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Does experience matter in leadership? Not much!

Apr 25, 2008 Business Daily, Leadership

“Most of us accept the common-sense notion that experience is a valuable, even necessary, component for effective leadership. Voters, for instance, tend to believe that the jobs of U.S. senator or state governor prepare individuals to be effective U.S. presidents. Similarly, organizations buy into this notion when they carefully screen outside candidates for senior management positions based on their experience. For that matter, have you ever filled out an employment application that didn’t ask about previous experience or job history? In many instances, experience is the single most important factor in hiring and promotion decisions. Well, here’s the surprising news. The evidence doesn’t support that experience per se contributes to leadership effectiveness.”

Dr Stephen P Robbins, The Truth About Managing People (2008)

Stephen Robbins is the world’s best-selling author of textbooks on management and organisational behaviour. Knowing that, you might approach his latest tome with some trepidation. But rest assured, ye of the management profession with a fear of theory: this latest book is succinct, lucid and surprisingly punchy.

As a ‘mzee’ himself, Robbins might be expected to be all for the importance of experience. Not a bit of it. He asserts that detailed studies of all types of leaders, from military officers to school principals, reveal that experienced managers tend to be no more effective than managers with little experience. He points out that Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman were two of America’s most effective (and least experienced) presidents. On the other hand, consider two duds: Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce (who?). Both were highly experienced when they took office.

Why should this be? Intuitively we expect that experience equals learning and on-the-job skills. Why doesn’t that matter? Robbins points out that there are two problems with relying on experience as a guide to effectiveness. First, there is a big difference between quality and quantity of experience. And second, not all experience is transferable.

You know the old question: does a person with 20 years’ experience have a rich and varied trove of incident and observation, or was he just experiencing one year 20 times? The truth is, most of the real learning you can get from a particular job – even a complex one – ends after two or three years. Most new and unique situations have been experienced by then. After that, you may be marking time and reliving the same year again and again.

Secondly, situations vary. Jobs are not the same: support mechanisms, organisational cultures, the nature of followers – all vary intensely. So we cannot just assume that experience in one leadership position will lead to effectiveness in another.

This is a very pertinent issue in Kenya. We have just squandered a very important opportunity to introduce some freshness and vigour in our civil service leadership. Yet again, we have fallen into the same trap of believing it’s the length of experience that matters, not the quality or relevance. In fact, the reverse may be true: the Kenya of tomorrow may demand a complete escape from the Kenya of yesterday. Those who have spent 20-plus years steeped in the mistakes and mindsets of previous regimes may be precisely the people we don’t need now. But they’re still with us…

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