From Ballet to Boardroom: Embracing ‘Competencies Over Credentials’ in Recruitment

Embrace 'Competencies Over Credentials' in hiring to unlock hidden talent and create a more inclusive, efficient recruitment process.

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Jul 1, 2024

While recruiting for an investment bank years ago, I saw the top students at the best schools shepherded by professors, peers, and parents toward a finance or management consulting career. This worked out happily for some. Less so for those who grew to resent the stress and long hours or a lack of meaning in the work itself. Yet, as their responsibilities and expenses grew each year, they would find it harder to rationalize leaving for a lower-paid profession. Could it be, I wondered, that the more successful you are, the fewer choices you have? It’s counterintuitive. However, a final-year college student arguably has more career options than a CEO.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Belushi paved the way for others.

I began to wonder how to avoid getting stuck at any point in a career. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from bodybuilder to movie star, based largely on physique and charisma rather than traditional leading man looks or notable acting skills. He then traded on that celebrity as a political novice to become Governor of California. John Belushi wasn’t the most respected comedian, the most proven actor, or the most talented musician. But with his distinctive vibe, superb comic timing, and aura of wild unpredictability, he was a unique package. In 1978, at the age of only 29, Belushi simultaneously had the highest-rated late-night TV show (SNL), the top-selling music album (Blues Brothers), and the #1 movie in theaters (Animal House). True, critics of Schwarzenegger’s politics or Belushi’s singing skills might say fame offered them a shortcut to positions for which they were unqualified. These examples made me ponder the complicated interplay between talent, experience, and potential. Or, in recruiting terms, ‘Competencies vs. Credentials.’

How a professional ballet dancer became Global Head of Sales at a tech company

One of my first clients as a headhunter was the global head of sales at a tech company. I was intrigued by his style. ‘Andy’ just didn’t seem very corporate somehow. So I asked him for his story (this was in the pre-Linkedin days!). A professional dancer, he had grown bored of leading a ballet troupe. One day, Andy attempted a major career switch by applying for a tech sales role at a startup. Surprisingly, the company called him back. They were impressed by his cool resume. But they were also puzzled. Why – with zero tech or sales experience – would he consider himself qualified for the job? ‘One,’ Andy told them, ‘I can learn anything’ (and he offered convincing examples). ‘Two, I can collaborate with even the most difficult and temperamental people’ (artists!). ‘And three, I have raised millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship, so I know how to close deals.’ Against all odds, the startup gave this born salesman a shot. Andy went on to hit his annual sales goal within three months and quickly climbed the org chart, driving exponential growth for the company. It’s a story of professional courage and daring – by both the hiring team and the candidate.

Janitors, homeless musicians, and 50-year-old vets have something in common.

Another ‘Competencies over Credentials’ story. A good friend of mine with a military and academic background started his big corporate career at the age of 50. He successfully marketed himself to a major investment bank as a maverick and a creative disruptor who would outperform dozens of more conventionally ‘qualified’ candidates. And it worked out brilliantly for him and for the bank. Of course, the media has come to celebrate these narratives, especially the more colorful ones – even if (or perhaps because) they are outliers. Goldman Sachs’ highest-paid employee went to a non-top-tier school. The college dropout IPO startup founder is almost a cliche now. There’s the Korean former janitor who became a CEO and the once-homeless musician who founded a billion-dollar startup. Come to think of it, did any of you superstar recruiters go to Recruiting School? 🙂

Let’s be fair. It’s not as if credentials, like a prestigious company, school, or specific experience on your resume, mean nothing. Credential-based hiring is often intended to level the playing field and minimize bias using objective selection criteria. To stop people from hiring their friends or people who look or sound like them based on ‘gut instinct.’ A hard-won credential may represent incredible discipline, resilience, and achievement. It may be an industry or regulatory requirement. There can also be a correlation between credentials and capability for a role. It’s just that someone with the classic credentials might not always be the best candidate for a job. There has to be great potential talent out there lacking those typical resume markers. If only we could find them (more on that shortly).

Opening the doors for underrepresented groups and removing obstacles to finding the best people.

Why care? ‘Competencies over Credentials’ hiring would unblock matchmaking opportunities and let our talent markets operate more efficiently. Companies could identify the best candidates for a role. Startups and others lacking a big employment brand would expand their viable talent pool. Underrepresented and marginalized groups suffering inequitable access to the classic resume credentials might face fewer obstacles to success. Job-seekers could switch industries and career paths more easily, too. More economic efficiency, better personal growth—what’s not to love?

Then why hasn’t ‘Competences over Credentials’ gained as much traction as it should? Risk avoidance is one reason. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” was a popular saying with corporate purchasing officers in the 20th Century. Recruitment processes are a permanent work in progress. However, most companies today still select candidates largely the same way they did a half-century ago: resume screening plus interview. A reliable brand on the CV is a volume filter because it reassures hiring managers, especially those who doubt their evaluative skills. Secondly, to be fair again, assessing transferable competencies or spot star potential in a non-traditional candidate is not easy. More holistic recruitment selection processes can be expensive, time-consuming, and unreliable! Thirdly, pattern repetition exacerbates. The more success we have in hiring people based on our preferences (and biases), the more we believe our approach is backed up by data. So we’ll continue to repeat the same thing…until, at some point, the weakness in the model is exposed. Now, we have too much of this perspective or not enough of that perspective on the team.

What does the future hold? I’m old enough to remember when the arrival of the internet caused many recruiters to panic. Nobody will need us anymore! Companies can find anyone by themselves now! Candidates can apply directly to any job online! Yet the recruitment industry has experienced massive growth since then. So let’s hope that AI, as the latest potential industry disruptor, will soon enable more unbiased ‘Competencies over Credentials’ hiring and enrich the recruitment process for every stakeholder. And somehow, I feel sure that we’ll still need courageous, ethical, and imaginative human recruiters. Just like that one a quarter century ago, who somehow understood that a frustrated ballet dancer might make an outstanding business leader…

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