In the past, the only way to become an Army Special Forces soldier was to have prior military experience.
Then, in 2000, the creation of the X-Ray Program (or 18X) created a path that prepared civilian candidates for direct access into Special Forces assessment, selection, and training.
Initially, there was a lot of apprehension about the program, but over the years, 18X candidates have proved to be excellent Special Operations soldiers. Today, the Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy Special Operations communities all pull the majority of their candidates from civilian pools.
What Special Operations discovered is that prior industry experience is simply not as important as you might think, especially when it comes to positions requiring leadership.
Despite this, businesses tend to overly weight industry experience in the hiring process. If industry experience is the top factor you look at—or, worse, the only factor you look at—you are limiting your ability to make the best hiring decisions.
To hire the best leaders, you need to rethink industry experience. You shouldn’t disregard it entirely, but ask yourself these three questions to be sure you’re considering industry experience in a smart way.
#1: Does Industry Experience Matter to Job Performance?
The first question you must ask yourself is whether industry experience actually matters to job performance. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t.
With the 18X program, Special Operations leaders asked themselves, “Does having infantry experience really matter?” The answer was no. Special Operations is so unique that being part of the conventional forces is not an indicator of being a good fit for Special Operations.
If prior industry experience isn’t required to perform the job, it should not be a requirement. It’s as simple as that.
The point of requirements is to help select the candidates most likely to become high performers in the role. If a certain number of years of industry experience isn’t predictive of future performance, requiring it will only limit your talent pool.
#2: Would General Experience Be Just as Valuable?
A common mistake companies make is looking for incredibly specific industry experience when general experience would be just as valuable.
This is especially common with leadership positions. For instance, we’ve seen companies choose a candidate with five years of industry experience over one with more than ten years of leadership experience in the military.
A great leader tends to be a great leader regardless of the specific industry. A successful leader from the manufacturing sector could likely perform just as well in, say, a software company.
Though everybody wants a specialist nowadays, what makes great leaders so effective is their ability to tackle a wide variety of problems. You don’t want leaders who can only handle a small, specific set of situations; you want people who can handle whatever is thrown at them.
If you want to hire the best leaders, make sure you’re looking at all of their relevant experience, not just their specific industry experience.
#3: Are You Prioritizing Industry Experience Over Character?
While experience is important, it’s not as important as a person’s character. Experience tells you where someone has been. Character tells you where they are going.
Prior industry experience is simply not the most effective predictor of performance. You likely have average performers within your company who have years of experience, right? What makes you think any other company is different? Sometimes hiring based on experience simply means inheriting bad habits or mediocre performers from a competitor.
Plus, nobody works in a vacuum. A person’s performance is dependent on the environment and the team they operate within. A leader who was a superstar at their previous company could turn out to be an average performer at your company due to a different work culture or leadership style.
So rather than prioritizing a candidate’s past performance at one of your competitors, consider whether the candidate has the core character traits required to succeed at your company.
Experience is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Obviously, you’re not going to hire a kid straight out of high school for a C-suite position. Experience and past performance do matter. But you need to be thoughtful about how you use experience in your selection process.
Ultimately, yes, you should consider and evaluate a candidate’s experience, but don’t obsess over it. What they know and where they have been is all in the past. Their character—what makes them who they are, what energizes them, how they respond to stress—will determine their future. Hire for the future, not the past.
For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.
Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.
George Randle is the Managing Partner at EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.
Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.