When it Comes to Finding the Best Person for the Job – Potential Trumps Experience

The most important qualification for filling a new job should be the Candidate’s potential for future growth, not past experience.

A recent feature story in the Minneapolis StarTribune titled “No Experience Necessary” extolled the virtues and success of northern Minnesota manufacturing company that has a policy of hiring people for their potential, rather than their experience. What qualified this approach to hiring as a feature story is that it is so contrary to the accepted “best practices” for hiring.

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. The first (and often only) commandment Hiring-Practices1in hiring seems to be is to find the person with the most experience in the same type of job and hire them. Despite this approach being endorsed by the HR automatons and those practitioners of doing it “the way it has always been done,” it is often the worst approach to hiring.

There is a certain appeal to focusing on hiring the “most experienced” person, but its greatest appeal is to serve as a convenient crutch for the insecure, unimaginative, disengaged or lazy manager to lean on. The assumption is that by hiring based on experience rather than potential, there is less work for the leader; the new person will fit right in and there is no investment needed to train and develop a newcomer.

In reality, experience in the job to be filled should be the least important consideration in the hiring process. In fact, experience should often be considered a detriment. In today’s world the established precedent of “most experienced” for filling a job opening is upside down and creates more chance for failure than success; and let me explain why.

For starters, if anyone finds themselves in need of going outside the organization in search of an experienced person to fill a job, it is a sign of failure to develop internal talent. When that happens on a regular basis it becomes a two-pronged attack on success in the future and will more than likely lead to failure. The experienced person brought in, more often than not, does not fit into the culture and the “experience” the gained was of the wrong type. At the same time, making a habit of hiring from the outside sends a clear signal to current employees that their experience – and potentially their potential – is not recognized or appreciated.

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.

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 approach 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 has 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 way to break this stale and often fruitless cycle of hiring is 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, MostPotentialthis 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 have at it.

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. What law 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, there is a risk 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 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 improved productivity.

And the Moral of the Story …

The idea of using past experience as a guideline for hiring is an alluring promise as an effective way to save time, reduce risks and leap-frog the effort required to develop the potential internal talent, but it is a false promise. At its heart, this “best practice” locks a manager into a precedent that can – and does – constrain the ability and willingness to respond effectively to changed circumstances or to find a better way to do things. Managers can become successful leaders when they recognize the value of fresh potential over stale experience.


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