Industry Experience Is Overrated

In the past, the only way to become an Army Special Forces soldier was to have prior military experience. Then, in 2000, the creation of the X-Ray Program, or 18X, created a path that prepared civilian candidates for direct access into Special Forces assessment, selection, and training.

Initially, there was a lot of apprehension about the program, but over the years, 18X candidates have proved to be excellent Special Operations soldiers. 

Today, the Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy Special Operations communities all pull the majority of their candidates from civilian pools.

What Special Operations discovered is that prior industry experience is simply not as important as you might think, especially when it comes to positions requiring leadership. Yet despite this, businesses tend to overly weigh industry experience in the hiring process. 

But if industry experience is the top factor you look at — or worse, the only factor you look at — then you are limiting your ability to make the best hiring decisions.

Rethink Industry Experience

To hire the best leaders, you need to rethink industry experience. You shouldn’t disregard it entirely, but ask yourself: Is industry experience actually relevant to job performance?

Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. With the 18X program, Special Operations leaders asked themselves, “Does having infantry experience really matter?” The answer was no. 

Special Operations is so unique that being part of the conventional forces is not an indicator of being a good fit for Special Operations. Likewise, if prior industry experience isn’t required to perform the job, it should not be a requirement. It’s as simple as that. 

The point of requirements is to help select candidates most likely to become high-performers. If a certain number of years of industry experience isn’t predictive of future performance, requiring it will only limit your talent pool.

Furthermore, a common mistake that companies make is looking for incredibly specific industry experience when general experience would be just as valuable. This is especially customary for leadership positions. 

For instance, we’ve seen companies choose a candidate with five years of industry experience over one with more than 10 years of leadership experience in the military. But a great leader tends to be a great leader regardless of the specific industry. A successful leader from the manufacturing sector could likely perform just as well at, say, a software company. 

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Though everybody wants a specialist nowadays, what makes great leaders so effective is their ability to tackle a wide variety of problems. You don’t want leaders who can handle only a small, specific set of situations; you want people who can handle whatever is thrown at them. So if you want to hire the best leaders, make sure you’re looking at all of their relevant experience, not just their specific industry experience. 

Concentrate on Character

It’s also worth pointing out that while experience is important, it’s not as important as a person’s character. Experience tells you where someone has been. Character tells you where they are going. 

Prior industry experience is simply not the most effective predictor of performance. You likely have average performers within your company who have years of experience, right? What makes you think any other company is different? Sometimes hiring based on experience simply means inheriting bad habits or mediocre performers from a competitor. 

Plus, nobody works in a vacuum. A person’s performance is dependent on the environment and the team they operate within. A leader who was a superstar at their previous company could turn out to be an average performer at yours due to a different work culture or leadership style. So rather than prioritize a candidate’s past performance at one of your competitors, consider whether the candidate has the core character traits required to succeed at your organization. 

Hire for the Future

Obviously, you’re not going to hire a kid straight out of high school for a C-suite position. Experience and past performance do matter. But you need to be thoughtful about how you use experience in your selection process. 

Which is to say that ultimately, yes, you should consider and evaluate a candidate’s experience. But don’t obsess over it. What candidates know and where they have been is all in the past. Their character — what makes them who they are, what energizes them, how they respond to stress — will determine their future. 

Hire for the future, not the past.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

George Randle is a strategic advisor to EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and vice president of global talent acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.

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