Yes, in Hiring, Experience Does Matter – As Long as it is the Right Type

Last year, a sharp HR professional left a comment here at TLNT on a story that mentioned the positives when someone hired for a job has relevant experience. His comments made me stop and think then,as they still do today:

I think experience is a double-edged sword in the workplace. On the one hand, it brings with it years of lessons learned, improved judgment, etc. But at the same time, experience often closes people off from innovation and new ways of thinking.”

Yes, experience is most certainly a double-edged sword. That’s why Cathie Black, a celebrated business executive who had huge success as CEO of Hearst Publications and publisher of USA Today, is wondering why her deep and substantial business experience didn’t really help very much during her brief stint as chancellor of New York City public schools.

Experience? Yes. The right kind? No

Here’s what happened to Black last week, according to a report in the New York Daily News:

Facing mounting discontent from his inner circle, Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg forced Schools Chancellor Cathie Black to step down after just 95 days on the job, sources said.

The former magazine exec – loathed by parents and teachers – was finally pushed out because she proved virtually useless in finding ways to cut costs and had no real grasp of the issues…

Two sources said the mayor became increasingly disenchanted with her inability to do the grueling and technical work of cutting the education budget.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” said one source, since Bloomberg appointed Black for her management skills and had said she would learn about education on the fly.

Yes, it most certainly is ironic, because if there is one thing that is not in doubt about Cathie Black it is that she is a top-notch business executive with a lifetime of work and experience behind her.

Like learning Russian in a weekend

But Black’s short-lived tenure running the New York City schools is not a reflection on her executive and management skills, but rather, a commentary on her ability to quickly ramp up and become a seasoned educator in one of the toughest and most prominent public education positions in America today.

As Black told Fortune, it was simply impossible to make it happen in 95 days, highly skilled executive or no.

It was like having to learn Russian in a weekend — and then give speeches in Russian and speak Russian in budget committee and City Council meetings.”

It was just too much, Black says, “all but admitting that for a manager like her, with no professional experience in education, heading America’s largest public school system was above her capabilities.”

OK, I’ll buy all of that, but this really gets back to the premise that experience is a double-edged sword.

It wasn’t that Cathie Black didn’t have experience, because she had tons of tremendous management and executive experience. On paper, she looked like a great candidate for the NYC schools chancellor position, and Mayor Bloomberg clearly thought so, too.

But this job wasn’t about having decades of great executive experience, it was about having a vast wealth of significant educational experience. Black had experience — just not the kind that was right for this job.

It IS all about the right kind of experience

It’s not surprising that Black’s successor is Dennis Walcott, a former teacher and the current deputy mayor for education, a position he has held for 20 years. No one knows how successful he’ll be, but the fact that he is well-steeped in educational issues throughout the New York City schools will certainly help. It’s a big advantage for him, and a reason why people are more confident of his chances for success compared to Black.

He may not have her tremendous executive background, but he’s got the kind of experience that counts for this position.

All of this makes me wonder what managers and HR professionals are thinking sometimes. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have applied for positions — jobs that I was dead-on qualified for given my experience — and couldn’t get an interview, acknowledgement, or time of day from the hiring manager.

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Yes, I know that there could be a million good reasons why this might be, but it always struck me as strange that I couldn’t even get an interview for the position when my skills and experience fit the job description so well.

On a number of occasions, I would hear later how the person that was hired for the position — usually someone with far less experience than me — had failed relatively quickly. I’d scratch my head at that, because it was clear that my all-too-relevant experience didn’t seem to matter to the person doing the hiring. They were looking for something else, and as those who hired Cathie Black found, it led to fairly disastrous consequences.

In hiring, no one bats 1.000

Hiring is a tough job. No one bats 1.000 at it, and the nature of the job is fickle on its best days. Finding the right talent is hard work, but as Cathy Black and I have found out personally, having the right kind of experience is probably one of the most important elements in the process. Hiring managers who tell you differently, well, they might want to look for a new line of work because I question how much talent and experience THEY have in all of this.

And one more thing about Cathie Black: she will most certainly land on her feet. That’s because she’s extremely talented and will not make the same mistake twice. She’ll make sure she takes a job that is much more suited to her experience and skill set the next time around.

That’s a good thing, because as I wrote about Black here at TLNT last year, she has a great outlook on managing Millennials that we could use a lot more of in today’s executives.

Cathie Black will succeed because she’ll find a job where she has the right kind of experience for the job at hand. She smart, flexible, experienced, and knows how to manage our growing and most important workforce segment.

It’s sad that didn’t work for the New York City schools, but it just shows that experience does really matter — as long as it is the right type.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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5 Comments on “Yes, in Hiring, Experience Does Matter – As Long as it is the Right Type

  1. John:

    Thanks for a great article. Hiring, and in my case executive recruiting, is a delicate balancing act between relevant experience and culture fit. While there are hiring managers who are simply not good at what they do, I feel compelled to defend those who are often working blindly, without the time or opportunity to explore candidates to any degree of depth. They often are juggling too many openings, across too many disciplines (as an example, it’s not often when an internal recruiter is equally effective at finding talent for the Chief Financial Officer’s team as they are for the Chief Communications Officer’s), and with little direction from others who can fill in the holes. Until a holistic approach to candidate assessment is adopted, the hiring decisions end up being transactions and not relationships. Of course, once a company engages an external recruiting partner, the onus is then on the recruiter to find the right talent.

    I’ve gotten to know so many wonderful candidates who, to your comment about your own experience, have been justifiably frustrated that they are not even remotely considered for an opportunity because they don’t fit into the preconceived box that the hiring organization has constructed. I’ve seen companies pass on fantastic, appropriately-experienced talent because of rigid requirements such as compensation and number of years of experience without taking the time to engage and be creative. Until, however, these hiring managers are given the bandwidth they need to go beyond just using a checklist, great candidates will continue to slip through the cracks.

    Thanks,

    ssm

    1. Susan: I was complaining about this very thing one time to a former CEO I used to work for. I groused about how I was perfect for some of these jobs yet couldn’t seem to get the time of day from the hiring managers.

      She then said something to me I’ll never forget: “John,” she said, “you’re assuming that they know what they want. If they don’t, you could be the greatest candidate in the world and walk right past them and they would never know it. They probably don’t really know what they want. If that’s the case, you don’t want to work for them anyway.”

      Great words of wisdom, of course, from a great CEO (thanks Julie!). I often think about what she told me, and how right on the money she was — even more so today.

      1. I agree completely. I have two additional points. When a hiring manager is (or becomes) engaged in the search at a deeper level and becomes an advocate for the “right” candidate, it can be magical . . . and that’s where the discussion about the intangible qualities that make the candidate the right cultural fit will happen.

        As a caution, however, even if a candidate possesses the technical or experiential horsepower for the role, the onus is then on the candidate to make sure the company is the right one for him/her. Unfortunately, I’ve seen candidates accept roles where, from the experience standpoint, it was a match made in heaven, but if the organizational fit is not the right one . . . the candidate is doomed. The candidate’s need/desire for a new job can sometimes cloud the decision-making process and no one wins in that situation. And, that’s one of the most difficult conversations that I have to have with candidates in my searches.

  2. If you aren’t naturally the management type, you’d definately need an extensive amount of “right” experience, and then some. But fortunately there are people out there that have “it,” it being the “magical” communication skills, leadership qualities, and postivity. Yet, even if some has experience that wouldn’t be classified as the “right” kind, I still think it is good experience becasue you had to deal with differnet personalities than a person is probably used to and in any job, you need to have experience with an array of personalites, unless you are a corener, but how many of us aspire for that…

  3. Not quite. Opinions are fine and often correct or close (even my opinion, occasionally, are ok). Experience correlates with performance, but relatively poorly. That’s a scientific, verifiable and verified fact. So, does the right experience matter? Yes, a little, mostly. I don’t know precisely why Cathy Black failed in our school system (yes, I am in NYC and my kids go to the public schools). I doubt it is that she doesn’t have the right experience. My guess is that the mayor is right: she doesn’t have the competency or desire to cut costs in the budget. The Cathy Black is not proof that the wrong experience causes failure (which, of course, it might from time to time). Experience is a two-edged sword not because we think it is but because research proves it is. Focus on competencies, primarily, then interests and to some extent skills and the probability of getting the right person goes way up. That’s just using what we know and has been proven. Experience, whether “right” or “wrong” kind, matters but less than several other things.

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