Everybody wants to hire experience, but there are only 3 (and a half) skills that really matter.
Yesterday I was heading home, almost to my front door, when I noticed two elementary school kids hunched over on the side of the street. One giggled, and the other shrieked. Then a third came by, grabbed a fallen branch nearby, and started poking at something.
This, of course, triggered my curiosity. So I went inside, dropped my things, waited a few minutes for them to leave, and went back out to see what turned out to be a blue gummy worm.
When is the last time you noticed a beetle, an earthworm, a flower, or a fallen gummy insect on your way home from work? When is the last time you actually stopped to take a closer look?
Therein lies the problem with experience.
I’ve rarely used conventional wisdom in building teams.
While most hiring managers default to (or hide behind?) years of experience as a primary factor in screening candidates, that doesn’t tell me much of anything. In my view, only three core skills matter for 95% of knowledge jobs: curiosity, problem-solving, and communication.
You can make the case that some of these come with experience, but that isn’t always true. I’m not impressed by the X years someone spent being told what to do in a traditional, hierarchical company. Depending on the culture, that experience can actually be a detriment.
When you find a curious person who can both solve problems and communicate effectively, an effective manager can teach that person just about any role in a business in a matter of days.
A person can have different styles of each.
I’ve managed effective problem solvers who are deeply analytical and work best solo. On the other end of the spectrum, some brilliant solvers are more systematic, using disciplined approaches like design thinking to coax the most production out of a collaborative group.
I’ve managed effective communicators who can wow you with a presentation, while others are more inclined to write down their ideas with precise acuity. Most work cultures tend to lean one way, placing more emphasis on verbal skills, but I believe writing is more valuable. Cultures overly dependent on song-and-dance are too easily fooled by overconfident bullshit artists who never put their thoughts in writing but have the remarkable charisma to conceal flawed logic and dance around questions. (Ironically, I’ve encountered plenty of good talkers who can’t put their thoughts on paper, but almost every great writer I’ve seen is a competent speaker, too).
Regardless of style, that’s really all that I believe matters, aside from extremely technical roles (data scientist, full-stack developer, etc.) that require highly specialized skills.
The “half” I referenced in the opening line is reserved for people managers. If someone’s role will involve leading others, then I also think a reasonable level of empathy/EQ is a must. (You’re welcome to read my views on what makes an effective leader).
Experience isn’t everything.
I’ve witnessed some of the dumbest reasons for rejecting fantastic candidates, and it speaks more about the hiring manager than the candidate. One of the smartest people I’ve ever managed was rejected for another role because his digital experience was primarily consumer-facing (B2C), while the role he was applying for was business-facing (B2B). Last time I checked, it’s still people you are trying to reach in either case, and you use the same eCRM programs and digital channels to reach them. If a manager cannot coach a new hire through some small nuances, then that person shouldn’t be a manager–it’s that simple.
I believe the concept of experience actually stifles innovation more than it helps. It’s human nature that the longer we do something, the more conventional our filters in looking at that thing tend to become. Or worse yet, we stop even noticing things we’ve always done that may not make sense anymore, or fail to notice the brilliant beetle of an idea crawling across the floor because our eyes aren’t open. I’m reminded of this almost every day when I see those kids in my neighborhood absolutely mesmerized by the littlest things moving on the sidewalk.
Don’t get me wrong; I still welcome experienced people. But when I meet them, I’m more interested in learning how curious they are–if they notice the beetle–than I am about what they know about X or how many years they’ve spent doing Y. Great experience coupled with genuine curiosity and a continuous learner mindset is a potent combination.
But in terms of filling out a roster of people I can win with, when push comes to shove, I’ll take a team of curious problem solvers who can communicate over all of the experience in the world.
A final note about experience…
Contrary to what I’ve written above, I do believe that prioritizing deep experience can be effective, but most organizations do it all wrong. If you’re going to take this approach, hire someone to do the specific job you need and get out of the way.
But very few leaders in traditional companies are willing to step back enough to give their new hire full autonomy and trust to do so. If a leader wants to be hands-on, then I’d argue s/he should forego deep experience and try to find smart, collaborative generalists.