This article by Dr. Derek Lusk, Head of Executive Assessment at AIIR, originally appeared in his regular column, Unnatural Selection, on Psychology Today.
Psychologists have little impact on business when their research is so narrowly defined that only other academics read it. These impractical findings have caused business professionals and other practitioners to ignore the wisdom of psychologists, leading to several myths concerning executive hiring and promotions. This post addresses one of the most consequential myths today: that a person’s work experience impacts their ability to lead more than anything else.
Indeed, research shows that experience — and even a leader’s track record in previous roles — is a weak predictor of leadership talent. A number of studies show that experience is negatively correlated with leadership effectiveness; that is, the more experience you have the worse you do in the role. Yet organizations continue to evaluate leadership potential using a candidate’s resume as the primary data point. Why is this?
One reason is that experience facilitates job performance when the job is cognitively rudimentary and less complex than senior leadership roles, giving the illusion that experience matters in all jobs. In executive roles, unlike other roles, studies show that around five years of experience is the sweet spot; after that, the additional years don’t differentiate between candidates. Interestingly, highly complex job knowledge can be acquired by formal learning rather than work experience. And executives learn fast. The average IQ in the executive ranks is far above average, so learning the business conceptually doesn’t take 20 years.
Another reason experience shouldn’t be overweighted is that it often reinforces knowledge, ideas, and culture-specific habits in a prior role. This, in turn, supports rigidities that are no longer relevant when transitioning to a new company or taking on a new position at a different level of leadership. Some studies even show a negative relationship between experience and job performance, because 20 years of experience — especially at the same organization — can cause an executive to have tunnel vision about how to lead a business and people.
Now, think about how this impacts diverse candidates who are denied jobs due to a lack of experience caused by unequal opportunities. Specifically, consider how this affects women in leadership. There are very few women in executive roles partly due to unnecessary experience requirements, a scenario that has caused an infinite loop of discrimination. It is more common for women to exit the workforce to help at home, and they are unjustly punished by hiring practices that place too much emphasis on years of experience when there is no evidence supporting these decisions.
So, what can be done to create a world where leaders are selected based on leadership talent, and nothing else?
Let’s start by defining leadership. Leadership concerns good judgment and influencing people to set aside their own needs for the team. Judgment involves decisions about people, strategy, and structure. Experience facilitates good judgment, to some degree, but the experience required for good judgment is overestimated while personality characteristics are underestimated. In the words of Aldous Huxley, “Experience teaches only the teachable.”
The other aspect of leadership, influencing people to cooperate, has almost nothing to do with experience. I say almost because perceived competence can galvanize influence. However, the experience needed for perceived competence is minimal compared to organizational expectations. The more significant part of inspiring cooperation is personality and how well the leader’s style fits (or complements) the team’s culture.
Given the discriminatory impact of unreasonable experience requirements, along with a lack of evidence supporting its use, we need to pay attention to the background and skills that matter when identifying high-potential talent in organizations.
The first is experience. No one would argue that experience is useless in decision-making, but there is no evidence suggesting that it should be weighted over other factors. This is especially the case when all candidates have at least five years of experience in an analogous role or at a similar level of leadership. The perception of competence is far more critical; followers need to know that the leader understands the business, just like hunter-gatherer tribes give status, power, and influence to the best hunters.
Another area to evaluate is track record. Track record is difficult to assess because the accuracy of resumes and interviewee stories are suspect, to say the least. Moreover, suppose there is objective evidence of success in previous roles, it’s challenging to attribute this performance to individual executives over other factors: the team, industry, economic climate, luck, etc. Like experience, no one would argue against evaluating track record; at the same time, it is far less predictive than one would think.
The third — and most predictive of success — is leadership style compared to the role and team culture. Leadership style should be evaluated with reliable and valid assessment tools and corroborated by qualitative data, such as stakeholder interviews, 360 surveys, and interviews conducted by industry experts and psychologists. This cross-validation of quantitative and qualitative data is far more predictive of future success than a person’s resume or track record. In addition, objective assessments cut through the harmful impact politicians have on high-potential talent pools. Without psychological assessments, organizations have a hard time spotting hidden gems and instead invest in extraverts that talk a lot and play politics.
In sum, there is a substantive gap between the science of identifying high-potentials and current hiring practices in organizations. Almost universally, organizations decide who should lead based on years of experience, which reinforces the current system and perpetuates discrimination in the C-suite. From my perspective, the solution to more diversity and effectiveness in senior leadership roles is straightforward: Organizations should de-emphasize experience and place greater weight on evaluating leadership style in the context of strategy, culture, and team dynamics.
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