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Oct 11, 2013
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

I’ve hired and managed a lot of people, and I always considered the experience of the candidate when making hiring decisions.

I have also been on the other side of the table and been turned down for jobs because I didn’t have the RIGHT kind of experience.

So, the importance of experience in the hiring game is something I know a little bit about.

That’s why it troubles me when I read a quote from a CEO — in The New York Times, of all places — claiming that “experience is overrated,” because I think that’s a terribly simplistic way of evaluating people when you’re looking to add someone to your workforce mix.

“Characteristics” are “far more important” than experience

Jeff Fluhr, is the current chief executive of Spreecast (a website that says it “connects you with people through video conversation”) and the former CEO of StubHub, the online ticket marketplace now owned by eBay.

Here’s what he recently told The New York Times’ Corner Office column when asked a question about his approach to hiring at his current company:

I’ve found that the softer characteristics of a person — the cultural fit, the chemistry fit, their personality traits, their level of optimism — are far more important than somebody’s experience.

What I was often doing at StubHub as the company grew was to say, “OK, we need a VP of marketing and we want somebody who’s been a VP marketing at another consumer Internet company, and hopefully, they’ve done these certain things because that’s what we need.”

But the reality is that if you get somebody who’s smart, hungry and has a can-do attitude, they can figure out how to do A, B and C, because there’s really no trick to most of these things.”

“Experience is overrated”

Later in the interview, Fluhr adds this when asked a question about what advice he would offer to a graduating class of college seniors:

One of the things I tell people is that experience is overrated. I still sometimes find myself falling into the trap of thinking, when I’m trying to fill a role, “Has the person done the work that the role requires?” That’s the wrong question. It should be, “Let’s find a person who has the right chemistry, the right intellect, the right curiosity, the right creativity.” If we plug that person into any role, they’re going to be successful.”

I find Jeff Fluhr’s comments interesting because he seems to be saying two things:

  1. It’s the skills and other intangibles that job candidates bring to the table that really count; and,
  2. Experience doesn’t really matter because “there’s really no trick to most of these” jobs.

Remember the “10,000 hour rule?”

What struck me about Jeff Fluhr’s approach is that his focus on a candidate’s skills and intangible qualities harkens back to what was going on during the great dotcom run-up in the late 1990s. Back at that time, jobs were plentiful and companies were very willing to look past the specifics of your experience and focus on skills and intangibles that they considered transferable to the position they were trying to fill.

That was a glorious time to be a job seeker, because those doing the hiring were so hungry for talent that they cared less about job titles and specific experiences and instead focused on whether your skill set would fit the position they needed filled. I know this because it happened to me; I was hired as a vice president at one of those semi-famous Bay Area dotcom’s in the late ’90s and had a brief but wonderful ride there.

So, while I applaud what CEO Fluhr is doing to dig into the intangibles and skills people bring to the hiring table, I scratch my head at his thinking that experience doesn’t matter and the really short-sighted notion that, “there’s really no trick to most” of these jobs.

How’s that again? Didn’t author Malcolm Gladwell make a pretty solid case for why experience matters in his book Outliers, where he used the “10,000 hour rule” to show how great experts become great in their craft by practicing and doing what they are doing an incredible number of times?

On top of that, Fluhr’s dismissal of experience flies in the face of what so many organization’s are doing today when they hire, and that is focus on ONLY people who have proven, deep, demonstrable experience in the exact job the hiring manager is looking to fill.

The stretch rule – and why it is a good thing

Now, I’m not defending the organization’s that hire like that, because I think it is equally as short-sighted as CEO Fluhr’s approach to finding talent. Yes, I think experience is important, but not at the expense of everything else.

Many years ago, Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, built Gannett into a multi-media powerhouse by plucking sharp, promising, and frequently young, people out of obscure places in the company and throwing them into much bigger jobs they weren’t quite ready for.

Neuharth’s theory was that people who had shown promise in their work would stretch well beyond that and could succeed at a much higher level with greater responsibilities. A substantial number of Gannett publishers and top executives got their first big break this way, getting pulled from out-of-the-way Gannett operations in places like Reno and Niagara Falls and thrown into jobs that were really above their current station in life.

Many question a lot of what Al Neuharth did during his career, but to his everlasting credit, this was a people strategy that really worked.

Hiring is a complicated process, and finding the right people is the name of the game. On-the-job experience shouldn’t be held up as the Holy Grail of hiring, nor should it be dismissed as something that hardly matters.

It is what it is — a road map to what a candidate has accomplished in the past, and a clue to what they might be able to do for you in the future.

Take it for what it is, and weigh it properly as you consider the job at hand. Casually dismiss it at your own peril.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.