How Relevant is Experience Today?

How Relevant is Experience Today?


In terms of employment there is perhaps no more paradoxical topic than that of relevant experience. Clearly, experience serves as evidence of the areas where an individual has succeeded in the past. But does that necessarily mean they will bring prosperity to their new employer, and are other qualities more important when recruiting for executive level positions? We sat down with Hanover Fox Director, Charles Cornwell to discuss this very topic.

“Clearly there needs to be a starting point to the relevant experience. In terms of past performance, it’s an indicator of success, of potential skills, but it’s about understanding what’s needed for the organisation. where are they looking to go? What can that company achieve? And therefore, bringing someone with a level of experience in those areas clearly makes sense.”

Companies are realising today that the recruiting practices of the past were perhaps too fixated on the importance of experience, in lieu of all else.

“There are certain areas within regulated sectors where you have to have the necessary skill sets. However, it’s our job as consultants to come in and challenge the understanding of the client and challenge those expectations when they’re looking to hire, and then maintain that pressure throughout the process as well,” he says. “So, when we come back to look at shortlist candidates really hold the client to task to say, ‘Do you remember the conversations that we had about bringing new skill sets into the organisations?’ rather than retreating to type and recruiting maybe in their own image or those safer candidates purely from their own organisation. But if you allow the client to just recruit from what they have internally, we’re not doing our role in terms of developing and increasing the diversity within their senior leadership team.”

Times have changed dramatically over the last four decades. From the end of the war until the late 1970s, 90% of roles that came up were filled from within, whereas today it’s under 32%.

“Succession planning is critical to any organisation, especially through growth periods. Whenever we’re brought into rapidly expanding companies where succession planning has maybe stalled or failed, it’s due to the speed of growth of that organisation not really being matched by the potential of their senior leadership team and therefore they must look outside,” he says. “Succession planning is a fantastic message to send throughout your organisation to say, we will shape, coach, and improve you as leaders, as businesspeople. But our role is to provide new skills into that organisation.”

A Florida State Bank of America professor of Business Management and Research concluded in a study that screening job applicants on previous job experience is a mistake. It’s not a good indicator of how they’re going to fit into a new company.

“You can’t underestimate the personality, the values of an individual, rather than purely their track record. That’s why it’s critical that you have an in-depth interview with an individual. I look at it like the layers of an onion; skills on the outside of the onion can be bolted on very, very quickly, knowledge even more so. However, the core value, the personality, what drives that individual is critical to finding the cultural fit within that organisation. And therefore, the longer-term success of that individual too.”

Today, all conversations about every facet of business and daily life must include the promise of technology and if AI will revolutionise our understanding of the subject. What potential is there for using AI for predictive talent acquisition?

“For volume recruitment where you’re sifting through thousands of applications, AI, as an initial screen, can possibly help. However, for executive search, you can’t beat an in-depth, face-to-face interview where you’re very much getting into the cultural fit. As we move forward in the digital arena some companies are going down the route of video applications, but still, I think investment in senior people requires a human interaction.”

Job experience alone predicts a job performance with 16% accuracy. A combination of cognitive ability and personality produces a 78% accuracy.

“Talking to a client this week about the level of skills and transferable skills from a senior perspective, we concluded that actually most individuals who are capable and have a good track record within industry should be able to be parachuted into pretty much any organisation and be successful. The key to this though is finding those individuals whose personality and abilities match the culture of the organisation. And it’s that cultural fit and personality fit that makes the real difference rather than, as you say, bringing in someone purely from a competitor, doing exactly the same job and hoping that they’ll fit.”

Companies should look more toward personality, what motivates individuals, cognitive ability, mental agility, general aptitude.

“That’s the long-term key to the recruitment piece. Specific skills and knowledge can be learnt. However, ensuring that someone is successful within an environment is down to that cultural mesh.”

Presently so much talent is on the market, it seems inevitable that there will always be a work process where the first CVs to get cast aside are the ones without previous experience.

“It’s sometimes very difficult to engage with every single applicant if there is absolutely no correlation between what individuals have done in the past and what they are looking for, especially when a company’s employing someone like us to do that first sift. However, it’s our role to try and give wider choice to the client, to ensure that they have the courage to make those difficult decisions about moving away from someone with that experience.”

Organisations need to be daring occasionally when it comes to recruitment.

“Otherwise, they won’t move on, and competitors will start to steal a march. It’s about understanding disruptive technology and bringing new ideas, new levels of thinking and that diversity of cognitive thinking into an organisation rather than just replacing like for like”

Conversely, there can exist an attitude in candidates where the best person for the job does not apply for a position as they feel their level of experience is lacking.

“There’s been a fundamental change in how one approaches either individuals through a search process or when advertising a specific vacancy. Gone are the days where there’s a 15-bullet point list of required traits and competencies. What we’re looking to do is attract the right talent into an organisation. It’s about highlighting the areas of the organisation, the flexibility, and why that individual should apply in the first place. Our role then is to sort the wheat from the chaff to those that are capable of doing that role, but we need to encourage and infuse those individuals to join in the first place.”

There is a growing debate surrounding work about whether generalists have more exciting and ultimately successful working lives as their flexibility allows them to progress in an organic way, moving between organisations and positions as the opportunity arises. Whereas specialists can find themselves stuck on a particular path.

“I think as we move forward digital workplace and changes of specific skills across most sectors that will give you a much more dynamic and challenging career in the long-term. So, I would always recommend that individuals very much go down that sort of generalist route, agile and fleet of foot in their career.”

Whether academia is necessarily the best starting point for a leader has also been called into question

“For Oxbridge candidates, their entire university career is aimed at academia. They have very little time to maybe get a summer job because all they’re doing is focusing on studying. What happens is they come out of that degree with a lack of life skills, whereas potentially someone who doesn’t go to university, but takes up an apprenticeship, gains a much wider skillset. They get a head start in terms of their career, and that’s moving away from the thinking of five or 10 years ago where you had to go to university, study, get a first and you’re then set for life in terms of the career. It’s an interesting tipping point in terms of industry.”

The best candidate will likely be the one with ample experience, a personality and competencies that complement the culture of an organisation. Yet in the evolving world of business, companies are increasingly looking for versatility in their senior teams, and as such perhaps our understanding of what can constitute relevant experience is changing.