Can a great leader succeed even if they don’t have industry or relevant experience? For eons, hiring managers have grappled with this question in the hiring and promotion process. To expound:

“He’s never worked in the industry before.”

“She has only been a manager for three years.”

“Jack already has the group’s pulse. So why would we consider Susan, who hasn’t managed at this level before?”

If you have ever made a hiring decision, the question of relevant experience is always a concern.    

A few years back, a coaching client I am working with was at the top of his game. As a result, he won a company trip because his team achieved outstanding results in three key company metrics. At the time, he was a mid-level leader, and he reported to a General Manager.  

On the second night of the trip, he discussed his desire to become a General Manager with his RVP. As my client pressed to learn more, his RVP asked him, “do you think you are as good as my GMs?” Well, of course, my client didn’t even pause with an “Of course I am” (in total “confidence,” of course). In this one question and moment, he demonstrated the importance of relevant experience. While he had proven himself by achieving great results, he also showed a lack of humility. This is important because the best leaders succeed when they can get results and demonstrate the right behaviours.

Needless to say, my client wasn’t promoted that year. The leadership team felt he lacked the maturity to succeed. Instead, he continued to serve at the mid-level but took on stretch assignments for the next year.    

Eighteen months later, he was promoted to one of the company’s poorest performing plants. As anticipated, he successfully grew revenues, controlled expenses, and exceeded other expectations. At the same time, he struggled to manage relationships. Twelve months into his new role, he was let go because of a disagreement with this HR specialist.  

This is a painful yet cautionary tale about the importance of the right experience for leadership positions. However, here are three key takeaways he learned about the importance of understanding what is the right experience needed for leadership roles:

Humility: After all that has been written and shared on social media, this one deserves another look. “Do you think you are as good as my GM’s?” was rhetorical. But my client missed it because he wasn’t in a position of humility. In his mind and world, the results were enough. But as we have learned from politicians, athletes, and leaders, behaviours are just as important as results, if not more. Therefore, it is essential to understand a leader’s capacity for humility. Among other things, in this example, a humble leader would have known to understand the question and intent before answering.  

Cultural Fit: In this story, cultural fit wasn’t a factor. When my client started with the company, he worked for a General Manager who was hands-off, was risk-averse to new ideas, and was loose with policies. When he was promoted, my client relocated to the Midwest, where his new boss was more engaged, did things “by the book,” and kept scheduled one-to-ones. In many ways, he wasn’t a cultural fit because he had learned and succeeded in the culture created under a different leader. So when it was time to hold people accountable, including his HR rep, he struggled and failed because he took an ineffective approach he had learned was not accepted in this new environment. We’ve heard it many times before, “cultural fit” is still an essential consideration for a leader’s success. Why? Because it is a bet. The hiring manager is betting that the new leader can and will effectively gel with the rest of the group. And just like any type of gamble, sometimes you lose.

Great Stories: Interviews conducted from a preset list of questions are less conversational. As a result, understanding the stories or examples of relevant experiences is more complicated. Go off script and make the interview conversational so the leader lets their guard down, feels safe to share the right and relevant stories, and you get to know them better. Lastly, when you are off script, your intuition is more focused. In other words, you will know if the example, story, and experience are genuine, legit, and relevant.  

Can someone be an exceptional leader without the right and relevant experience? Of course, they can. 

But perhaps, the question is: “Does this candidate not only have the right experience getting results but demonstrating the right cultural behaviours too?”

And here’s the Big Whipp:  Hiring and promoting the right person is a challenging yet gratifying experience. And it is true: someone without relevant industry experience can succeed. However, the best hiring or promotion process will consider the leader’s talents, potential, results, as well as their character and their behaviours. In the end, hiring a great leader isn’t scientific. It’s an art.

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