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Should you hire for potential and attitude, or experience?

Hiring can be an exciting yet challenging task. On one hand, hiring typically signifies expansion and growth. On the other, we’re facing a huge talent shortage, with 45 percent of employers struggling to fill open roles—a percentage only predicted to rise over the next decade. That means finding that dream candidate is becoming a struggle for many businesses.

Once upon a time, job requirements were fairly cut and dry. A candidate needed X experience or skills to perform Y job, and they either possessed those skills or they didn’t. Once hired, the employee often stayed in that role or within a company for an average of 10 years. Compare that to now, where employees aged 25 to 34 stick around for an average of 2.8 years.

With the rapid development of technology and a shift in the way people are choosing to work, companies are hiring more often and for new roles that require wide-ranging and new skill sets.

It’s all about balance

This global shift in the workforce may be why many hiring managers are beginning to look beyond the words on a resume and previous experience, and dig deeper into the potential value a candidate brings to the table. However, hiring isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a ‘this or that’ issue.

As Michael Tuso, head of Business Development & Enablement at Chili Piper, a Brooklyn-based B2B company that makes buyer enablement software, told me, “There are pros and cons to both, but they are inextricably linked. The key is finding a balance between hiring and considering both factors. Potential is future growth. Experience can be, but is not necessarily an indicator for that future growth. Maybe someone is a better fit for our organization than they were somewhere else. Their previous experience helps build a picture, but it doesn’t account for the entire picture.”

The trick is finding a balance of professional experience and potential for a role. In the event that elusive unicorn doesn’t present itself, it helps to understand the pros and cons of hiring based on experience versus potential.

Previous experience helps build a picture, but doesn't account for the entire picture.

When it makes sense to hire for experience

Overall, an experienced hire will require less training and mentorship. They’ll also most likely require a higher salary and may potentially outgrow the role if there’s not a clear path for advancement in place. For some positions, this is absolutely fine; it’s more a matter of setting expectations early on, on both sides.

There’s also the time efficiency aspect. More experienced candidates are able to dive into their new role quickly, without much additional training. Hiring for experience may need to be a hiring priority if your team or company doesn’t have the time, resources, and expertise to offer in-depth mentorship and training. Very technical roles also tend to require significant prior experience. Also keep in mind: are you hiring for overall experience—perhaps for someone with deep industry knowledge or long-term experience working in a startup or enterprise environment—or for experience in a specialized skill? This nuance matters. Someone with 15 years’ experience in a particular role at a large company may have trouble adjusting to smaller, more agile environments—or vice versa.

The benefit of hiring for potential

While a candidate’s experience is easier to assess, potential requires taking a deeper look into who a person is and attempting to determine their ability to adapt to the role and company.

Alex R., a general manager at Team Building Hero, a company that provides corporate team building activities in several major U.S. cities, shared, “In almost all cases, I prefer to hire based on potential instead of experience. Here’s why: people that have a great work ethic, positive attitudes, communicate well and stick to deadlines are rare. If I find someone with these traits, I know I can train them up to be high performing in their role.”

While a candidate's experience is easier to assess, potential requires taking a deeper look into who a person is and attempting to determine their ability to adapt to the role and company.

The payoff from investing the first few months of a new hire’s time in training and mentoring sessions is that the employee is more closely aligned with the way your specific team and company does things. Not to mention, hiring for potential and attitude can open up a larger candidate pool.

Take a look at the bigger picture

While discussing imposter syndrome, a mentor once told me, “Enthusiasm trumps experience.” And, having spoken with a handful of CEOs and veteran recruiters, it seems they also share a similar sentiment when it comes to hiring.

“As the saying goes, hire for character and train for skills. Though it sounds cliché, it is even more fitting today than it was a few years back,” said Kamyar Shah, a business and management consultant at World Consulting Group, a management consulting firm. “There are several issues in hiring and recruiting in the current market; however, the two issues with the biggest impact are unqualified recruiters and unrealistic expectations.”

Shah went on to say, “The first one—unqualified HR professionals that are not nearly familiar with the job specifications—has a huge impact on the outcome. For example, recruiters hiring for advanced marketing positions that never have worked a day in marketing or recruiters seeking highly skilled data scientists without having the ability to discern the applicant’s resume. The second factor is the unrealistic expectations—I see it almost weekly, where a recruiter is out and about contacting only the applicants that are a near perfect match to the job description.”

How can this be avoided? Practice, plain and simple. “Hiring is dynamic and you learn from what works and doesn’t by doing it repeatedly. Another strategy I like to use is to measure the predictability of the indicators in the hiring process and how that relates to performance later on. We then can go back and make hiring better and also get feedback on how we can best support candidates both in onboarding and through continuing education,” said Tuso.

Another downfall many companies face is Shah spoke to the importance of this from a recruiting standpoint, but this tends to be an issue at large, when organizations are hiring for a new role, or saw someone leave because they weren’t “a good fit.”

“Many companies haven’t adequately outlined what is an absolute must-have for each role they are filling and may experience significant problems as a consequence of not mapping out the qualifying factors for any given role. They resort to overly simplistic scoring models for hiring—or even worse, ‘gut feelings’ about candidates. This leads to confirmation bias and hiring people that are more like us and not necessarily right or wrong for a particular role,” Tuso explained.

Taking the extra time to create a more objective hiring process and digging deeper than surface level qualifications is absolutely critical. As is investing in an individual's onboarding and continual training. It’s a way to future proof yourself against the talent shortage and also helps companies grow faster, reduce attrition, and save money and time in the long run.

Get real during the hiring process

As Shah put it, “Having hired for hundreds of positions, my experience and approach has been different. I look for a general match whereby I am comfortable that the potential missing skills can be taught. Then I make the hiring decision based on two criteria: character and compatibility of the applicant to adapt to the organizational culture.”

Bill Humbert, founder of RecruiterGuy and author of Employee 5.0: Secrets Of A Successful Job Search In The New World Order, gives similar advice. He said: “Hiring managers need to understand exactly what skills and experience are needed for the position. Once the goals are laid out, attracting and selecting the best candidate—and where to trade potential for experience—becomes crystal clear.”

Hiring today may be less about finding a perfect fit and more about being honest about what it truly takes to do a particular job. Then, and most likely after some trial and error, hiring managers need to trust that a candidate with the right mixture of necessary experience and potential can take the role you’ve created and run with it.

Mariana Ruiz is a freelance copywriter & content marketer using stories to connect with people. She writes for small businesses and entrepreneurs on customer success, marketing, lifestyle and travel topics. Her hobbies include traveling to tropical beaches as often as possible and contemplating what it means to be human in this wild world. Connect with her on LinkedIn or say hello on Instagram.