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Don't mistake a costume for the real thing
One of the hardest things about finding the right person for the job is identifying if they really have the experience you need to solve the problem at hand. More often than not, people default to looking at previous positions and results. While this can be a useful heuristic, it is very misleading especially when you have a difficult problem.
Let’s say we are trying to turn an underperforming team around. It is now our job to find a person who can do the difficult job of fixing the team culture, focusing the team’s direction, and driving up performance. Who do we look for? The vast majority of people in our situation will seek to look for someone who has done this before. It’s an obvious de-risking move.
But how exactly do we find that person? Most people go in search of those with the right titles and backgrounds. If a VP of a prestigious company has run a large scale organization, how could they not know how to do this? After all, they have the title that implies the right responsibility and they have the results to show with deniable proof of an extremely high-functioning organization. These seem like heuristics that would work, but they don’t. Why not?
Let’s break it down.
What’s in the title heuristic? A title is a company’s way to explicitly denote a person as representing a portion of the company. The higher the title, the larger the portion they represent. In other words, a title is a proxy for how much responsibility a person has. As such it increases the probability that a person of such a title is likely to have faced the underperforming team problem. However, it does not guarantee it.
And what’s in the results heuristic? Results are indicative of an end state. For example a person can have the result of being in charge of team that has produced excellent outcomes by all measures. That team could be a talent magnet, it could be responsible for the vast majority of revenue, and it could be consistently going above and beyond its goals. However, it does not guarantee that the person knows how to achieve similar results given a new team.
Both heuristics share a similar foundational problem - they do not match directly to the actual problem at hand. Recall that the real problem we are interested in is how to turn around an underperforming team. Just because you’re a VP of a high performing organization doesn’t mean you actually know how to transform an underperforming one into a performant one. You could have inherited a great team, you could have been part of a company that had such a strong culture that a high performance was selected prior to joining, or perhaps subordinate leaders under you have actually been doing all the hard work.
All these heuristics do is tell us that candidates with appropriate titles and results are more likely to have experienced problems of the nature that we’re looking for. That’s helpful, but not sufficient. The fallacy of assuming that it is sufficient is equivalent to falling for an “experience costume”. By assuming experience of a problem set through indirect markers rather than testing it directly, you mistake the costume for the real thing.
Now let’s consider another candidate: someone without a high title or any notable company of record. However, this candidate has consistently worked in extremely difficult situations: they’ve taken over underperforming teams, had to downsize an entire business unit because no one was left to do it, and had to deliver an impossible project despite being given no authority. Trusting this candidate may indeed prove to be difficult because outwardly they don’t seem to have the experience profile that we may more naturally assume. In fact, they may appear dramatically inexperienced. But are they? They may not have an “experience costume”, but do they have experience in the exact thing that we need? It sounds like it.
How do we compare this candidate with the prestigious VP? We should evaluate how much experience each candidate has had with the explicit problem of turning around underperforming teams. We should dive deep into each of their histories to understand exactly what situations they were given, how they approached the challenge, and ultimately what they learned or managed to manifest through that process. Whoever has done this more is likely to be the superior candidate. This may ultimately mean either of the two examples in our case.
Don’t mistake a costume for the real thing.
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