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Dec. 6, 2004 – No Industry Experience? That’s Not Necessarily a Problem

December 6, 2004
Filed under Features

Companies today face the same daunting problem that confounds so many job seekers. It’s the high hurdle of transferable experience.
Whether it’s an individual attempting to get a job or a company trying to break into a new market, both are faced with the identical difficulty of having someone recognize the value of their knowledge and experience, even though these qualities may not be directly related to a new field or industry.
Even when applicants offer skills, a proven track record and experience that are an ideal match for a particular position, they’re passed over. Why? The individual has worked in a different field.
Or consider how companies often use the Internet and other techniques for locating consultants and other vendors. Frequently, the qualification guidelines are so narrow and precise, few prospects even come close to meeting the requirements.
What’s the problem? Why not take a highly defined approach? Why not be as exact as possible? Isn’t it better to screen respondents as precisely as possible? Doesn’t such a selection process narrow the risk? Maybe –– and maybe not. Using a fine filter has the major downside of missing valuable applicants, those with experience and skills that can benefit the company.
In the same way, automatically ruling out a consultant or vendor because of a lack of direct experience in a particular industry may close the door to valuable insights and solutions.
If the narrowly defined approach is the best approach, then IBM should have passed on Lou Gerstner, instead of selecting him as chairman and CEO. And it’s Dr. Gerstner who is credited with turning around IBM. His CEO experience was with RJR Nabisco, a consumer products company and 11 years with American Express and its largest subsidiary, American Express Travel Related Services.
Meg Whitman made an even more dramatic move, going from Hasbro, Stride Rite and FTD to head eBay! Under her stewardship, eBay has, of course, become one of the world’s highest valued companies.
What’s clear is that these companies were looking for certain qualities to deal with what they understood to be key issues and it was those objectives that drove the selection process, not specific industry experience.
Here’s the point: companies are better served selecting employees, consultants or vendors on the basis of what needs to be accomplished rather than specific industry experience. Many of those who are passed over or ruled out may very well be the right fit.
So companies can broaden their perspective and take better advantage of their opportunities for solving problems, here are guidelines for a more beneficial selection process:
1. What do we need to accomplish (rather than who do we need to get to do it)?
2. Who will be objective and challenge us (rather than trying to figure out who will tell us what we want to hear)? “
3. Who will give us a fresh perspective (rather than just what’s going on in our industry)?
4. Who won’t be afraid to pull us out of our ruts (rather than just trying to make us feel good)?
5. Who will base their work on basic principles (rather than offering what’s in vogue at the moment)?
6. Who will ask us the right questions (rather than handing us cookie cutter answers)?
All this suggests that thinking too narrowly can have a negative impact on companies that want to grow. Almost every industry can suffer from the inbreeding of ideas. While we may feel more comfortable with those who speak our language and share our specific interests, the value of opening the doors to new concepts and approaches may be more than worth the risk.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be contacted at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170 (617-328-0069; fax 617-471-1504); j_graham@grahamcomm.com. His company’s Web site is grahamcomm.com.

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