Andrew Sullivan passes on a letter from an unemployed reader who says that interviewers will only consider experience if you’ve already done exactly the job they’re hiring for. Kevin Drum writes that he’s always considered this widespread attitude to be bizarre, and that he always tried to hire the most talented person with any more or less relevant experience, figuring that after the first month or two the learning curves would cross and after that you’d be better off with the sharper, not more experienced, candidate.
I’ve only hired people one-by-one, for small groups, and only in two fields: web design, and journalism. In both fields, I’ve found talent is a lot more important than closely related experience. But the other thing I’ve found is that people have different kinds of talents and skills, and a lot of them don’t cross over very well. You know that thing they tell you about how anyone can learn to write? That doesn’t seem to me to be generally true, past a certain point. You may be smart, inquisitive, and well organized, but if you don’t know how to write by the time you’re 23 or so, I think the chances you’re ever going to be a passable writer decline very sharply. Conversely, you can be a great writer, but if you don’t know how to get organized by the time you’re 23…you get the idea.
But there are a couple of other things to note. First, motivation is extremely important. What does this person want to get out of this job? Does that mesh with what you need someone to do? And secondly, and relatedly, I’ve never been in an organization where people only did one narrowly defined task. Whatever the direct nature of their responsibilities, people generally fulfill a variety of roles in the organization, related to their talents. Some people are social bucker-uppers. Some people help keep everyone focused on whether tasks that need to be accomplished have been checked off. Usually when someone leaves the organization, or when the organization grows into a new role, what you need isn’t just somebody who can do one specific task; it’s somebody who can fill a range of functions that the group needs. So you need to think about that too.
Not that I’m particularly good at this, and the biggest group I’ve ever headed has consisted of four people. I’m sure at the higher levels of HR in large organizations things look very different.
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