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.