The Beauty of Hiring for Skills Over Experience


Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, discussed in a recent podcast the most valuable hiring lesson she learned. In 2000, after serving as chief of staff to the US secretary of Treasury, Sandberg applied to eBay and interviewed with then CEO Meg Whitman, now CEO of HP. Sandberg had no tech experience but Whitman explained she hired for skill, not experience, especially when hiring for a new role no one had ever filled. This lesson Sandberg took with her to Google and used well when appointed the task of creating a team to develop what became Google’s successful AdWords platform.

Why are skills often valued more than experience?

According to Chuck Cohn, CEO of Varsity Tours, experience does not always imply quality. Good performers may have minimal experience and bad performers may have many years of experience. Don’t assume for example that “15+ years of programming” experience equals quality programming.

Also, core skills according to Cohn are transferrable. Specific technical experience may not transfer from one environment to the next but soft skills such as leadership and adaptability are likely to be sought after in any role or industry.

Lastly, Cohn points out that filtering candidates out of your hiring process based on a min/max experience range, may cost you strong talent. Coming out of politics Sheryl Sandberg had no technical experience to work at a tech giant such as Google but her soft skills enabled her to successfully serve as their VP of Global Online Sales and Operations from 2001 to 2008 when she eventually left to serve as Facebook’s COO. Though she had an MBA from Harvard, she possessed no sales or tech experience after serving in the U.S. Treasury.

With Google and today with Facebook, Sandberg does not limit her candidate pool to hiring those with job specific experience. Instead she hires, as she puts it, “people who are going to bring their passion and dedication and hard work.”

Employers continue to struggle finding experienced candidates for key roles but this could be the result of focusing too much on experience rather than skills. There exists a difference between “have you done the job” and “can you do the job?” As Cohn suggested, having done the job does not always translate to success. We should rather focus on people we believe who can do the job regardless of their minimal experience. A job candidate with only two years of experience and a passion to learn can be far more successful than a disgruntled job candidate with fifteen years or more of experience.

Sandberg brings up one more hiring tip she learned from Mark Zuckerberg that complements the hiring advice she gained from Whitman, “You should never hire someone to work for you unless you would work for them.”

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