One of the questions we as executive recruiters often get asked is the trade-off between experience and aptitude. Both sides of the equation are prone to asking it, clients and executive candidates alike. Sometimes this teeter-totter is referred to as “domain expert versus best athlete.”
What do they mean when they ask? There’s actually a lot of nuance in the question-when are skills and experience most important to success in the role versus pure talent and aptitude?
- • Just because a CEO is moving from one industry to another, does s/he lose his ability to successfully lead?
- • If a VP Sales has been successful at one stage of company growth, can s/he take that same sales toolbox and be successful in another stage company, say either emerging-stage or mature-stage?
- • Can a VP Engineering be equally effective managing in large companies and small?
- • Do companies look for the same types of leadership in good economic cycles as well as bad?
- • How does an executive’s move out of their wheelhouse of skills and experience impact their compensation and/or level in a new industry and company?
These questions are only a few of the factors that impact the answer. The following discussion is aimed at trying to lend some clarity and context to question.
Let’s take a look at the hour-glass graph below to lay down some of these factors against our “expert or athlete” question:
1) Level of management: The first factor is where an employee sits in the organizational chart. In general, skills and experience are most critical at the “waist” of the hour-glass graph-mid-to-upper level management, starting at manager, through director- and VP-level. At the top and bottom of the hour-glass, aptitude often ends up as the greater emphasis in “hireability.” This may be fairly intuitive for many.
a. Entry-level: When you first get out of school, employers often hire for a combination of attitude and intelligence and look for those who exhibit room to grow or “headroom.” In fact, at entry-level, skills and experience for those roles are often a liability. Employers may feel someone is overqualified, or a “flight risk” if that employee finds another better-paying and/or higher level position at another company.
b. CEO-level: When you achieve P&L/CEO status, employers often will place more emphasis on the track record a CEO has in leading a company versus a tenured career history in a specific industry area. Can a CEO move from rust-belt manufacturer to biotech? Likely not. However, there isn’t the same granularity of fit applied at the CEO-level as at the middle-management layer. If a CEO has been broadly successful in in a number of software companies, it often becomes less important what type of software, or what industry vertical that software was developed for. Certainly some screening is applied to industry, with some of the below more general industry characteristics takingi precedence-
i. Experience in selling to similar customer base, B2B vs. B2C or government
ii. Experience raising equity capital from venture capital or private equity
iii. Experience creating exits for investors that have generated good returns for those investors
iv. Experience taking a company from one industry into other industries, popularly referred to as “crossing the chasm”
c. Mid-to-upper management: Mid and upper management are where skills and experience over mere aptitude are often most sought after by employers. Those who are hiring at this level will often even emphasize industry skills and experience above managerial experience, giving the edge to a candidate with industry-relevant background and a lesser degree of leadership experience, assuming that management is a learned skill and can be taught or picked up on the job. Is this right? That’s not the focus of our discussion here. Rather, our goal here is to describe corporate hiring norms from our observations.
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