What’s more important to employers: excitement or experience?

Many a hiring manager has been forced to choose between two qualified (or, if he or she is lucky, outstanding) candidates, and sometimes the situation goes like this:

  • Candidate A personifies excitement, and will attack the role with energy and vigour
  • Candidate B has significantly more domain experience, and will draw upon this knowledge

Whom do you choose?

The last time I was faced with a dead heat and had to decide between experience and excitement, I found myself wondering what other people have done in the same position; so, I thought it would be entertaining and educational to solicit input from some friends and colleagues (all of whom have hired people) to get a range of perspectives.  Some preferred to remain anonymous; in that case I simply made up a name.  All had valuable insight.

As the responses arrived fast and furious – it was clear I’d struck a chord.  My thanks go out to all who took the time to write up their thoughts!

Al (Director, Sales and Energy Products at a biodiesel company)

“Competence is the key for all of my hiring decisions.  I find that experience is a much better indicator of competence than excitement. That said, a pronounced LACK of excitement would be a ‘watch out’ to me.”

“Competence is the key for all of my hiring decisions.  I find that experience is a much better indicator of competence than excitement.  My hiring process involves a weighted decision matrix and the weighting for experience is always higher than excitement.  The challenge is to drill down during the interview process in order to find out if the person’s experiences actually have resulted in increased competence or if they were just present for the experience.  Combined with other ‘team fit’ characteristics, excitement may contribute to trumping experience but definitely not as a metric on its own.  Along with experience I value a candidate who has a history of taking action.  I believe that in most cases, excitement can be a result of a highly competent, high performing individual but just being excited does not necessarily indicate you’re a strong performer.  That said, a pronounced LACK of excitement would be a ‘watch out’ to me for someone who may be burned-out or is lacking motivation and through a hiring process I’d try and dig down on that.”

Pat (legal firm)

“I have colleagues who would vote for the (most qualified) candidate each time and not have a concern that the person might leave because they are bored or overqualified.  I would prefer to find the right person for the role and have that person stay in the role for the long term.”

“I would prefer experience over excitement when the role requires some technical background or is in a field where it’s harder to learn by trying.  Also, the availability of my current team to train this person will also be a deciding factor: if we don’t have the bandwidth to train then I want someone to hit the ground running.  It depends on the role, of course.  The higher up you are looking to fill in the team structure, the more importance on having a person with experience.  In general, I think it all comes down to the role.  I have colleagues who would vote for the (most qualified) candidate each time and not have a concern that the person might leave because they are bored or overqualified.  I would prefer to find the right person for the role and have that person stay in the role for the long term.  In the end, I think I take the approach of if this person is the right person for the job rather than is this the person that is the best for our company.  Sometimes these two match up and sometimes they don’t.”

Dave (Director, Sales at a technology company)

“Imagine a world where young/exciting/potential high achievers were never given their first big break/key role…To my view, it is around finding balance across a team, and more importantly about having an open mind/with no particular pre-conditioned view about who may be suitable for a role – it’s about the individual.”

“I am initially inclined to say that experience would be preferred in a key/important role that is, let’s say, an established business – be it your top Key Account, or your most important Product Manager etc. On the experience side of things, you have the assurance that the person has the grey hairs and life experience to not make costly mistakes with your ‘bread and butter’, or ‘cash cow’. Conversely, imagine a world where young/exciting/potential high achievers were never given their first big break/key role? So, at the risk of sounding like I am sitting on the fence, I suggest that there is no black and white answer here – Experience is extraordinarily important in key roles/positions…but, also is the sarcastic saying ‘that’s the way it has always been done around here’.  To my view, it is around finding balance across a team, and by that I mean a virtual/matrix team (top-left brain supported by top right brain etc) – and more importantly about having an open mind/with no particular pre-conditioned view about who may be suitable for a role – it’s about the individual, and their strengths and weaknesses in the context of that role (and the timing of that role).  I don’t think there is a black and white answer, but I certainly do like having some excitement and energy in my team. I recently hired a young guy with potential, and he is performing to a very high standard – Energy and enthusiasm (tempered with coaching) are infectious, and just because you haven’t done a particular role in the past, doesn’t mean you are not the best guy for the role now.  Taking calculated risks can be fun and rewarding.  My old boss had a great saying ‘the biggest sin you can commit in business, is to be average’.

Kim (market intelligence at a technology company)

“My preference is to hire for energy: I can train and teach experience, I can’t teach the skills that come along with someone being inherently pumped to come and do their job every day.”

“My preference is to hire for energy rather than experience. I can train and teach experience, I can’t teach the skills that come along with someone being inherently pumped to come and do their job every day.  I would favor experience over excitement/energy if the job description required a certain skill or expertise or I needed someone to ramp quickly.  I would favor excitement/energy over experience if the team dynamic needed a boost, or if I was hiring for someone that would be a long-term asset for the company.  If I had limited budget, then I would choose energy over experience.”

Chris (engineering manager at a technology company)

“The only time experience trumps excitement is if you are hiring to solve an exceptionally advanced problem.  Most of the time, though, problems are not that advanced.”

“The only time experience trumps excitement is if you are hiring to solve an exceptionally advanced problem.  Most of the time, though, problems are not that advanced.  Internal experience is also worth more than external experience.  Experience also helps if it’s an unambitious job that you just want to get done right, and cannot be automated.  If someone isn’t excited, they’re not going to work hard.  Always hire excited engineers!  But don’t drop the quality bar.  Get everything or you quickly wind up with a bozo explosion… excited unqualified people are useless.”

Cassio (wireless director at a telecommunications provider)

“A good balance between high energy individuals at both ends of the experience spectrum could help to neutralize the impulsiveness of the Twitter generation.”

“The closer to your clients, more energy is typically better. On the flipside, structural/organizational decisions need serious thought and high energy typically comes with anxiety and too much focus on action – sometimes the best decisions are ‘do nothing’ and high energy people have a hard time with that.  A good balance between high energy individuals at both ends of the experience spectrum could help to neutralize the impulsiveness of the Twitter generation. Throw a few low-energy-with-lots-of-experience individuals that can serve as a model that a few things need to happen over longer periods of time.  I built a chart with some ideas of the types of role requirements that I believe fit the different quadrants.”

Energy and Experience

Nino (Hardware Engineering Manager at a technology company)

“Time and schedule are, in my opinion, probably the biggest deciding factors between experience and energy; without time to train enthusiastic, exciting, energetic individuals, their talents end up wasted.”

“Time and schedule are, in my opinion, probably the biggest deciding factors between experience and energy.  The kinds of schedules that I’ve been faced with have never permitted very much time to bring up new recruits.  Without time to train enthusiastic, exciting, energetic individuals, their talents end up wasted.  The rest of the time, if there wasn’t as big of a time constraint, I would rather have an energetic individual over an experienced one.  Experience sometimes ends up being a hinderance.  The most experienced staff may end up being the least productive—they know so many pitfalls that they end up being handicapped by dealing with an abundance of things that could go wrong.  The prerequisite, of course, is that the existing talent pool has the knowledge/expertise necessary to fill the knowledge gap.  For example, I wouldn’t hire an inexperienced software engineer if they were the only software engineer.  If there was already someone that could do the job but that had other things they needed to do with their time then an energetic, studious new hire would be more valuable than an experienced individual.”

Anne-Marie (creative director at a technology company)

“My best hire to date came in with a couple of years experience, had a clean portfolio that showed variety, and was really energetic.”

“For a  graphic design hire, if experience means producing amazing work with little direction from me, then experience has it. Budget usually means I’m hiring someone that falls under the excitement/energetic category. I’ve also learned that the number of years of experience sometimes doesn’t equate to the strength of one’s portfolio. I’ve had new graduate portfolios submitted that rival others with 10+ years. Unfortunately, new graduates tend to have trouble in the face to face interviews. Ideally, I look for someone with at least a couple of years in a corporate setting. I’d also trade in a bit of experience for at least some energy.  My best hire to date came in with a couple of years experience, had a clean portfolio that showed variety, and was really energetic. Being a quick learner with amazing work ethic always helps.”

Lee (Director, Product Marketing at a telecommunications vendor)

“Given a minimum level of competence, I have favoured energy over additional experience every time.  Genuine excitement is the driving force behind many great achievements.”

Ultimately, my own hiring decisions are based on a quantitative evaluation of each candidate across a range of categories, with the weighting of each category varying slightly depending upon the position.  For instance, when I’m for a senior role requiring more domain knowledge, I’ll place a higher premium on relevant experience.  If I’m hiring for a relatively junior role, then experience isn’t quite so important.I also tend to favour energy when perseverance and tenacity will be key elements of the job: will you be good at tracking people down to get information? will you mind coming in on the weekend to get a project launched?

I’ve observed that it’s not uncommon to see experienced people apply for a junior role because it’s an entry into a great organization.  In that situation, I’ve asked myself (and the candidate) if he or she will actually be happy in the position.  The risk is that the candidate will want to move very quickly, and perhaps the organizational structure or budget can’t accommodate such an immediate shift.  I’m also mindful that not all experience is pertinent.  Will the processes adopted and tactics applied at the previous role work in this organization?

Given a minimum level of competence, I have favoured energy over additional experience every time.  Genuine excitement is the driving force behind many great achievements.

Now that you’ve heard from me and several of my friends, feel free to have your say in the comments section or by answering the poll.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Careers, Everything, Management
3 comments on “What’s more important to employers: excitement or experience?
  1. […] written in the past about the debate between excitement and experience, and for that post I solicited input from a number of friends and colleagues. It’s worth a […]

  2. […] I simply can’t imagine a job where the people aren’t one of the major motivations for working there (maybe I’m just spoiled).  I suppose an obvious lesson here is that hiring for fit is extremely important. […]

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