“No-one ever got fired for hiring IBM.”
That’s a catchphrase that’s made its way into business culture. It describes how organizations make decisions; to just hire the most experienced, well-known company to do the job so that none of the decision makers lose their jobs if the project goes down like a flaming bag of shit. This is legitimately how big businesses think and operate — I’ve seen it a hundred times over.
Unfortunately, this mentality isn’t isolated to business — it’s also built into the protectionist society we’ve created. Better to be safe than sorry. It’s an ingrained societal notion that having tenure gives someone some sort of advantage, as if there’s a contractual exclusivity on quality ideas, good leadership or the best decision-making. Experience, we’re told, is the defining key to success and without it you’re as good as dead in the water — you need to have been a software developer to be a development manager, for instance. What a bunch of unimaginative poppycock.
White Star Line rewarded their most experienced captain, Edward Smith, with a new role sailing the fleet’s biggest ship. Smith even went and hired Henry Wilde, a captain in his own right, as his Chief Officer for the new ship. Consider that — this new ship now had not just the experience of one captain, but two! Four days later, Smith, Wilde and over 1,500 people perished after HMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Experience, huh?
Richard S. Fuld, Jr. was the longest-serving CEO on Wall Street when he drove Lehman Brothers off a cliff by over-exposing them to the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. Institutional Investor magazine had just named Fuld as America’s best private sector CEO, and within a few months of the award he’d not only contributed to the largest bankruptcy in US history, but also one of the largest economic crashes the world has ever seen. Experience, huh?
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim are one of the smallest clubs in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga. Hoffenheim itself is so small, in fact, that it is classified as a village. During the 2015/16 season, with the team languishing in 17th place (out of 18), the club appointed Julian Nagelsmann as coach. Here’s the thing with Nagelsmann: at the time of his appointment he was 28 years old and had never played nor coached a game of professional football. As the youngest coach in league history, he guided Hoffenheim to win 7 of their last 14 games and avoid relegation. But the story doesn’t end there — the team is currently sitting 4th and will qualify for the Champions League if they can maintain that position. Experience, huh?
I could keep going…
What you end up realizing is that experience is over-rated. You see, being a good leader is subject to a market just like everything else, and the market changes daily. The market cares not for your tenure; it simply cares whether your ideas are good or bad right now. The market cares not for whether you were a good CEO; it simply cares for whether you’re a good CEO right now. If experience is really as valuable as we make it out to be, Bob Dylan would be sitting at number one in the pop charts (and yes, he still produces music).
So then, what to make of this ‘experience’ you talk of? As a leader you need to understand on a visceral level what value that experience brings. This is where I think we fall down quite considerably. Job descriptions, for instance, usually claim that candidates need 10 years of experience — but what do they learn in the 10th year that they didn’t know in the 9th year? What did they learn in the 9th year that they didn’t know in the 8th year? And so on. Further, what do they learn at any stage that couldn’t potentially be replicated in another job? Are there crossover skills, perhaps? If a leader’s job is genuinely to lead rather than manage, why do they need to have expert skills in the C++ programming language?
All of this is not to say that experience shouldn’t be respected and isn’t a valuable asset; it’s just to say that it’s over-rated.
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