Spring is in the air, and that means a crop of college graduates is getting ready to join us in the working world. Meanwhile, another ever-growing group of people in career transition is looking for a new place to land. It’s never been easy for either group to break into a job opening, as companies ask for years of relevant experience and skills that they lack. And the shadow of COVID-19 continues to hang over hiring.
Whether out of desperation or strategy, some companies enjoy enormous returns from taking a risk on the young and transitioning, who are restless for an opportunity and less encumbered by the way the world worked in the past.
A Typical Struggle
Now that I’ve started a company that’s focused on helping people find job opportunities, I get to spend a lot of time talking with recruiters, hiring managers and company executives about their talent needs. And it’s amazing how many of them are struggling with the same challenges. Last week I had a typical conversation with a company leader: She was looking for a someone to be her right hand on growth marketing, to learn from her success and take over a direct marketing model that has been working well. This would free her up to focus on other areas of the business.
But she didn’t receive many applications, and those that came in weren’t great. As I listened, I was able to come up with three names of people I knew who would be great for the role and probably interested in speaking about it. But I had no idea what was in the actual job description. And it dawned on me to ask, “How much experience are you looking for?” The answer: “10-12 years.”
My suggested candidates were in the 4-5 year range. I’ve seen their work, know they could do what she was asking for, and certainly would get up-to-speed quickly with the coaching that the leader planned on. So, some great candidates who might be interested will self-select out based on that experience requirement, and the small handful of people who have that experience are in such high demand that they rarely are looking at job boards.
A Strategic Success from Thinking Differently
When getting our last startup off the ground we didn’t have the luxury of high salaries, juicy benefits, or a known brand. In that situation we had to get creative—which meant taking risks with hires who were fresh out of school or transitioning careers. Instead of hiring for years of experience, we focused on finding people who brought energy, took initiative, accepted the startup risk, and were eager to learn. And it turned out to be a huge win.
As we grew, we doubled and tripled-down on hiring for talent and potential above fancy degrees and years of experience. I discovered a few secrets from this success:
The Underdog mentality is powerful - There’s nothing more fun than hiring someone that has been overlooked by the traditional hiring system and being able to give them a chance to shine. While the shiny stars with sparkling resumes tend to come in demanding respect, those who have felt the fear and pressure have a renewed hunger to earn their stripes.
They are ready to be molded - I’m a big believer that your early work environments and managers have a massive influence on the type of work ethic and mindset you develop for the rest of your careers. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad bosses and toxic workplaces out there. And when you hire people that have those experiences they tend to bring that with them. But a fresh college grad or person making a fresh transition is ready to buy into your company’s culture and management method.
You will be surprised by how fast they grow - We hired some more experienced managers along our journey, and they mostly flamed out. So we started throwing our junior talent into more senior roles and responsibilities, figuring that it would be easier to give a chance to someone we knew well than spending months finding the perfect person. Again, it worked amazingly well. A junior person can often rise quickly when they are given an opportunity and support.
The economics add up - Hiring less experienced people means you are not paying top dollar for the unicorn talent. You can bring them in at a market rate, but give big, regular bumps in salary as they deliver and grow. And the people you take a chance on tend to be more loyal than the average hire. They will stay on as long as you keep up a steady stream of challenges
It’s not just startups that can benefit from taking a chance on younger, transitioning employees. Hell, I was in my 20s and had a measly 3 years of banking experience when Procter & Gamble gave me the authority to shift tens of millions of dollars in marketing spending. I didn’t have any experience coming into that, but the company had a way of looking for the right talent mindset and a process for training. A key part of that training was giving new hires the responsibility and accountability for their decisions. We learned faster on the job by owning our business.
Take a New Look at that Old Job Req
A few months ago a tweet went around in which a technology company posted a job asking for something like 10 years of experience in using a certain programming language. The inventor the language laughingly said he couldn’t get that job since he created it only 5 years ago. It’s amusing…and completely unsurprising.
Hiring managers and recruiters don’t have enough strategic discussions about their job reqs. And the biggest reason for this is that we’re all kind of making it up as we go along. Hiring is hard, infrequent and stressful. We tend to pull up whatever job description we posted last time, or look at a handful of competitors to see what they are asking for.
But the future is going to be less and less defined by what you or your new hires did in the past. I would argue that the more experience someone has in a discipline, the more risk that they are behind what’s needed today. To take a marketing example, I’ve met dozens of CMOs of global consumer brands, and most got to that job because they were good at directing their advertising agencies to create convincing TV commercials. No wonder CMOs have the shortest tenure in executive roles today.
Maybe now would be a good time to take that new job off Indeed and stop applying keyword algorithms to applicant tracking systems. Go look for the hidden gems. I guarantee your network knows who and where they are.