The Most Classic Hiring Mistake

Sep 25, 2012

The most common hiring mistake is to hire someone who has the right experience. We know that this sounds counterintuitive, but hear us out.

(This is from our book How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer, 2nd edition: The Qualities That Make Salespeople Great, @2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher. )

When you’re putting together a help-wanted ad, what’s the first thing you write?

“Needed, a salesperson with at least one year of experience.”

No. Wait a minute. This is a much more important job. Let’s say, “Needed, five years’ experience.”

Experience is what we look for in job candidates.

If two candidates seem equally qualified for a position, and one has slightly more experience, the decision seems easy. Experience wins. Some executives even will look in their competitors’ backyards for individuals who are ready to make a move. Conventional wisdom is that an experienced individual will hit the ground running.

But how many times have you come across someone who has five years of experience that adds up to just one year’s bad experience repeated five times?

Our advice is not to hire from your competitors — unless you want to do them a favor.

Don’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on experience. It is an easy approach, but it can be very costly. Let your competitors steal from each other.

Instead of focusing on what someone has done, look, instead, to what they can do — to their potential.

Andrew Marshall, the former director of corporate sector and SMB at Virgin Media, told us:

We learned to avoid hiring from our main competitors. There are two other key competitors in our space, and some of our biggest failures have come from hiring from them. Because we are the third largest telecommunications firm in the United Kingdom, when we hire from our competitors, we find that they are not used to truly being competitive. They’ve come from much larger organizations and, we found, have succeeded based on the brand they were representing, not because of their particular skills. In addition, they just don’t fit into our corporate culture, which is very agile and where we expect people to take on a lot of ownership for their own decisions. When we’ve hired salespeople from our competitors, they’re more used to going through a lengthy bureaucratic process to arrive at a decision. So they have a difficult time adapting to the agility of our organization.

Mark Dennis, vice president of sales and marketing at Veolia Environmental Services, put it succinctly: “I have finally come to the point where I could care less whether somebody has industry experience. I’ve had way too many instances of hiring people who have industry experience who just get in their own way because they are set in their ways. They believe they know it all. And they are not open, willing, or flexible enough to want to change, to look at the industry from our perspective. So training them can become an absolute nightmare.”

Mark told us: “I’ve learned the hard way that often when we bring in somebody who has ‘industry experience,’ we’re just recycling inept salespeople through organizations — just because they have experience. It can be appealing to the sales manager who is under pressure to bring new people up to speed faster. But it can be very deceptive. Because whatever they did at their prior company — good, bad, or indifferent — whatever they did there, they’re going to do at your company, whether you like it or not.”

And your competitor is probably thanking you. Immensely.

Experience, it turns out, often can keep you where you are rather than helping you to move forward and see new possibilities.

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