The entrance to companies with the industry experience fetish. You have to know the secret password to unlock the chain.

The entrance to companies with the “industry experience” fetish.

Many job postings list “industry experience preferred/required/strongly preferred/a must” or endless other variations of the theme.

I tend to view these blurbs with skepticism. In certain cases, industry experience can be a valid differentiator, particularly when the organization posting the ad needs someone to step in right away and hit the ground running.

On the other hand, I think some companies use it as a defense mechanism to hide lazy thinking and narrow-mindedness.

Everyone thinks their industry is special, unique and different. I’ve never met anyone in any industry who didn’t tell me that their business was incredibly complex and difficult to learn. This is always an exaggeration. Some industries have more rules, some use unusual language to describe their activities and some are in relatively new fields where there are no rules. None of that makes an industry more complex. The claim that their industry is uniquely challenging is something that people often use to make themselves feel important. They also use it in collaboration with others to form an exclusive club, and exclusive clubs always want to keep out the riff-raff and the people who don’t know the secret knock or have the secret decoder ring.

I base my argument on three key facts:

  1. I am no Einstein.
  2. I do not have a business degree. My degrees are in English (BA) and Public Administration with an OD emphasis (MPA).
  3. In consulting and in-house roles, I have worked successfully in all of the following industries: Health Care (clinical and medical devices), Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy, Environmental Services, Computers, Telecommunications, Software, Semiconductors, Wireless, Government, Higher Education, Military, Trucking, Internet, Food Services, Financial Services, Nonprofits, Social Services, Real Estate, Advertising, Business Analytics, Publishing, Entertainment, Employment Services, Construction and Precision Instruments.

So, if I am not imbued with any magical powers, how have I managed to accomplish something that most employment ads assume is impossible? Simple:

  • When I go into any company—even if I’ve worked in the industry before—I adopt the attitude that I am entering a foreign country where I know neither the language nor the customs. I listen, I ask questions and most importantly, I make no assumptions that my previous experience has any relevance to this experience. I will bring my experience into the conversation only when I have proof that it is relevant.
  • I’m not afraid to learn new things. Even though I’m the consultant and supposed to be “the expert,” I’m there to learn first, teach second.
  • I don’t let them intimidate me with buzzwords. If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language in school and you go to a country that speaks that language, you’ll have a moment of terror when you have your first encounter and find out that you can’t understand a word they’re saying and that you are completely unintelligible to them. What happens then? You get anxious, fearful, start beating yourself up for having had the arrogance to believe that you could master the language . . . and wind up forgetting everything you do know and disabling your ability to listen and learn.

To put it simply, it’s not industry experience that matters, it’s learning ability. Anyone can learn the essentials of any business in a relatively short period of time with an open mind. The advantage of hiring outside the industry are enormous. You get new perspectives on old problems and different ways of thinking. You get people who are unlikely to be bored because they’re learning new things. You’re more likely to get excitement and motivation from people who want to prove themselves as opposed to people who have been there, done that.

This brings us to the fundamental danger of insisting on an industry experience requirement. If all you’re doing is hiring people who think like you and talk like you, how are you ever going to innovate, deal with change, or create a learning culture? How do you expect your company to grow when all you’re doing is recycling old ideas? Why on earth would you want to duplicate the practices of a closed, stagnant culture like North Korea?

When I worked in health care (as closed an industry as there is), I knew we were making progress in our culture change efforts when one of our best leaders, a clinical professional with multiple certifications and a long career in health care, called me about recruiting front desk staff for the clinics. “You know, I’ve been thinking. I don’t want anyone with health care experience. I can teach them what they need to know. What I want are people who are good with people and who have had customer service training at some of the companies known for great customer service. The candidates I get from health care don’t really connect with people. They seem bored.”

Bless her heart. To be fair, health care has more limitations than most other industries because you can only hire physicians, nurses and technologists from within the health care mindset. This is a major reason why health care is so slow to change and why a colleague of mine who recently entered the industry described it as “going back in a time machine twenty years.” It’s not going to get any better in health care until they remove that “health care industry experience preferred” tag from their employment ads for non-clinical positions. The sheer weight of custom and accepted practice needs a strong counterweight if the industry is to join the rest of us in the present day.

My feeling is that the industry experience requirement is overrated and sometimes dangerous. It reflects lazy thinking on the part of HR and hiring managers who don’t take the time to clarify what they really need. Sometimes it’s used to avoid the possibility of hiring someone who will challenge the status quo, and in that case limits the ability of an organization to diversify its thinking. Focusing instead on interviewing for the critical competencies of learning ability and flexible thinking will get you far better results than simply hiring people who may know your buzzwords but may have stopped learning long ago.

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About Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.

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