Hiring for Ability: Subject vs Function Experience

Today I’d like to take a look at things that leaders should consider when looking to add another top executive to their team.

When considering candidates for a position there is naturally an exhaustive checklist of factors to be measured in order to ensure the right hire. Foremost in the minds of company leaders and board directors, though, is usually subject matter experience. This is hardly a surprise, as there are obvious benefits to hiring somebody with direct experience related to the task at hand. A candidate with first-hand knowledge of the intricacies of the industry will often on-board more easily and can be expected to hit the ground running on day one. All other things being equal, it often just makes sense.

Strict adherence to this approach, however, can impose unnecessary limitations. Of equal, or possibly greater value, is job function experience. Our recruiter Jessica Miles was working with a custom trailer building company having trouble with the individuals being brought forward. After exhausting the list of candidates with custom trailer experience it was decided that the search should be broadened. As it turned out, the individual most appealing to this company was one that had experience building custom projects of a similar scope and with a comparable price range, but who lacked direct experience with custom trailers. Nonetheless, the individual brought forward valuable expertise in lean manufacturing and other processes relevant to their operation.

This is just one example of hiring based on job function experience. The fact is, subject matter specifics are often easier to teach than understandings of more over-arching functional skills or general aptitudes. In today’s evolving economy, few and far between are those that will spend their entire careers in a narrowly defined role. A company who fails to consider candidates from outside of their specific industry risks missing out on talented individuals who are capable of making great contributions. Whenever possible, candidates with a demonstrable ability to grasp and apply relevant concepts should be looked at, regardless of where their credentials have been earned. It’s simply a matter of broadening the talent pool.

Sometimes the ideal candidate will be found in an adjacent, closely-related industry, while at other times they may come straight out of left field. It pays to think creatively. A thorough understanding of the position in question and the factors that would lead to success with the task at hand should inform the search. Where else might the necessary skills be honed? Experience with things such as managing personalities, working in tight deadlines, dealing with the public or leveraging technology during times of disruption are not industry-specific. Success in areas such as these is transferable, much to the benefit of those companies willing to entertain a range of possibilities.

In fact, candidates from other industries will often bring with them fresh perspectives. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is cliché, but those who have not been indoctrinated with the business as usual approach to a particular industry may be poised to apply successful innovations and ways of thinking from other areas. Recently on the Goldbeck Blog we published a post about culture fit that touched upon some of the advantages to having a diversity of age, gender and ethnicity on staff. The same concept certainly applies to career background.

No two candidate searches are the same and attention must be paid to the particulars of each unique set of circumstances. While the degree of flexibility applied to the search should reflect the realities of the situation, it should never be forgotten that talented and potentially helpful individuals exist in all industries.