Experience is overrated.

Hold that thought.

Years ago, when I ran a manufacturing plant, we had an opening for a Shipping Supervisor. We needed someone who could improve efficiency, motivate the team, and develop their skills. We needed someone who could not just maintain but actually grow the department.  

One internal candidate—let’s call him Jake—seemed better than the rest. Having worked in the department for over a decade, he had a broad range of shipping and distribution experience, was great at training new employees, and looked perfect for the job.

He turned out to be a terrible supervisor.

So why did I promote him? Because I forgot to ask him one key question.

Why your candidate’s motivations matter—not just their qualifications.

Jake wanted the job because he was tired of sitting on a forklift all day; he wanted to sit in a chair. He was tired of punching a clock and having to take scheduled breaks and lunches; he wanted to set his own schedule. He was tired of taking directions. He wanted to be the one who gave directions.

(Like Walter White, he wanted to be the one who knocks.)

He didn’t want to motivate, inspire, lead, manage, discipline, improve, optimize, develop—all the things that come with a leadership role.

In short, he didn’t want the job. He wanted the title.

But we didn’t need a “Shipping Supervisor.” We needed a person to lead, to motivate, to train, to develop, to improve. We didn’t need a ceremonial title; we needed results.

While hiring for the role, I made the mistake of focusing on his qualifications.

– What I asked him about: His experiences and certifications.

– What I should’ve asked him about: What he planned to do. The projects he would start, the initiatives he would put into place, the steps he would take to improve the business while also growing the skills—and the career potential—of his employees.

I needed someone who wanted to do the job. I needed someone who excelled at making things happen.

And that’s exactly what you need.

  • You don’t need a Director of Sales; you need a person who loves helping other people sell more.
  • You don’t need an Engineering Manager; you need a person who loves creating new products.
  • You don’t need a Supervisor of Whatever; you need a person who long ago made the choice that their happiness comes from someone else’s success. 

You need people who want the job because they want to do the work—and the title only makes it easier for them to do that work.

And that’s why experience is always overrated.

The problem with only looking at seniority.

Say you need to add a web developer to your team. You shortlist your candidates and rank them by experience. The most “senior” has been in the web design business for 15 years.

How long an individual has done something doesn’t matter. What they’ve done during that time matters.

Skills and knowledge are worthless when they aren’t put to use. Experience, no matter how vast, is useless when it’s not shared with others.

The smaller your business, the more likely you are to be an expert in your field. That should mean you can easily teach certain skills to your employees. But you can’t train enthusiasm, a solid work ethic, great interpersonal skills… all those traits matter a lot more than any skills a candidate brings.

Think I’m wrong? According to a Leadership IQ study that tracked 20,000 new hires, of those who failed within the first 18 months, only 11 percent failed due to deficiencies in technical skills. The vast majority failed due to problems with motivation, willingness to be coached, temperament, or emotional intelligence.

Top 5 reasons new hires fail bar chart - Gusto

You can train almost any skill, but it’s nearly impossible to train attitude. A candidate who lacks certain hard skills may certainly be a cause for concern, especially if those skills are difficult—or require a significant amount of time—to acquire. But a candidate who lacks motivation, team skills, work ethic, etc. is waving a giant red flag.

So how do you find the candidate with the right attitude, especially when you also need that person to possess a specific skill?

How to find candidates with the attitudes and skills your business needs.

1. Determine the key attribute you must have.

Forget about finding the stereotypically well-rounded employee for a moment. If you can only choose one attribute, what is the key skill required to succeed? Maybe you’re looking for a tangible skill. Or maybe you need a certain attitude or set of interpersonal skills.

(Generally speaking, your must-have attribute contributes the most to the result that truly matters for your organization.)

Maybe training can fill in some of the gaps, but still: Determine the one attribute the right candidate must have.

2. Determine the key attribute you can’t deal with.

Complete this sentence:

“I don’t care how great they are. They can’t be on my team because they _____.”

Usually your answer won’t be skills-based. Instead, the attribute you can’t deal with might be terrible interpersonal skills, a horrible work ethic, a larger than life ego, or something else. Determine the attribute you can’t live with, and make sure it stays off your team.

3. Lead with this interview question.

Here’s one I love because it gets right to the heart of every small business owner’s needs:

“What is the one skill you possess that will most benefit our bottom line?”

Immediately you learn whether the candidate knows anything about your business. It’s hard to say how you will benefit the bottom line when you don’t understand what truly drives value for a particular company.

More importantly, the answer helps you get to the heart of the value the employee will provide and whether their strengths truly meet your needs.

4. Then steal this interview script.

Imagine you’re interviewing a candidate for an HR job. Here’s how that conversation could go:

You ask the question above: “What is the one skill you possess that will most benefit our bottom line?”

One candidate might say, “I’m good at ensuring compliance with EEOC regulations.” That’s not a terrible answer.

But where HR roles are concerned, that should be a given. Saying you’ll ensure compliance is like saying, “I’ll come to work every day.”

And maybe, if avoiding legal issues is all you care about, that answer is okay. But since every function can directly affect costs and productivity and sales, every employee you hire should benefit the bottom line.

That’s why another candidate might instead say,

“I’m good at working with people to determine the skills and talents they really need, so I can find not just qualified candidates but exceptional candidates.”

Hmm. You like the sound of that. And you like the fact they think about their job not just as a series of boxes to check but one that has a broader impact on your business.

You respond, “That’s interesting. Give me an example.”

They might say,

“A manager gave me a list of qualifications for a customer service manager position. They said the right candidate needed at least 10 years of experience working with customers. I asked what they needed the person to actually do, and eventually they said that person needed to train and grow a high-performing team. What they really needed was a person who had grown a successful team; whether they had been working in the field for 10 years was irrelevant.”

You like the sound of that, too. But there’s a natural follow-up question: 

“Still, isn’t it easier to give people what they ask for? Then it’s their problem if the person selected doesn’t work out. Not yours.”

Maybe your candidate has the right answer. Maybe they’ll say that hiring the wrong person actually hurts the entire organization. And that they’re good at working through issues in a collaborative, supportive way.

Of course you can adapt the process to any job.  For example:

  • If you need a salesperson, your one question might be, “If you can only choose one skill you possess, which will be most responsible for helping you land major customers?”
  • If you need a social media marketing assistant, your one question might be, “How do you ensure that social media campaigns don’t just result in engagement but actually provide a tangible return on that investment?”
  • If you need an operations manager, your one question might be, “What do you consider to be the toughest operational challenge you’ve faced?” (I can create branches from this particular tree for hours.)

Then have a conversation. Ask why. Or when. Or how a situation turned out. Or who actually did what. Or what made a success difficult to achieve, or what was learned from a failure.

And then transition into asking what the candidate wants to accomplish in the job. You’ve dealt with the past—which, where accomplishments rather than experience are concerned—is a pretty strong indication of the future.

Now ask about the future and what they want to do in the role. You’ll weed out the candidates focused solely on a job title and the perceived authority.

And you’ll uncover the candidate who wants the responsibility. The candidate who, even if less experienced and less skilled, has the motivation and drive and desire to actually do the job.

Find that person and experience doesn’t matter.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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