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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business team

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be a first-hand witness to events that clearly demonstrated how not to do things.

While finishing up my graduate work, I was making a living in the Corporate OD group at a company that was once a major player in the technology field. Although I was somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy as the trainer of first-line supervisory development programs, I did get to interact with some of the gurus at the top, a few of whom later went to work for Tom Peters and other big names in the field. The point of interaction involved the implementation of a company-wide quality program, a major change initiative (to say the least).

As the change process moved forward, it became clear that a major obstacle stood in the way: The HR Department. They refused to change the performance review system to incorporate the tenets of the new quality program. They rejected the suggestion to review the compensation program to ensure it was aligned with the messages we wanted to embed in the culture. The HR Department even refused to send their people to the mandatory quality training classes, choosing not to participate in the program at all. Nearly every other department in the company had specific plans to incorporate the principles of the new quality program into their internal processes, but the HR Department stubbornly declined to participate.

Why? The truth is was that the HR VP and the OD VP couldn’t stand each other. They spent as much time taking potshots at each other and engaging in political gamesmanship as they did on the work they were hired to do. Combine that with a hands-off CEO who found conflict terribly unpleasant, and you have a sure-fire recipe for organizational dysfunction.

The quality program was implemented with great fanfare, but never really took hold. Without HR’s support, key systems were never changed to support the initiative, creating a whole lot of noise in a communication channel that needed complete clarity. People felt the company was sending out mixed messages, and many started to believe that the company really wasn’t serious about quality. People became cynical and began referring to the quality program as “flavor-of-the-month.”

This experience led me to the firm belief in the value of the complete integration of all human-side functions: HR, OD and Training. All of these functions share the same goal: helping to create a great place to work. All of these functions need to communicate the same philosophy, the same values and the same messages about what the organization is trying to achieve and why. Even more importantly, these functions need to resolve any obvious or underlying conflicts to avoid sending out mixed messages, and the easiest way to do that is to unite the functions under a leader who is fully committed to building common ground and helping people to learn from the different perspectives on the team.

In my three stints as top HR leader, this was always one of my goals, and I ran into the same obstacles every time. Training and OD people often resist being associated with HR because HR has the reputation as The Department of You Can’t Do That! OD people in particular tend not to want to get their hands dirty with such pedestrian issues as compensation and benefits, and some of the more snooty OD people view HR people as “less than” in terms of education and intellect. For their part, HR professionals receive very little real education in change management, organizational development and learning theory, and the education they do receive in these fields is fairly superficial.

So, the first thing you need to do is . . . educate them all! Show the HR people that their initiatives would be much more successful if they approached them as change-and-learning initiatives instead of program roll-outs. Show the OD people that many core messages and values emanate from HR, from the wording of policies to the priorities of the sales compensation program, and those messages must be considered as a factor in any careful analysis of the culture. Show the training people that both HR and OD need their expertise in both direct message delivery and in developing teaching skills that make learning an exciting experience. In other words, you have to convince them that they have much to learn from each other and that collaboration will lead to better outcomes for all.

Once you educate them on the philosophy, the next step is to put them together on a project so they can learn from each other and use those learnings to improve the outcome. Benefits is a great place to demonstrate this because it covers all the bases (and if you don’t think that revamping your health plan in today’s environment constitutes a major change-and-learning initiative, you’re crazy). Benefit design choices are loaded with messages about how the company views its relationship with its employees (OD); the complexity of choices and the shift to consumer-driven health care requires education (training); and the plan must remain competitive with a very dynamic market (HR). Cut OD out of the loop and you could wind up with a benefits plan message that contradicts the messages of your culture change initiative, weakening the effectiveness of both initiatives and creating unnecessary cynicism. Leave out the educational component of benefits and you create a legion of frustrated and confused people who will likely conclude that the company is not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, thus damaging the trust that is needed to support most HR and OD activities.

You’ll find an equally powerful opportunity in HR policies. Seriously!

At one company, we implemented a massive leadership development program based on a message of personal responsibility. Since you can’t expect people to build personal responsibility unless you allow them to make choices and experience the consequences, we encouraged leaders to manage people by giving them choices rather than imposing solutions. Somewhere in the middle of the initial program roll-out, one of the HR people, who was in the midst of expanding her skill set to include OD and Training, pointed out that our policies were sending a contradictory message. They were telling leaders and employees what they had to do instead of giving them choices.

I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of that, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Following her lead and bringing in other members of the team, we went through the 150-page policy manual and stripped out every sentence that denied people choices except where the law required us to deny choices. The policy manual shrunk from 150 to 14 pages (!) and the slimmed-down version passed the requisite attorney review. When we published our modest little volume, it sent a clear message that we were serious about personal responsibility, and both managers and employees responded very favorably. The combination of empowering leaders and employees to resolve their own problems reduced our employee relations workload considerably, and we went four years without a single lawsuit or discrimination charge.

The power of these three functions working together is considerable. Focusing these groups towards the common goal of workplace improvement increases the likelihood that improvement will actually take place. While it’s possible to build collaboration between different departments, my experience tells me you get more through organizational integration. With everyone on the same team, you have a better chance to increase cross-specialty learning, unite people behind a shared vision and create stronger initiatives characterized by clear, consistent messages.

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