The most important qualification for filling a new job should be the potential for growth, not past experience.
In the practice of law there is a concept called stare decisis. It is a Latin term that means the decisions rendered by a court in previous cases set precedent for how current cases should be decided.
The objective of this principle is to bring consistency, conformity and stability to our legal system. Although there is no legally binding requirement for future courts to follow previous decisions, they invariably do so to avoid the confusion that could result if different courts ruled on similar cases in different ways.
When the Past Fails
As helpful as stare decisis can be in leading to consistent court decisions, it can also result in “bad law.” Since stare decisis looks to the past, not the present or the future to set the criteria for the resolution of issues, it can hinder novel rulings, even when changing social mores suggest that it’s appropriate to do so.
Take the 1896 US Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. That court ruled that it was constitutional to have segregated public facilities for whites and blacks, so long as they were equal. This allowed those who favored segregation to lean on stare decisis to thwart any subsequent litigation intended to eliminate the practice. It was not until six decades later, when, in 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education unanimously ruled that “separate but equal facilities were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.” If the Supreme Court had faithfully followed the precedent set by stare decisis, it would have ruled in favor of continued segregation.
There are scores of other examples – women’s rights, voting rights, equal pay, and equal representation, to name a few – where the concept of stare decisis was used in the courts to impede change and progress. As with most humans, judges (and they are almost human) are subconsciously primed to prefer the status quo; to stick to the well-worn path. That’s because most of us – including judges — are more comfortable with consistency and conformity. That can be a good thing, unless it becomes a bad thing. There is a time when it is a good thing – the right thing – to go against the precedent of the way things had been done in the past.
Stare Decisis in Business
In business and the practice of management there is also a form of stare decisis at play. The colloquial term for stare decisis in business is “best practices.” The idea is that the actions of companies and other managers judged to be effective in the past, should serve as a guiding precedent for how companies and managers should act now. The objective of best practices is to avoid mistakes, foster consistency in management activity and eliminate the need to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to standard business activity.
Just as stare decisis can be effective in setting precedent in law, “best practices” can be an effective guide to setting precedent for efficient management actions—until, that is, it stands in the way of developing and implementing better ways. And unfortunately, that happens all too often in business.
Best practices can become a convenient crutch for the insecure, unimaginative or lazy manager to lean on. The strongest, and ultimately most successful leaders, will be skeptical of the stare decisis of best practices and always be open to finding new approaches that serve the future, not the past.
How Not to fill Your Next Job Opening
One example of a business “best practice” that should be challenged as an outmoded form of stare decisis is the mating dance to find and appoint the right person to fill a job opening. The problem is that in today’s world the established precedent for filling a job opening is upside down and this creates more chance for failure than success.
The most powerful and rarely questioned precedent for filling an open position is to find “the most qualified” individual available. All too often this fixation on the “most qualified,” will lead a company to search outside the organization because of the assumption that the value of experience gained by working for several companies is more valuable than experience with the company seeking to fill the opening.
To facilitate the search for the “most qualified” individual the company will contract with a search firm, collect and scrutinize oodles of resumes and conduct extensive interviews with perspective candidates. Resumes received are prioritized on the basis of the most qualifications and experience, rather than for the most potential for growth. This approach follows set precedent for hiring, but, for a variety of reasons, it is also wrong.
Following this “best practice” is a lazy-way to fill an opening. Sure there is a lot of feverish activity following the precedent to find the most qualified candidate, but the truth is that it is a cop out for what could be a great opportunity to build and strengthen an organization that goes beyond the single task of filling a job opening.
Now, the Right Way to Hire
Two cardinal principles should become the new best practices for hiring the worthiest candidate to fill an opening. To start, every possible effort should be made to make the pending appointment from within the organization. Management should view the need to go outside the organization to find a qualified candidate as an act of desperation and a sign of developmental weakness within its culture; because it is. This type of action sends a message to all in the organization that none of them have the capacity to do the job and that the opportunity for internal development is not a priority of management.
Sure, many managers claim that they initially seek internal candidates and only look outside when it is determined that none are qualified. The problem is that most of these internal “searches” are limited and lack any semblance of creativity. For example, if there is an opening in Human Resources the “job posting” will always list experience in Human Resources as a requirement for the job. This limits the search and eliminates all individuals not currently in HR. Constraining the internal search provides the excuse for management to take the easy way out and rummage for a “highly qualified” candidate from the outside.
The most important new “best practice” should be to change the very definition of the type of candidate management is searching for to fill an opening. Instead of seeking the “most qualified” individual, the search should be to find the one “with the most potential for growth.” Admittedly this approach will make for more work and effort on the part of management, because it will tend to eliminate those who are already fully qualified for the job from an experience standpoint. If someone – especially from outside the company – has the experience of already doing the job, then by definition, there is not much room for growth. If they are willing to take the job, most likely it will be because they are failing, tired of the job they have with another company or they are simply looking for more money.
Finding the candidate with the “most potential” is often resisted because it can create more work – before and after the hire – for the manager. There is a misconception among many managers that once they find and hire the “most qualified” candidate, their job is basically finished. The assumption is that if the new hire is fully qualified to do the job, then all the manager has to do is get out of the way and let them do the job.
On the other hand, if the manager reaches out to find an individual who may have limited – or even no – experience in the new job, but has tremendous upside potential for growth; the manager will have to be closely involved in the support and development of the individual. The decision the find the individual with the “most potential” for growth requires vision, creativity and risk, but by accepting this challenge, the potential rewards for the manager, the individual and the organization are increased dramatically.
The vision is being able to recognize the potential in an individual, despite what experience they may or may not have. The creativity is the willingness to go against precedent and expand the search to all disciplines within the company. Where is the law that says a bright young person in the accounting department can’t – if given the desire, opportunity and support – be an effective leader in marketing? Who says that a talented young person in operations can’t be the perfect person to lead Human Resources? Why can’t a proven leader in Human Resources transfer that talent to operations? Of course, the risk is that these individuals could become a fish out of water and fail, but if they really do have the desire and potential for growth and the manager provides necessary support and development, the risk is significantly mitigated.
The rewards for this type of stare decisis rule-busting are significant: It is likely that most hires will come from within the organization, saving time and money. The individual given the opportunity to grow will be appreciative for the chance and do their best to prove it was the right decision. There will be a strong message sent to the entire organization that the opportunity for growth and development exists within the organization and individuals don’t need to look elsewhere; resulting in higher morale, lower turnover and higher productivity.
What this all boils down to is that successful leaders and managers will acknowledge and respect the stare decisis of business best practices, but they won’t be constrained by them. They will be willing to challenge the precedent of the past in order to create new precedents for the future.
And the Moral of the Story …
The idea of learning from and using past experience as a guideline for actions in the present can be an effective way to save time, reduce risks and create consistency. In law this is called stare decisis. In business it is called best practices. But in both instances the real risk is that being locked into precedent can – and does – constrain the ability and willingness to respond effectively to changed circumstances or to find a better way to do things.
Lawyers can change laws and managers can become successful leaders when they recognize the value of precedent set by stare decisis and best practices, but also understand that neither is prescient for future actions. In truth, often the best way to make a better future is to challenge the precedents of the past.