A quick trawl of the online job boards reveals that, for the vast majority of positions advertised, ‘relevant experience’ is not just desirable, it can be essential for a candidate to be considered for a role. At this point I would like to point out that I have nothing against relevant experience per se, indeed it would be hard to argue that it is anything other than beneficial. What I do take issue with is when it appears that the ‘right hire’ will have essentially done the same job in the same industry before.
This is a situation we often face with clients and it is driven by a desire to mitigate risk. By hiring from the same sector you can be safe in the knowledge that the successful candidate will understand the history and culture of the industry, allowing them to ‘hit the ground running’, reducing the learning curve and shortening the ‘time to value’ (to use consultancy buzzwords). However, if you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got and, in a world where disruption and innovation are increasingly at the forefront of successful organisations, more of the same is not always a positive. The smartest brains will quickly adapt to a new environment, indeed they will relish the challenge. In this context insisting on sector (and often role) experience can be very limiting.
So, if industry experience is not the panacea, what should you be looking for when hiring new talent? For me, evidence of drive, self-motivation and a demonstrable positive attitude are all far more important than having done a similar job before. This type of experience can be gained in all manner of circumstances both in the workplace and outside. One thing is certain however, if a candidate does not possess these qualities no amount of sector experience is going to compensate.
One final point to reflect on. Really smart people get bored if they are not challenged. Hiring a great person into a position that they can do with their eyes closed because they have done it before is a short-term win. At best their performance will be sub-optimal (boredom is not conducive to high levels of productivity). At worst they will leave and you will be back at square one!