Hiring for Experience or Potential: Why Not Both?

Every business, from startup to multi-national corporation, faces challenges when it comes to hiring. How do you pinpoint the best possible candidates for each opening?

Hundreds of factors may come into play, but one of the biggest choices employers have to weigh is whether to make a hiring decision based on experience or potential. There’s a case to be made for either … but is there a right answer?

The Experience vs. Potential Dilemma

Conducting a wide, sweeping search for a new hire is challenging by itself. In today’s job market, top candidates have considerable leverage and can pick and choose where they want to go, to some extent. It’s more challenging, from an employer’s perspective, when you are looking at a choice between experience and potential.

Hiring based on experience -- which used to be the clear preference in hiring processes, historically -- is great, but it can significantly limit your pool of potential applicants. Hiring based on potential -- a more recent value in human resource decisions -- is also fine, but it usually entails a lot of question marks.

Recruiters and hiring managers regularly have to weigh the pros and cons of experience versus potential. There are risks and benefits associated with each, so opinions on their value tend to vary between key organizational stakeholders.

But is there a right answer? Perhaps … but it may not be the answer you’re expecting. Before we unpack it, let’s take a more in-depth look at each side of this hiring spectrum.

Making the Case for Experience

Let’s begin by examining the case for the honored principle of hiring based on experience. In this approach, decisions to hire someone are made under the assumption that past experience is a solid guarantee of future success.

If you’ve been doing a particular task long enough, the reasoning goes, you’re going to be better prepared to handle similar tasks than someone who lacks that level of practice.

Now, quite a few recent startups and youthful entrepreneurs like to discount experience and frame it as an archaic value, but you can’t ignore the results. Take POC Medical Systems as an example.

Headed by CEO Sanjeev Saxena, this fast-growing firm has developed a revolutionary product that manages to detect cancer more quickly and cost effectively. POC has scored tremendous success over the past couple of years and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Saxena insisted on hiring experienced individuals.

“We have a very seasoned management team, some of whom are affected by diseases like breast cancer and who can now make a difference in the lives of others,” Saxena explains in an interview with Financial Express. “Each one of them is an expert in their respective fields, which helps them position the company to develop a product that can actually make a difference.”

This isn’t to say the management team at POC Medical Systems lacks potential as well, but first and foremost, they possess relevant experience and proven skillsets.

The pluses of hiring experienced candidates are many. Experienced individuals tend to be better problem solvers and understand how to communicate efficiently -- both to customers and within the company. One of the bigger benefits is that experienced workers make fewer mistakes.

“The old adage that you avoid mistakes by having good judgment and you acquire good judgment by making mistakes is valid,” small business expert Mary Lloyd writes. “Experienced workers have already made their learning mistakes with someone else. When you put them on your payroll, you get someone who can hit the ground running.”

Making the Case for Potential

So what about potential, the focus of the hot new hiring strategy? The rationale for hiring based on potential is that there’s more opportunity and availability.

It’s a lot easier to find and hire a candidate who has potential than to track down someone who has years of experience and is available for hiring. A business is also much less likely to overrate potential than experience … which has become a problem over the years.

“After the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX, it was pointed out that backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo now has as many championship wins as NFL legends Brett Favre and Peyton Manning,” CAREERXCHANGE notes.

“Likewise, massive professional achievements like setting up a branch office or successfully developing a new product line might look impressive on paper. But was the candidate the driving force behind these accomplishments or warming the bench?”

When you hire based on potential, you don’t have to pay a premium for past experience, which may or may not be relevant. This makes it more cost effective right off the bat.

What does potential look like, you may ask? There are many different indicators, but the tell-tale sign is a candidate’s ambition to get better and leave a mark. According to executive search firm Egon Zehnder, other hallmarks include curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.

Why Not Hire Based on Both?

If you haven’t already guessed, the answer to whether to hire based on experience or potential is: Hire for both. Why do you have to choose one over the other?

There are probably experienced candidates who also still have untapped potential. These are the folks you should be looking for. They’re apt to be more rare than people who have experience or potential, of course, but they almost always offer a far greater return.

Think about it. When you hire for both, you get the assurance, stability, and expertise that come with experience. But you also get the drive and imagination that typically accompany unrealized potential.

If we use physics terminology, you get simultaneous access both to kinetic energy and to potential energy. It’s the best of both worlds!

Should you decide to take this approach -- and we highly encouraged it -- you may have to revamp your hiring process. In all likelihood, you’ll need to work more closely with a recruiting firm to identify the applicants that fit this model.

This isn’t going to be free, but it’ll likely prove to be financially rewarding over the long haul. The next time someone asks you whether you believe in hiring based on experience or potential, respond with a simple “yes.”

Both experience and potential are worthwhile, and it’s not necessary to choose one over the other.

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