[Updated March 2, 2008 with notes from Time Magazine's March 10th edition. Updates are marked with "*"]
Two blog postings last week got me thinking about hiring decisions. Eric Brown asserted that we ought to "...hire the best person you can regardless of the number of years of experience..." On the same day, Growing Business Link carried a brief piece extolling the virtues of the generalist.
So the question is, should you hire for very specific experience, or should you hire a generalist who has proven her ability to lead and to learn?
I say the latter - usually.
Some of my clients are making career transitions and attempting to cross over into new industries. They are often confronted with job specifications requiring years of very specific experience in very narrow industries. (E.g., "15 years sales experience in automotive Tier I suppliers," or "10 years experience in the meat processing industry - poultry experience not acceptable.")
I guess such narrow specifications make sense when you are hiring someone to do a very specific technical job. (I hope my local emergency room hires experienced ER docs, for example, and not auto mechanics.)
I also understand how narrow job specifications make it easier for search firms and HR folks to screen 1000 resumes down to ten. But is the hiring process about what's easy, or about making a great decision for the long term? I hope it's about a great decision.
When you are hiring someone to lead, I think broad experience, along with the proven ability to lead and to learn is often your best bet.
I want a leader to lead, not to do the work of her team. We can hire experts to do the work. What we need is a leader who can quickly learn what questions to ask and what to measure. A narrowly experienced leader might be more likely to fall into doing "the old job" and fail to watch the big picture. That's not what we should be paying leaders to do.
Innovation is not going to come out of folks who have many years' experience working in a narrow field. Time and time again, it has been the outsiders - those who did not know the "common sense" of an industry - who made the real breakthroughs.
Those with narrow industry experience are less likely to see opportunities and threats coming from unexpected directions. The US auto industry is filled with folks who have spent their entire careers in that industry. And time after time, that industry has been surprised by outsiders.
As Marshall Goldsmith says, "What Got You Here Won't Get You There". It's true about leaders, as in Goldsmith's book, and it's true about industries and companies. In today's fast changing business climate, yesterday's business model just won't cut it. 15 years of airline industry experience won't help you figure out how to make money running an airline tomorrow. What's needed are leaders who can see change coming from a mile away and lead tons of experiments until they find a winning strategy.
*Time Magazine's March 10, 2008 edition quotes Anders Ericson, author of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance as saying, "The number of years in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance." In other words, experience is a lousy way to judge a candidate for a job.
So how do you hire? Is your hiring process designed to be easy for HR, or to give you the best result? With your department, division or company stuck in a rut, are you still looking to hire someone with deep but narrow experience? Or are you courageously looking for the best leader and the fastest learner you can find?