by Achim Nowak

Why HUNGER Trumps EXPERIENCE

April 16, 2023

You, too, have been denied. Sat in the annual HR performance review and were told that it wasn’t your time yet. Because you needed a little more operational experience. Need one more international rotation first. Needed, needed, needed.

Didn’t check ALL the boxes.

Needs more experience.

Hunger Is worth more than experience, said David Cote, former CEO of Honeywell, in an interview in the Harvard Business Review (HBR, January/February 2021). David Cote, considered by many one of the most successful corporate CEOs of his generation, is the author of the book “Winning Now, Winning Later.” And he is unequivocal about the experience part.

In general, experience is overrated, David Cote asserts as he speaks about selecting Corporate CEOs. Someone can have a bunch of different experiences but still not be a change agent. Experience can make directors feel more comfortable with a candidate, but the question is: Does she or he have the hunger to make a difference?

I think of CEOs I have known who have jumped from one CEO role to the next, leaving in their wake organizational systems that were functional but often not exceptional. Yet in their new role, they got busy, at once, recreating the unexceptional workplace systems they came from.

Because that was the experience they were hired for.

Any leader needs to be open to all facts and opinions, declares David Cote, recognizing that he or she will not know everything. An experienced CEO might say. “I’ve seen all this before, so I know what to do.” That can get in the way of soliciting all the facts and really listening to what people have to say. Sometimes experience can be a detriment.

Hunger, in a business playground, is such a wonderful word. What sort of hunger are we talking about here? The hunger to succeed, surely. The hunger to exceed past successes, perhaps? The hunger to be a more brilliant leader?

Let’s take a look.

Cultivate a Hunger for …

Bold Transformation

Incrementalism is the enemy of transformation. So is band-aid leadership. Small operational improvements may, indeed, be needed where you work. Make them happen. Such changes are, however, often born of frustration with the old. They are rarely animated by a hunger for audacious transformation.

Transformation begins with the willingness to question everything. Reimagine everything. Without a pre-packaged answer. Reimagine roles, layers of management oversight, all business structures, functions and decision-making rhythms.

Sound good? Well, when you are hired for past experience, a radical questioning of present-business-reality is often not desired. Even when they told you in the job interview that they want you to be a change agent. Perhaps that’s what you heard. Perhaps that is actually what they said. Reality is, words notwithstanding, all forces are summoning you to recycle previous experience, not champion transformation. Be hungry for bold, please.

Perpetual Learning

A perpetual-learning-mindset rests on the premise that I, no matter how experienced, have a lot left to learn. Because I have been hired for my past experience, the pressure to recreate past experiences is tremendous. This pressure to be the experienced one may well get in the way of learning or, as David Cote so nicely put it, soliciting all the facts and really listening to what people have to say. Learning from those who have a lesser title than I do. Learning from everyone in my professional ecosystem. Learning from other companies, or data, or research, or anything that falls outside of my cone of experience.

At what point does my experience become the jail of old ideas? To what degree have I internalized the notion that my ideas are better than those of others because of my years of experience? And how quick am I, conscious or not, to dismiss the ideas of a new generation of employees because they lack experience?

Giving Your Power Away

This is the insanity of how we hire for very Senior roles. The required-experience-checklist tends to get longer and longer. Yet the things we’re expected to have lots of experience in we won’t actually be doing ourselves. Someone will lead Operations for us. Marketing. The Commercial side of the enterprise. There will be seasoned leaders on our team who “own” those functions.

We simply need to lead. Well. Period. Hire brilliant talent. Allow this talent to lead. We lead by giving our power away to them. We lead by guiding, yes, by listening, by mentoring, by challenging and inspiring. We certainly don’t lead by our deep expertise in every job function that reports to us. Our experience resides in leadership, regardless of expertise. Our hunger is for being an ever-better leader. Better leaders give more power away. You don’t find that competency on the required-experience-checklist.

Caution:  Beware of what I call young-buck-hunger. It’s the hunger of wanting to do something bigger, faster, better than ANYONE else has EVER done before. It’s a win-at-all-cost hunger. It tends to be animated by an insatiable ego that doesn’t pay attention to context or listen to others.

It’s the hunger that wishes to go it alone. A hunger that devours everything in its wake.

If you’re a highly experienced leader who keeps being moved into bigger and bigger roles because of your expertise, chances are you will increasingly be asked to mentor younger talent. GREAT. As you climb, please consider the following: Get yourself a younger mentor of your own. Someone from the next-generation-talent-pool who YOU are supposed to mentor.

Make sure this is an individual you trust. Savor that relationship. It’s how you keep your hunger right-sized and fresh.

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