3 Big Mistakes to Avoid When Hiring for Leadership Positions


Written by: Eric Morgan

Would you hire a software salesman who barely knew how to use a PC? Would you recruit a salesperson to lead a new marketing initiative? Would you take a chief technology officer and put him in charge of marketing?

Your answers should be yes, yes, and yes.

These three real-life situations have been some of the best hires of my career. And in every case, I weighed experience near the bottom of my priority list.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but the higher up the org chart you go, the less important specific experience becomes. What matters more is behavior, competency, and track record.

The hiring process is lengthy and laborious, especially when hiring for leadership roles. Make it easier on yourself and your team by avoiding these three experience-related pitfalls.

Mistake #1: Valuing Background Over Behavior

If you’re looking for a general manager to lead your retail market group, conventional wisdom says the candidate with many years of retail experience would have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. This may be a bad assumption.

Leaders who have vast experience in one functional area often have lopsided skills. They may end up hyper-focusing on the one area of the business where they’ve spent years honing their expertise–at the exclusion of other tasks and teams. They may be less open to new ideas, less willing to take risks, and more likely to say things like, “Already tried that once. Next idea please.”

Even more important than the candidate’s background are the key behaviors you need a person in this role to exhibit. It’s much easier to impart functional knowledge than it is to change ingrained behaviors and attitudes. Look for qualities like strategic thinking, strong achievement drive, and the “figure it out” factor. For smaller companies, a demonstrated ability to deal with uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk is also important.

Your biggest red flag during the interview will be the candidate who answers questions with overly technical, textbook responses designed to show off his deep knowledge about finance, or marketing, or sales. If instead you get relevant stories sharing his broad experience leading people and processes, keep listening.

Mistake #2: Prizing Industry Experience Over Innate Ability

What did I see in that PC-illiterate software salesman I mentioned earlier? Yes, he once confused the term “legacy systems” for the name of a competitor. But he also called more people in a day than most of his peers contacted in a week. As a result, he went on to break sales record after sales record, outsell nearly everyone else in medical equipment sales, and eventually work his way through the organization to run a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

What initially looked like a gamble made an enormous difference in the company’s bottom line over time.

If this individual were interviewing at your company, up against someone who had 10 years of direct industry experience, would you make the “safe hire” without even thinking about it?

If so, you’re missing out on some great opportunities for innovation, diversity, and growth.

Mistake #3: Hiring a Little Fish from a Big Pond

If a resume crosses your desk that shows a lengthy stint at your industry leader, it will catch your attention. But proceed with caution. You don’t want to be so blinded by a bright, shiny resume that you fail to ask the really important questions.

If she was performing so well at Google, why is she interested in your smaller company? What was her actual impact there? Could she succeed with a more limited budget and a lower head count? She may have had incredible training, but does she have that go-getter mindset?

While it’s exciting to have the opportunity to recruit someone from Apple or Microsoft, his resume alone doesn’t mean he’s good. He may have had a talented team compensating for his personal weaknesses. And remember: it’s not nearly as hard to sell for a company that has incredible momentum. Be especially wary of the candidate who left the industry giant for a smaller company, quickly returned to the industry giant, and is now interviewing with you. Some people simply perform better as minuscule cogs inside massive machines.

Choose the Raw Talent Over the Resume

Naturally, resume experience can be an incredible asset, but only when paired with certain innate behaviors and abilities. No matter how perfect a candidate appears on paper, there’s one terrible trio to avoid when hiring for a leadership position: he is narrowly entrenched in one functional role, he gives you perfect textbook answers in the interview but shares no personal experiences, and he spent years as a small cog at the market leader.


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