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What is your experience of experience?

Feb 22, 2015 Sunday Nation

When we look for good people to employ, what do we look for?

Typically, qualifications and experience.

I’ve already discussed the problem with qualifications on this page a few weeks back. First, there is the problem that you just can’t trust the qualifications presented to you any more, certainly not in Kenya. No one I know can take a certificate at face value these days. Further investigation is nearly always needed. In a society when even government officials brazenly show up with manufactured qualifications, pieces of paper are increasingly suspect.

The second issue with qualifications is the “so what?” problem. So someone is sporting a degree in something or other. So what? What does that reveal about them? That this is a person of substance, of application, of intellect – we hope? Or just a person who knows how to pass examinations or cram facts? Can you be sure which one you’re getting?

So much for qualifications. That brings me to this week’s problem. Do you trust experience? We all seem to look for it in job applications. We feel reassured when someone has done the same thing before, in a respected organization. It confers credibility and offers comfort, we think. Experienced people are safe, and they don’t need much hand-holding. The inexperienced are a great risk, and are high-maintenance employees who will require expensive training and extensive mentoring.

Oh yes? Is that your experience of experience – and its lack?

The first question to ask yourself is this: what kind of experience have you just invested in? The old poser returns: did you just buy twenty years of experience – or one year repeated twenty times? In other words, have you employed a person who has grown in wisdom, developed her skills, matured as a person, tried new things? Or did you just hire a loser whose true experience ended in year one – and who has been repeating year one every year since?

Certainly, if the job you’re hiring for requires a steady person working in predictable routines, an experienced person may serve you well and save you drama. What worries me is when we insist on experience for top leadership positions, or for roles that haven’t even been in existence for that long.

When it comes to experience being a predictor of great leadership performance, study the research: the evidence is weak – and getting weaker. In the disruptive times we all live in today, is a wizened, well-grooved hand the one you need at the wheel? Do you want the banker who’s well-schooled in regulation and procedure to run a digital bank? Do you want an old-school stalwart to run a business whose employees and customers are mostly twenty-somethings?

Actually, we all need to stop paying attention to letters and numbers on résumés. They reveal very little about the person actually in front of you. We all need to exercise more acute judgement of “fit.” Some roles would benefit from someone who’s done it all before; others would be ruined by more of the same. And we really have to pay more attention to character and attitude than we do to pieces of paper. The best things in a person can’t be certified; they have to be experienced for yourself.

That’s harder to do, but it’s necessary. If not, we are going to saddle our institutions with leaders whose “experience” will mean that they will repeat the same mistakes, and stick to the same tired formulae of yesteryear. A country and continent that needs to break free from the shackles of the past needs new perspectives, fresh thinking, innovative approaches.

If you’re still looking for experience, look for this one: the one that teaches you how to know when something’s time is done; when to shake off the old and embrace the new. Now that’s experience worth investing in. The most valuable sort of experience is the one that turns you into a lifelong learner.

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