Should You Hire for Experience or Potential? When to Weigh Each for Your Open Positions

May 14, 2022
Should You Hire for Experience or Potential? When to Weigh Each for Your Open Positions

When writing a job description, you're likely to include how many years of experience you are looking for in your candidate. This is a natural reflex since it indicates what type of seniority and skill set you're expecting and how quickly you'll want them to pick up their duties. But is it always a good idea to make sure your candidate ticks the "years of experience" box for an open position? The quick answer is, not necessarily. Below we explore when you should be hiring for:

  • Experience versus potential
  • Important considerations
  • Why you should be more open to potential over experience

Overall, only hiring based on experience will not always lead to better outcomes.

When to hire for experience

As you'll see later in the article, most of the time, hiring based purely on years of experience is often not a recipe for a successful hire. That being said, there are situations where you might want your recruit to have significant knowledge in your field or extensive skills.

You're hiring for a leadership or management position

If you're looking to hire someone senior, especially those in management and leadership roles, you might want to put more focus on experience. You'll also want them to have more knowledge about the industry you've hired them for (eCommerce or hospitality, for example). Given that many senior hires come with expensive compensation packages, it's reasonable to expect to spend very little time training them. They'll typically need more time getting up to speed on your specific internal processes and their subordinates. A more experienced hire could be the right choice if you're pressed for time or training resources. However, even in these cases, hiring for potential should still be something that's top of mind. One

HBR report explains that experts in their field tend to have a fixed mindset, which can be a problem when you need your leaders to be:

  • Open
  • Adaptable
  • Eager to learn

This has nothing to do with years of experience! It's about their disposition and attitude (typically things that cannot be taught).

The role itself requires experience specifically in that function

Some positions simply need a specific amount of experience, especially those in mentorship positions, where they'll be training more junior resources. This is often seen in senior technical roles. In this case, you might consider experience when evaluating your candidates. That being said, even in fields that require technical skills, experience is far from the only consideration. For these positions, you should still be looking at:

  • Potential
  • Curiosity
  • Adaptability

One study looked at turnover of 20,000 new hires and found that of the 46% that termed, only 11% of them were fired because of poor technical skills. Most of them were let go because of weaknesses in coachability, motivation, and emotional intelligence.

When to hire for potential

The research overwhelmingly favors hiring for potential over experience. Many experts seem to agree that looking for a high-capacity learner and someone with initiative and integrity is more important than experience when filling an open position.

More importantly, experience does not mean your hire will be a good performer. In large part, this is because technical or job-performance skills can be taught, but soft skills are much harder to master.

In other words, a person might have all the right job-related skills on paper. Still, once they start working for you, you care about how they are interacting with the team. What is their attitude? No amount of technical skills can offset a poor attitude or cultural misfit. Below are some other reasons to hire based on potential.

You don't have a large budget

As outlined above, when hiring for a management position, many candidates come with hefty salary demands. If you don't have a large budget for compensation, looking for potential might be the best way to find the right hire. This person could also be someone you promote internally. Of course, you'll have to give them an appropriate raise to reflect their new responsibilities. Still, internal raises are usually less far costly than an external hire.

You see a lot of potential in an internal employee

Related to the above, there's no reason to look externally if you see promise and potential within your own company. In fact, one Wharton study

found that "external hires" get significantly lower performance evaluations for their first two years on the job than do internal workers who are promoted into similar jobs. They also have higher exit rates, and they are paid "substantially more." So leveraging potential is not only good for retention but also for overall performance.

You're having trouble finding a candidate

Hiring purely based on experience will limit your candidate pool. By easing up on certain experience expectations, more candidates will become available to you. Moreover, you'll widen your pool to more women because women are more likely than men to apply for a job only if they meet 100% of the listed qualifications.

So while having experience listed on your job description makes sense, does your candidate actually need 5+ years of prior experience? Or could someone with less experience but with high intelligence, initiative, and integrity be a better fit?

You're keen to spark innovation and tap into new ideas and skills

Uptapped is a big advocate of hiring for potential because they believe people who have recently made a career change or haven't been worn down by a particular industry will come to the table with fresh and innovative ideas. These people will have new perspectives or be able to apply skills from another field to your business. Moreover, they're less likely to already be too heavily molded by traditional practices in your profession.

Hiring for potential sets you up for success

Researchers, academics, and business experts agree that hiring for potential is more important than hiring based on experience. In many cases, experience is the first metric you might look at since it's a shortcut to gauge if someone can do the job. However, it's far from the only criteria, and experts overwhelmingly assert that it's not what you should be focusing on. Even in leadership positions, HBR

says, "Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done." So while it may be tempting to ask that applicants have many years of experience, you're more likely to find more success prioritizing potential over years of experience.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

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