Friday, August 28, 2009

Experience vs. Experiences

Recently my wife and I moved to Boston. Being in the Air Force I just show up and start my new job. Yeah I have to learn new things and get settled into a new routine, but I don’t have to actually go out and find a new job. My wife on the other hand had to start completely over. She was teaching in New Jersey, but with our move we thought it would be a great time to pursue one of her passions as a career. She has always been a fitness enthusiast so the thought of getting into the fitness industry was a natural transition. She decided to get her personal training license and begin interviewing for those type jobs. Despite having a degree from the University of Arizona in Physical Education, two years teaching experience, experience as a spinning instructor, a personal training certification, a life’s worth fitness activity all she heard throughout the majority of the interview’s was how they were hesitant due to her lack of experience. Besides being frustrating as hell, it really got me thinking about experience versus experiences and how people look at the two concepts.

Part of me can kind of understand where some of the people she interviewed with are coming from. I mean she had never had a personal training job before. She didn’t have experience doing that profession. What if she wasn’t any good at it and that person had hired her. They would have invested time, money and effort into an individual that just wasn’t cut out for that position. And most importantly, they would have delayed fulfilling their original goal; to fill a vacant position with a person who is the most qualified and competent for the job.

However, the other part of me can’t get over how blatantly off center this line of thinking is. Experience and experiences are different animals, and typically employers pay much more attention to the latter which, in my opinion, is the wrong approach. What does experience mean? Well it means that the applicant has familiarity with the position and it can be safely assumed that the individual has some basic knowledge of the duties to be carried out. Placing value on experience may well indeed save you time, effort, and money in the short run but is it the best strategy in the long run? I would argue no.

Think of it this way for a minute. By placing the emphasis on experience you are In essence blinding yourself to many other evaluation factors that are much more important and will have a much larger impact on your business’ bottom line. I can hire a person that has worked at McDonalds for 30 years and has only cooked fries the entire time (This is nothing against McDonalds. In fact I just read an article the other day that listed how many people had worked their way from cooking fries at Mickey D’s up to become CEO’s, late night talk show hosts, etc.). If I want a fry cooker tomorrow then placing emphasis on experience may be the way to go. However, if I want to hire the best employees to give my business the best chance of succeeding in a highly competitive environment then experience emphasis is obviously flawed. It’s kind of like the buggy whip analogy. The best buggy whip maker was probably making buggy whips (for horse and carriages) well into the mass production of model T’s. He probably did his craft better than anyone in the world at that time. But the automobile eventually put him out of business. He had a ton of experience that made him extremely competent at his specialized job, but that doesn’t mean I want to be him!

Maybe it’s because I have never officially hired anyone in my life. Maybe it’s because I am a naive “Gen Y’er” that is completely delusional. Or maybe, and this is a big maybe, I am not completely full of shit and once in a blue moon a decent original thought comes out of my head. I propose that weighting experienceS (emphasis) more than experience is a more effective way to surround yourself with people that will help you and your company succeed.

Let’s use my lovely wife as an example again. Personal training experience…none. But what experiences has she gone through that have shaped her to become a successful personal trainer and valuable team member to a company?

1. A proven ability to learn. She has a degree in a related field from a respected university. Just because you have experience as a trainer does not necessarily mean that you are educated in the science of the body. Do you want a trainer that tells you incorrect information?

2. Breadth. She has demonstrated success and results in multiple related fields. Whether it was teaching PE, instructing spinning, classroom teaching of health, or anything else on her resume there was a theme ever-present that she could succeed in different roles.

3. An ability to lead. Could you control 50 screaming pubescent middle school punks while they run around with hockey sticks in their hands? I would much rather go back to my Jr. hockey days and fight angry 6 foot 5 guys with hockey stick than try to control a bunch of kids with hockey sticks. She has taught spinning for numerous fitness levels.

4. Innovation and dedication. She created work out clubs before school for kids struggling with their weight. She did multiple after hours intramurals.

5. Personality. This may be the most overlooked and painful (in the long run) part of focusing primarily on experience instead of experiences. At the end of the day you need someone who you can work with. You need someone your customers will love and enjoy working with, especially in a service industry like the fitness industry. There are plenty of experienced assholes out there, and sadly their experience is probably enough to keep them gainfully employed in their niche until they finish out their days. You probably meet these experienced assholes on a daily basis whether it be at Kinkos, your local auto body shop, or even a large fitness center. Does the person you are interviewing have the personality, the aura about them, the 'it' factor that makes you think they will be a valued asset to the company in the position they are applying for? Or more importantly for a future position that isn’t available or even created yet?

I am sure there are numerous other traits that I haven't listed that are overlooked when you focus primarily on experience. However you get the point that there are a lot of benefits to looking beyond experience and on to someone’s experiences. Just continue to ask yourself "how has this person’s life and life experiences shaped them to be the perfect member of our team?" If you aren't asking yourself that question you are surely missing out on talent that could be the missing piece of your organization's puzzle.


Matt Bader said...

Just for the record she has a job now that is an amazing fit!

Steve said...

I understand what you are saying, and I've also experienced the same thing, about me not having the "right kind" of experience. Now that I'm involved in hiring people, I take a different view, in that I don't think about a candidate having a particular list of experiences that I can check off a list. What I look for is a sense of confidence that this person will succeed in whatever project they are thrown into. They may have the perfect experience for it, or it may be completely new. Since I know that the experience may not match up at all, I need to look for other things. I must say that interviewing people is not easy for me, especially when I'm talking to some kid who's going to graduate soon, and they're obviously nervous, and I'm thinking to myself "this kid would get eaten alive", and I have to say "no", even though the kid might be an otherwise great person. On the other hand, I have also had a difficult time telling the HR folks that they need to extend an offer to someone right away, because you get a sense that this person has "it" and will get hired by someone. It is a strange gamble that you play, because you have some kind of need to hire someone, and you want to get the best person, but not for only your current need, but for the unknown in the future.