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Don't Miss Superstar Candidates by Looking for Direct Work Experience

People love a good underdog story -- one about overcoming adversity, rising up from humble beginnings to achieve great things, and conquering stereotypes or misperceptions. It’s the stuff we’re raised on in the land of opportunity. The fables and fairy tales we first experience assure us that we can succeed regardless of our stations in life. These Cinderella stories inspire and motivate us. They’ve even infused themselves, subtly, into the fabric of staffing. Recruiters are now encouraged to find rockstar talent based on values, fit, skills, creativity -- not Ivy League degrees, positions at prestigious firms or years of service. And yet when it comes to many hiring managers, this is where the story ends up a piece of fiction. They fall back on the familiar habits of looking for academic credentials, keywords and specific work experience. Yes, the same folks who may have shed a tear at Cinderella’s triumph could be more likely to hire one of her stepsisters, based on a resume. We’re not going to win the talent wars if we accept only seasoned officers from the equivalents of Annapolis or West Point. It’s time to reconsider the concept of experience.

Staffing’s Cinderella Story

In the world of family entertainment, it’s almost impossible to deny Disney the crown. I mean, Disney’s part of our social lexicon. We use powerful adjectives to describe the wonder of Uncle Walt’s stories. They’re magical, imaginative, beloved and visionary. The box office records speak for themselves. Disney tops the charts for the highest-grossing family films in history. One of the reasons, I strongly suspect, is because the tales have a core theme that speaks to something intimate within all of us. What it is? If you ask Ryan Reynolds: “My daughter gets so pumped watching Disney films. She loves that they all have singing, dancing and a part when the parents die.”

Dark humor aside, Disney consistently presents viewers with a Cinderella story, or a variant. “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin” and so many others fall into this category. The message is about uncovering diamonds in the rough -- the innate strengths of people born outside of privilege, pedigree, rank or royalty. When you think about the Disney films that move us, the princes and princesses seldom start out that way. Cinderella was forced into servitude by her stepmother. Belle was a bookish provincial looking for something bigger in life. Aladdin was a street urchin who relied on petty theft to survive. Tiana was a working class woman, in a racially segregated society, who had dreams of running her own business. By their inherent skills, fortitude, determination, intelligence and integrity, these characters prevailed. They attained their goals. And in the process, they became metaphors that we still use in the marketing of our culture.

Most of us can relate. We teach these values to our children. We teach them to our recruiters, when we urge them to focus on fit and identify the next superstars for a client. I’ve seen amazing results. Recruiters have submitted exceptional candidates I know companies need -- talent who will fuel their missions, share their values and help them innovate. Yet all too often, I discover that some hiring managers just see the early incarnations of Aladdins, Tianas and Belles on paper -- not the attributes that reveal their capacity for excellence.

Obsessing over candidates’ direct work experience instead of their potential could be sabotaging hiring efforts. We’ve entered an era where more professionals are changing their career paths, and where the young generation makes up the majority of the labor force. Do Millennials have much “experience?” Probably not, at least in the context of typical job postings. Also consider a piece on alternative education that we published recently. Established professionals with “elite university degrees” are leaving their positions to pursue different careers and develop new skills. Today’s workforce challenges have necessitated this vocational reinvention. So these workers are now applying for positions outside of their previous experience.

Yet in both cases, these individuals have highly needed technical skills, education, motivation and driven attitudes. They also have practical experiences that shape and influence their potential contributions. The subject of experience is a topic we often take for granted. Perhaps we should rethink the idea that years translate to performance.

Why Look for Experience?

Mel Kleiman is a speaker and author who specializes in refining the processes employers use to screen, select and retain workers. Last May, he posed an intriguing question in TLNT’s online publication: Why do job ads still focus predominantly on experience? In 95 percent of the online postings Kleiman observed, the hunt for experience remained the standout criteria -- even for entry level positions.

The likely reason for this, Kleiman speculated, comes from the belief that experienced talent require less training. They hit the ground running and reduce onboarding time. They reach peak productivity sooner. That may be true, yet this perception ignores some fundamental traits of the best candidates. It also relies heavily on presumptions.

“The problem with this assumption is that just because a person has done a certain type of work before doesn’t mean he or she is necessarily good at it or even likes doing it,” Kleiman noted. “Many people fall into jobs or a career path and, over time, become skilled at them. However, when you look at the top people in any trade or profession, what sets them apart is talent. Their innate ability or that internal motivation (attitude) that makes them what we call ‘a natural.’”

Peter Thiel’s 2016 commencement address to the graduating class of Hamilton College echoed similar sentiments. Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, warned new grads of the hidden dangers of sticking to a career path.

“Looking back at my ambition to become a lawyer, it looks less like a plan for the future and more like an alibi for the present. It was a way to explain to anyone who would ask -- to my parents, to my peers, and most of all to myself -- that there was no need to worry. I was perfectly on track. But it turned out in retrospect that my biggest problem was taking the track without thinking really hard about where it was going.”

Law was not Thiel’s true passion. He had grander dreams -- plans to change the world. When he and PayPal’s other co-founders first envisioned the company, the goal was to develop a more efficient digital currency to replace U.S. dollars. While that didn’t pan out as conceived, Thiel and his partners did launch a bold, disruptive enterprise that changed the world of global finance. In all likelihood, Thiel may have gone on to become a successful litigator had he followed his path as an attorney. Yet to paraphrase Mel Kleiman’s observations, “just because a person has done a certain type of work before doesn’t mean he or she even likes doing it.”

Direct Work Experience May Be Overrated

Dr. John Sullivan, a recognized HR leader, has also suggested that relying heavily on a candidate’s direct work experience may be overrated in talent acquisition.

“Perhaps the best example of success without ‘direct experience’ is when firms select CEOs, most of whom have never held the title before,” Sullivan wrote. “You need to look no further than Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates to find individuals who have been wildly successful without an ideal education or previous direct experience. Firms like Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, and Zappos have had tremendous success by using a non-credential based approach known as ‘hire for attitude and train for skill.’”

The young talent now taking over the workforce are teeming with enthusiasm for pursuing careers that provide growth opportunities. They actively seek out resources for continued skills education and training opportunities. Their flexibility and willingness to learn inspire positive attitudes that boost morale, while presenting a clean canvas on which to project the skills that hiring managers are hoping to develop in their workforces. Of course, plenty of experienced workers are also exploring new career avenues and learning different skills.

Sometimes an abundance of experience comes with an inflexibility toward change, or habits that might not be conducive to a new industry or business culture. Tenured talent can, even unintentionally, convey an attitude of burnout or all-knowingness. It’s easier to teach ideal behaviors to talent with a clean slate rather than force experienced workers to unlearn theirs.

Lack of Direct Experience as an Asset

Without the fog of past experience, workers can approach challenges and obstacles with fresh outlooks. Capable talent without direct experience in a role often demonstrate a willingness to take risks, share unconventional insights and spur innovation. They also understand that a lack of experience requires them to prove their mettle in other ways across the enterprise. These individuals tend to question established practices, which can lead to the implementation of improved methodologies, strategies, approaches and concepts. They’re also more versatile and likely to devote their energies to building relationships, teams and collaborative problem-solving techniques.

Outside Experience Drives Thought Diversity

It’s been proven time and again that a diverse workforce fuels innovation for any company. From a business stance, a diverse workforce -- in the sense of practical experiences and backgrounds -- yields greater levels of creativity and perspectives, which inform product design, sales strategies, marketing campaigns, service offerings and direction. Additionally, workers without a lot of direct experience are more likely to shake things up. Stirring the pot prevents stagnation while fostering growth.

Greener Talent Are Easier to Hire

Competition in the labor market, particularly with ongoing skills shortages, is tight. Less familiar companies don’t have prominent consumer or employment brands to fall back on when recruiting highly credentialed talent. Even with an aggressive recruiting campaign, the time and effort to source candidates can be extensive. And when in-demand workers are courted, they will be seeking top-dollar compensation structures, which may be out of a smaller firm’s grasp. Newer workers, or those seeking a shift in direction, are looking to build their credentials. They will accept jobs for less pay at companies still developing their brands.

Even better, greener talent generally remain at organizations longer than their more seasoned counterparts. Millennials, for example, thrive on opportunity, recognition and the chance to participate in the growth of the companies they serve. When treated well, and placed in best fit environments, their loyalty is unrivaled by older generations.

Finding Superstars Not Fading Stars

A certain irony comes with tenure. If you’re not knowingly hiring a superstar, then you’ve probably figured out that this worker, albeit experienced or qualified, is not going to be that superstar. However, the skills and capabilities of new talent remain relatively unknown. That means limitless possibilities. As Sullivan noted, “When you hire someone with no direct experience, there is a reasonable chance that you may be actually acquiring a ‘diamond in the rough’ who may quickly become a superstar.” In the realm of professional sports, for instance, this is fairly common: lower tier draft picks have gone on to impress coaches, wow fans and bring home victories.

The Experiences That Matter Most

Direct work experience may not be the perfect gauge for scouting the best talent. The real-life experiences of candidates are what infuse their attitudes, mold their aspirations and inspire the passions that drive them to develop their skills.

Warren Buffett, a masterful business leader, has often said that the person with the highest grades or most experience in a field is not a guaranteed win: “We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb. I mean, you don’t want a spark of energy out of them. So it’s that third quality. But everything about that quality is your choice.”

Concentrating too intensely on direct work experience ignores other experiences that inform the behaviors of the best talent. The most successful people, as LinkedIn influencer Jeff Haden observed, are those who “relentlessly seek new experiences.” If employers don’t give these workers a chance, they’ll really never know what they could be missing.


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