Experience may mean very little when choosing leadership

There’s a whole culture in business / hiring around development vs. poaching. The idea is rooted in the belief that, if you have an open position and 3-4 internals who can fill it, you should still look elsewhere. Part of that is the overall compliance needs of the recruiting arc, and part of it is justified with “Well, an outside candidate might have a different perspective.” That’s undeniably true, but I’ve also seen a ton of my friends get burned on deals like this and ultimately become a bit disengaged as relates back to the company (“After all I did, they passed me over…”) It’s a tough situation. It’s made tougher by the fact that most people don’t tend to think about the ideas of “leadership” in the right way — if they did, these stats on effective managers would be much higher than they are.

One thing you almost always hear when discussing leadership is this notion of experience — almost as if you have to have been a leader in order to be a leader. That’s fundamentally impossible, because you can’t be something that no one will give you a chance to be unless you’ve already been it (“experience” as a whole is a boondoggle of a concept that typically makes it hard for certain people to get certain jobs, and it all comes back to those managers linked above not wanting to put in time to develop a person — but rather have a person that can just hit the ground running, even if they’re a terrible team fit; that’s a really big problem in hiring).

Here’s some research, via Harvard, that says (in part) that experience doesn’t necessarily matter as relates to leadership:

Gautam Mukunda studied political, business, and military leaders, categorizing them into two groups: “filtered leaders,” insiders whose careers followed a normal progression; and “unfiltered leaders,” who either were outsiders with little experience or got their jobs through fluke circumstances. He then compared the groups’ effectiveness; for instance, with U.S. presidents, he looked at historians’ rankings from the past 60 years. He discovered that the unfiltered leaders were the most effective—and also the least effective—while highly filtered leaders landed in the middle of the pack.

So an outsider with less experience is “high risk, high reward” — they chart near the top and bottom of perception of leadership — but the insider or the more experienced candidate is almost always in the middle. Hmmm. So this is a legitimate Vegas-type situation: do you gamble on the potential high ROI — while knowing it could crash and burn — or do you just go comfortably for the middle, based on this research?

This is, of course, an incomplete study in many ways — experience is one thing that contributes to leadership ability. There are other major aspects, such as “ability to communicate” and “humility.” If you were to round up 1,000 people who recently left their jobs and ask them to rank the top three reasons they did so, here’s a shocker: only a small percentage will talk about money. (Although many senior-level managers assume 997 of the 1,000 will discuss money.) Most will talk about their relationship with their direct boss and things like communication of ideas, empathy, humility, feeling looped in, shifting priorities, or work-life balance.

This is why the idea of “employee engagement” has become such a buzzword in the last 3-5 years, to boot. Sidebar, though: the problem with conventional “employee engagement” is that it tends to revolve around perks and rewards. In reality, it should revolve around better managerial training — and slotting people on different tracks. What I mean by the latter is this: if you’re good at managing product and process, you should do that. You should stay as an “IC” — individual contributor — and not ever manage people. You can make the same money as someone who manages people, but you don’t have to. Meanwhile, maybe you’re less good with product but you’re funny and charming and people flock to you … you should become a manager.

Too often, the problem in companies is that people feel they can’t get to the right fiscal level without managing others — but they’re not actually people who should manage others — and therein lies a major problem.

Point is, you can’t view leadership as only related to one other variable — in this case, experience — but much like the dichotomy with achievement and potential, this is an interesting aspect to consider. It definitely has repercussions for hiring and recruiting — and again, should we really be letting compliance-driven individuals be the front lines in discussions about making big gamble hires?



Ted Bauer

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