especially at a startup — aren’t you always on the lookout for “Rock-Star” candidates, or “A-Players”? Those individuals who can bring drive, skills, excellence, and follow-through? People unfazed by obstacles, who will push through to get things done. The kind who also mesh well with teams, and won’t run over others to achieve their goals.

When I’ve been fortunate enough to work with this kind of talent, I call them “point and shoot” people. The kind of person I can aim at any problem and know it will get handled, with minimum effort on my part. It isn’t that they have deep industry experience; they have people and functional skills. They’ve been around the block a few times (and not the same block). More importantly, they can lift everyone else’s performance as well.

If this is truly what companies value, why are job descriptions so hyper-specific? Why are they so relentlessly concerned with industry experience? Isn’t that putting the focus in the wrong place?

How valuable is 10 years of experience in Adtech, actually? Was Adtech in 2007 in any way related to what it’s like today? I doubt it. I once saw a job ad demanding 10 years of A/B testing experience. Really? Is A/B testing so complex that you need 10 years of doing it before you know what’s important? Especially if you’re managing others doing the actual work? How many excellent “Rock Stars” were screened out by that manager? (Plenty I bet, as the job went unfilled for 11 months.)

And how many of these people exist, anyway? The way job ads are written these days, it’s hard to imagine anyone who can match everything. Again, many of the critical attributes I’d want to see are not emphasized. A friend relates a story about a job opening for a software developer where the most important requirement was 5 years of experience in a language that was only 4 years old. Does someone with 8 years developing mobile apps have 8 years of experience, or simply one year, repeated 8 times?

…knowing the market out of the gate was probably the least important part of their job.

Part of being an A-Player is the ability to learn and adapt to any situation — especially given how quickly things can pivot in a young firm. As much as I dislike quoting our President, I’ll take smarts over experience any time. Or in other words, Skill is more important than Knowledge. According to Mitchell Harper, in an excellent piece, “most A-players don’t change companies so much as they change roles — because they like the challenge of constantly learning new things and being in new situations.”

Now, I’m not talking here about functional experience. Finance folks need plenty of spreadsheet time. Developers need to have written a lot of software. Salespeople need to have sold stuff. Product Managers need to have created and marketed products. But any really good employee in any functional area, who’s been successful and has smarts, can pick up most of what’s essential in a new industry within a surprisingly short time. Why put such a premium on, say, EdTech or Fintech experience, when your company is already full of people with that knowledge?

This is one reason why so many jobs stay unfilled for 6, 9, even 12 months. Surely you’ve seen jobs advertised seemingly forever. Few people with the requisite experience (“12–15 years in digital publishing”) who can also do the work at the proper achievement level — not to mention the ability to perform at the next level. It’s also why companies wrongly claim there’s a talent shortage. Experience doesn’t create Rock Stars. Rock Stars create results.

This focus on industry seems true even for high-level positions (VP and C-level). You would think team-building, management, organizations skills, etc. would be the most important for them. But no, the lead requirement is still always “X years in Y.” Yet examples abound of CEOs and COOs jumping industries.

Thinks Steve Jobs — Apple (computing hardware) and Pixar (animated films). Meg Whitman — Disney (entertainment), Hasbro (toys), Ebay (e-commerce) and Hewlett Packard (computers, storage, and services). Ed Whitacre — from AT&T (Telecom) to GM (building cars), not to mention past president of the Boy Scouts. They didn’t seem have any trouble picking up the nuances of a new market. Because knowing the market out of the gate was probably the least important part of their job.

Experience doesn’t create Rock Stars. Rock Stars create results.

It’s really kind of funny. The problems facing most companies are actually quite similar, yet most still think their industry is somehow special or different. That Online Search is a “superior” or more complicated market than Consumer Packaged Goods or Healthcare IT. That AdTech is too complex for someone with Telecom experience to understand.

The dirty little secret is that companies are made up of people. And companies all have to execute the same tasks. Most challenges that firms face involve getting people working together, in an efficient way, to achieve these tasks, while managing conflict. And politics. You have to research your market, set goals, understand competitors, create a strategy, build the right products, tell your story, sell-sell-sell, count the dollars, manage customers, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Or would you rather have one more voice lost in the chorus of the echo chamber?

Just ask an honest management consultant. Their organization may be structured by industry, but that’s because their customers demand it, believing they are unique. In reality, the solutions they sell those customers (and especially the methods they use to create them) don’t differ a whole hell of a lot across markets.

So why this excess focus on industry experience in hiring? Two main reasons:

  • Fear. Hiring someone with the requisite functional skills AND industry experience seems “safe”. This is true for HR folks, who don’t normally want to present candidates that are missing elements of the job spec. It’s even more true of managers (who may have written the job spec). They don’t want to hire someone without industry experience because if the candidate doesn’t work out, well, they’ll look stupid for doing so. Whereas if they hire someone who’s been in the industry for 10 years and the person fails, then “gee, they had all the experience.” Sort of like that old saw “nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.” Or McKinsey. Well, maybe they should have, at least for overpaying. And no one sees the better candidate(s) they didn’t hire.
  • Laziness. Less thought is required in the hiring process, by both HR and the hiring manager. “Oh these 10 candidates got through our Applicant Tracking System? Must be pretty good. We’ll just look at those resumes.” Forget the fact that ATS’s are notoriously bad at finding good candidates, not to mention the best. Plus, once the person is on the job, people assume there’s no training required, so probably very little effort on the manager’s part to get them up to speed. That’s a misconception. Even people doing the exact same job at a competitor — usually the gold standard of target candidates — are going to have an adjustment and guidance period. (By the way, why would anyone want to hire that person? Yes, they might bring some competitive secrets in the door with them, but think about it. You’ve just hired someone you know is the type that will leave the minute a competitor gives them a better offer. Is that really someone you want on your team?)

How is this cowardice and sloth helpful to your team or organization? Rock Stars learn and adapt quickly — -faster than many job reqs stay open. I’ve yet to hire an A-Player out of another industry that couldn’t master what they needed to know to be a strong contributor within 3 months on the job.

It’s a rare few who have the guts and foresight to hire the best talent, instead of blindly trying to perfectly fill a narrow niche.

Most important is the overlooked perspective such people can bring from other industries and markets. It’s hard to understate the value of an outsider’s view. Rock stars can readily translate experiences in other industries to give you a fresh look at yours. Or would you rather have one more voice lost in the chorus of the echo chamber?

In a story that may be apocryphal, Tom Landry — long-time coach of the Dallas Cowboys — had a unique approach to drafting talent. He didn’t attempt to fill specific holes in his roster by trying to find the best quarterback or defensive lineman. Instead, Landry drafted the best athlete available when it was his turn to pick. In other words, Rock Stars. If he ended up with 5 wide receivers, fine. He’d keep two, turn one into a running back, make another into a defensive back, and trade the last one for that linebacker he wanted.

In summary, it’s a rare few who have the guts and foresight, and will make the effort, to hire the best talent instead of blindly trying to perfectly fill a narrow niche. Some, especially in smaller or venture firms, may even hire someone who’s an A-Player without having a specific job in mind, confident they can make meaningful contributions as the company grows.

Really, the cost of failure is low. People do make mistakes, and employees are sometimes let go only a few months into the job without difficulty, when the competency isn’t there or the cultural fit isn’t right. And yet the opportunity cost of missing out on a Rock Star can be huge.

The next time you find yourself in this situation, where you’re not certain, try hiring the person as a consultant for a few months. (You can keep looking for that perfect fit.) In the meantime, you might be pleasantly surprised. And it sure beats leaving a critical position unfilled for 9 months.

As Gary Vaynerchuk was once heard to say, “I’d rather fire the wrong person than not hire the right one.”

Thanks for reading. If you liked this, please press the “heart” to share. If you disagree with something I’ve said, let’s start a conversation in the comments. There’s plenty for me to learn!

This essay was originally published, in slightly different form, at www.DigitalicsLLC.com.

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