4 Reasons Work Experience Is Overrated

April 7, 2014

Most companies prefer to hire candidates who have previously held a similar position, preferably within the same industry. However, work experience may be a poor indicator of future success, according to some experts. Here's why:

1. Yesterday's "best practices" may be irrelevant.

It's easy to assume that a candidate from a successful firm will bring valuable and usable knowledge about the processes and policies that made that firm so successful.

That knowledge, however, may be obsolete, according to Gerhard Gschwandtner, publisher of SellingPower magazine. "The best-selling business book of all time is In Search of Excellence, which even today is a standard textbook inside many MBA programs, even though most of the companies in it have either gone out of business or stumbled badly," he points out.

Rather than look for work experience inside a successful firm, Gschwandtner recommends that recruiters look for candidates who have shown an ability to persevere when things get difficult. "Resilience is a character trait that emerges as the result of life experience," says Gschwandtner. "When you’re interviewing, probe for defining moments in their life where they encountered disappointments and still managed to move forward."

2. Experience may be specific to company size.

Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of the new book Scaling Up Excellence, identifies three stages of company development, each of which requires a different skill set, especially when it comes to management.

"What's needed in the early stages is energy and flexibility," he explains. "However, once a company grows to about 20 people, the challenge becomes managing groups of individuals, rather than playing multiple roles. And as a company grows larger, the focus must shift to implementing structure and process so that groups work together to achieve a common goal."

Companies that dominate an industry behave differently from those that must occupy niches in order to win. For example, management techniques that work at a company like IBM or Microsoft are unlikely to be useful inside a smaller, more entrepreneurial firm.

Sutton therefore recommends that you recruit people who have both technical depth and the personal skills to manage others as the company grows, citing the example of Marissa Meyer, who, in college, "was a top student of computer science who also managed 40 teaching assistants."

3. Experience may be specific to market position.

Successful companies inside the same industry may have incompatible strategies that make a candidate’s previous work experience less valuable.

According to Mary Delaney, CEO of the recruitment software firm Luceo Solutions, there are three types of successful companies: 1) price leaders who sell the least expensive products, 2) brand leaders who concentrate on building the best reputation, and 3) value leaders who focus on building solutions rather than selling products.

Rather than look for candidates with experience in your industry, Delaney recommends finding candidates who have worked in other industries for companies that occupy a similar market position.

"For example, a sales rep who’s been successful selling for a value leader in the automotive industry is likely to be just as successful selling for the value leader in the aerospace industry," she says.

4. Experience can be bad experience.

Experience, within itself, doesn't mean that the candidate has learned something valuable. "Many years of work experience can mean that the candidate has one year of bad experience repeated many times over," warns Patrick Sweeney, president of the candidate assessment and training firm Caliper.

Sweeney believes that it's crucial for companies to have a method for identifying people who are likely to be successful, regardless of their past experience.  "Many companies do hit-or-miss hiring based upon the gut feeling of the managers rather than upon any kind of formal evaluation," he warns.

Sweeney recommends that, rather than seeking experienced candidates, recruiters look for "people who have the basic competitiveness and confidence that can make them excellent, and then provide those candidates with coaching and training that will make them outstanding."

Author bio: Geoffrey James is an award-winning columnist for Inc.com and the author of Business Without The Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need To Know.

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