I’ll have the same again please

When does experience in one business sector cease to be an advantage but instead become a burden? When do the skills and knowledge that you’ve acquired about one type of business disqualify you from ever moving to another?

We’ve all seen the job ads that state suitable candidates must have experience of one sector or another, and to a certain extent that’s a sensible place to start, but the degree to which this requirement is implemented means that the business sector you find yourself in when you first start work is likely to be the only sector you’ll ever work in.

If you happen to get your first job in retail for instance, the chances are you’ll be seen by recruiters as a ‘retail specialist’.  Never mind that you might have a range of transferable skills including things like budgeting, managing a team, doing presentations and so on, you will be defined only by the sector in which these skills were learnt and applied.  If you wanted to move into, say, manufacturing, then these skills would count for nothing because you don’t have ‘sector experience’.

And it gets worse - I knew someone who worked in retail banking but when she applied for a job in commercial banking was told she wouldn’t be considered because she didn’t have ‘sector experience’. But hang on, aren’t commercial and retail banks in the same sector?  To the rest of us maybe but not in the world of corporate recruitment.

These requirements are often set by fervently conservative management who believe that the best choice for someone who’s left is to find an almost exact copy.  This ensures continuity, easy assimilation and acceptance and it makes it easy for the recruiters to find the right candidate.  If you’re a recruiter working in-house or externally, where is the value in trying to find candidates from outside the narrow brief when the client will think you mad for doing so.  

Perhaps when economic times are tough and there is an oversupply of candidates you can understand the easy logic of hiring from a familiar pool.  But this cuts the options for innovation, different thinking and ideas from other sectors.

Curiously, the only jobs in most corporations that often go to complete outsiders are the very top jobs precisely because they need innovation and different thinking at that level.  There are countless examples of the chief executive being appointed from outside the hiring sector, often to the great advantage of the organisation.  Greg Dyke for example, was appointed to lead the FA when most of his experience has been in media – that typically would never happen two or three or more levels down.

So what should recruiters and HR departments do in the face of this demand for conformity?  It’s tough to argue with the client and the customer is supposed to always be right.  However there is merit in testing the water from time to time and adding in one or two ‘different candidates’ into the mix. 

You must discuss these in detail with the hiring manager, identify the skills and experience that make these candidates worth considering and accept that changing management perceptions might take some time.  I hear you asking, what’s in it for you, and why should you bother?  Very simply, if your organisation can benefit from innovation in other sectors and it has an impact on the bottom line then it’s to everyone’s advantage.

Certainly nothing is likely to change if you keep replacing like for like.  There is then that very familiar definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different outcome.  Same again please!