When I first started job searching in DC, it wasn’t tough. I got my first job as an HR generalist for Arthur Andersen, and began learning HR from the ground up. Two years later, I got the itch to move on and began another job search. I applied to a well-known consulting firm in DC. They were high-growth, had just gone public, and lamented my lack of an Ivy League education.
I convinced them otherwise, but then heard the same story when I joined the company. I had come in at a level above one of my new peers who wondered how I’d wrangled that without that prestigious degree. By that time, I had a Masters under my belt too. But it wasn’t from a top-ranked school. It didn’t impress.
Fast forward fifteen years. I see a C-level job opening that I think a friend would be a good fit for. It’s been open for awhile, so I reach out to see if they are still looking. They are. So I forward the resume to the COO. Mind you–I have no stake in the game. I don’t do placement. I just try to pay it forward.
The reply? We’re not interested. She doesn’t have the “meaningful experience” in the industry we’re looking for. I pushed back. The candidate had deep experience in the field and had just led a company turnaround while managing multiple leadership roles. I email back pushing on their lack of interest. The response? “We just have high standards.”
The next week, I had the pleasure of listening to Ret. Colonel Donald Sutherland at a RecruitDC session focused on military hiring. He told the story of SPC Steven Cornford who found himself under fire after his commander, 1LT Philip Neal was wounded. SPC Cornford doesn’t give up. He keeps telling 1LT Neal that he has his back and tries to tend to Neal’s wounds while still fighting the enemy. Injured himself, SPC Cornford used his only working arm to throw his last grenade. It pushes the way the enemy enough so that he could carry his wounded commander, 1LT Neal, 300 meters to the MediVac. There, the medical staff declare 1LT Neal Killed in Action. SPC Cornford stays with 1LT Neal until his remains can be evacuated. “I have your back” he says, and stays until the remains are evacuated. He later won a Silver Star for his efforts. But when SPC Cornford separated from the military, he couldn’t find a job.
I’ve been struggling for a long time with why companies care so much about credentials. About the perfect match. The Ivy League education. Fifteen years of experience with a direct competitor. Sure, the Ivy League degree tells me you likely had a certain GPA and SAT score. Experience with a competitor means you understand the market. But how do you perform under pressure? What do you do when your great idea is rejected? How do you start something from scratch?
Very rarely is it skill or education that defines the best performers. Take the story of Facebook puzzles. In George Anders’ book, The Rare Find, he profiles Facebook’s early struggle hiring engineers. The solution, Facebook puzzles, were difficult programming challenges designed to test the mettle of talented programmers. One of their earliest successes was a college dropout, stuck in a dead-end small town job designing small company websites.
In a world where technology means we have unfettered access to global talent, where college educations are become less and less affordable, and where competition brings out the best in people, why are we still filtering based on a static set of data?
As Anders himself says in The Rare Find: “ Traditional measures of past achievement, such as test scores and academic degrees, are losing power, and companies are getting better at looking for those future superstars who deliver many times the value of someone who is merely good.”
I argued before about talent being like stock—it’s not about past performance but future value. It’s not that what you’ve done in the past doesn’t matter. It’s how you use your assets moving forward.
My three degrees and fifteen years of work experience in HR shouldn’t drive the decision to hire me. But they do influence how I answer a question or think about the problem you’re trying to solve. As a consultant, clients care about my credentials, but they care more about what I am doing for them right now, in this moment.
And as they evaluate whether to hire me, they’re better served by asking what I’d do about a current quandary they’re facing. Does that mean the SPC’s military experience doesn’t matter? No. But what matters is how that makes him answer the question you put in front of him.
Look at the experience set to get a sense of the person. Test them to get a sense of performance. That’s the secret sauce. Let me explain it by using myself as an example for a hypothetical VP of Marketing job.
- Do I have a basic understanding of Marketing? Check.
- Do I have the requisite undergrad and grad degrees? Check.
- Have I managed budgets, led teams. and large projects? Check.
- Do I have pure corporate marketing experience? Not really.
- Have I worked for a consumer packaged goods company? Nope.
Would most companies totally ignore me for the role? Absolutely.
But here’s what really defines me. I put myself through much of my schooling. I’ve been in the workforce since age 13, and haven’t stopped working since. When asked, I have a completely unique perspective on marketing today. Oh, and I get more done in an hour than most people get done all day.
That won’t resonate with most people. But a good recruiter might see signs of culture fit, of work ethic, and probe to see what that perspective is and how I’d run the function. Rejection is still possible, but so is a gold mine.
It’s like dating. Stop looking for perfection. Stop looking for the reflection of yourself. Look for the spark, the differences that balance you out. Learn from their past, but look towards the future.
Ex-military can take the energy from their past to ignite something your organization has never seen. My friend could turn your function around in that C-level role with innovation you only dream about. But that guy with the perfect set of credentials and experience in the role and industry? He’ll come in and do what he always does. Good luck with average.