Talent v. Experience – Which?

Boy Genius blogYou are tasked with selecting a person to do a job (small or large). What is your “go-to” selection criterion? Potential and talent – or industry experience?

I recently witnessed a selection process where industry experience trumped talent.  This got me to thinking – does heavy reliance on “been there – done that” still (even in 2015) outweigh the possibilities of new, different and better?

I can see the value of selecting experience when you are tasked with a life-critical procedure. We wouldn’t want a podiatrist performing heart surgery, would we? Not a lot of room for experimentation and the possibility of failure here. So – in some cases, experience does trump potential and talent.

But many opportunities do not require a person to have done the exact same thing before. As a matter of fact, many tasks benefit from a new perspective.

Which would you choose?

When you select talent over experience, you select a person who wants to learn, grow, and excel. Dropping someone with potential into an unknown/untested environment creates opportunity and purpose. Dropping someone whose sole selection criterion was based on industry experience into that same environment creates angst and anxiety.

As you start your next selection process, consider the following.

When your primary selection criteria is industry experience, you get:

– A common vocabulary

– Insight into your competitors (or former competitors) practices and processes

– The status quo

– A follower rather than a leader

When your primary selection criteria is talent and potential, you get:

– Originality and innovation

– Fresh thinking

– An opportunity to stretch “out of the box”

– A risk-taker who is comfortable in knowing that experimentation might end in failure

 How do you differentiate between experience and talent?

Merriam Webster defines talent as “a special ability that allows someone to do something well”. Experience is defined as “the skill or knowledge that you get by doing something”. Notice in these definitions that talent speaks to quality – whereas, experience speaks to practice.

Industry experience is rather easy to discern. You must dig deeper to determine talent and potential. By doing this, however, you get a much better sense of what the person may be able to do in the future.

In a June 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “21st Century Talent Spotting”, author Claudio Fernandez-Araoz sees the first indicator of potential as “the right kind of motivation: a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals”.

I rank Learning Agility (the ability to apply learnings of the past to be successful in first time experiences) as another of the top identifiers of talent and potential.

Notice the subtle distinction between industry experience and learning agility. Yes – they both depend on having previous experiences – but with learning agility, the application of this experience is directed toward new and different – not same.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Test it out: Ask someone about their “first time”. What learnings were called upon for success?  What was the outcome?[/inlinetweet]

But doesn’t experience have its place?

I am a believer in experience. In so many ways, experience teaches us where we should innovate, where we should challenge, where we should learn. But I have seen too many situations where “industry” experience might have won the race, but lost the entire competition.

We know that challenge is the best teacher of all.  And what better way to create a challenge than to put a person into a new experience with new requirements/tasks.  Yes – some may not be up to the task.  But, many will succeed – as long as you give them the appropriate support.

It takes patience. Regardless of the job, you will find industry experience much faster than talent and potential. And that gaping hole waiting to be filled will be calling you … for you have many other things that demand your attention. “Fill it and move on” might turn into your rallying cry. But where does that ”quick fill” lead you?

Multiethnic Arms Raised Holding Text TalentNeed more proof? Read Billy Sountornsorn’s post on LinkedIn, “Hire for Potential, not Experience“. His perspective is one of the “selectee”, not the “selector” – however, his words apply to both sides of the equation.

 “Don’t ever let lack of experience hold you back.”

Remember – the selection process is a marathon – not a sprint. So breathe!

One last note … where does “cultural fit” land in the list of selection criteria? I would love to hear your thoughts.



Looking forward to your thoughts!

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