Which is a better model to use when hiring high performers? David Creelman investigates
In HR we pay attention to skills, knowledge and competencies. However, we
may undervalue a much vaguer attribute: someone’s experiences. The word
“experiences” connotes something different than the word “experience.”
When we ask about someone’s experience we expect an answer like “They
have five years experience in marketing.” When we ask about experiences
we expect an answer like “They’ve been in a turnaround situation” or “They’ve
lived overseas.” Experiences are important, maybe even more important than
skills, knowledge and competencies.
Competencies, Experience and Experiences
It is worth remembering that one of the reasons competencies were invented was
that experience is not a useful criterion for finding high performers. The research
on competencies showed that a competency like Analytical Thinking can be
predictive of high performance, so we should use that as a hiring criterion rather
than looking at how many years of experience someone has in a particular job.
Experience may be useful as an initial screening tool to get a shortlist of
candidates, but that’s about all. The trouble with experience is that it’s a very
blunt concept. Two people, each of whom have five years experience in
marketing, may have had radically different experiences. It is the specific
experiences that provide some real insight into a person.
Now, it is probably true that when hiring people into relatively junior roles,
competencies are the most important attribute for distinguishing average
performers from high performers. However, in more senior jobs competencies
may not be such a big part of the answer. If you are hiring a sales representative
you may be quite happy to hire a person with high potential who will grow into
the job. However, if you are hiring a VP of sales to lead the company into
challenging new markets you want someone with proven capability to do
precisely that job. For senior jobs you often cannot afford to have someone who
will, due to lack of the right experiences, botch a major project. They may have
loads of competencies, but if they have never done what you need them to do
before then what are the chances they will get it right on the first try?
We are all familiar with competency models, but perhaps what we need for more
senior jobs are experiences models. We need to be very clear about what kind
of experiences the person needs to have had to be a high performer in the role.
Just as there are hundreds of possible competencies there will be hundreds of
possible experiences, but some typical ones for managers might include:
• Has experience in managing through a serious downturn
• Has experience in a start-up
• Has lived and worked in a foreign country
• Has managed an important strategic alliance
The experiences model can be just as valuable a tool for guiding hiring and
development as a competency model.
But aren’t experiences just ways of developing competencies? Can’t we stick
with the one view, the competency model? I don’t think so. Experiences are rich,
deep and complex. There are a thousand things you learn working in a start-up
and they don’t boil down into a few simple competencies or skills or pieces of
knowledge. If you are running a start-up there is no substitute for hiring a senior
team where at least a few of the people have had experiences in start-ups.
When thinking about hiring or succession planning
we probably want to have a specific experiences
model and use that to guide selection and
development. But there is a more general way of
thinking about this. Maybe the most important thing
in any person’s development is the experiences they
have. Experiences need to be varied and
challenging; and people should be given a chance
to reflect on and learn from those experiences.
Training professionals tend to value knowledge
and skills over experiences because they can’t deliver
experiences in a classroom. The same is true of
formal education. If we were to reform the education
process we would do well to think more about how to
expose youth to the right kind of experiences not just
classroom training. In organisations, managers
should be constantly thinking about the experiences
they are allowing their employees to have. If they
have varied and challenging experiences they will
become much more capable individuals. A manager
owes that to their employees.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org