The inanity of “Must have 20 years experience in ________ industry”

At Starbucks, I read this headline in the morning paper:

CEO’s fast-food experience questioned

Curious, I read on. The Toronto Star writer, Francine Kopun, was parroting a concern expressed by Michael Van Aelst, an analyst with TD Securities, upon the announcement of Marc Caira as the new CEO of Tim Hortons.Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 12.32.58 PM

Concerned about Mr. Caira’s lack of direct experience in running a quick-service restaurant company, Mr. Van Aelst is cited as having asked: “Can you help us understand Marc’s direct experience in dealing with the North American quick-service restaurant industry?”

Is Mr. Caira not a good candidate, I wondered.

Marc Caira, the newly appointed President and CEO of Tim Hortons Inc., has proven he can perform in a business crisis of the worst kind.

In 2003, as the newly minted CEO of Parmalat Dairy & Bakery Canada, he increased the company’s profitability while the parent company – Italian food giant Parmalat Finanziaria – melted down under an accounting scandal that was compared with Enron…

Caira, 59, was most recently Global CEO of Nestlé Professional, a food supply company with 10,000 employees and operations in about 100 countries…

It seems that he is. Francine Kopun’s summary of Mr. Caira’s illustrious career and stellar resume shows why he is a good candidate for the job. It also helped me conclude that Mr. Van Aelst’s question was ill-founded and inane.

Tim Horton is facing increasing pressure from competitors, e.g., McDonald’s in Canada, and is struggling with its expansion into the US. It also needs to bring focus and discipline to building its brand and business in the Middle East if it is going to continue its recent successes in that region. These are exactly the type of issues that Mr. Caira has a proven track record in dealing with.

Instead of looking at Mr. Caira’s successes, Mr. Van Aelst is questioning Mr. Caira’s candidacy based on lack of direct industry experience. Does Tim Horton’s really need him to have managed a quick-service business or to have served doughnuts? I don’t believe that’s the experience they need.

This kind of thinking keeps good candidates—possibly the best ones—from getting the chance to be considered in industries where their skills and fresh approach could really make a difference. It is common in the specifications of recruitment ads:

“Must have 20 years experience in the motor vehicle industry”

“Must have 20 years experience in the financial services industry”

“Must have 20 years experience in B2B marketing”

Why do human resource professionals and recruiting professionals believe this direct industry experience to be so crucial?

Is it more important than, say, an executive’s proven success in discerning market opportunities and artfully conceiving and executing marketing strategies that have made a meaningful impact on her employers’ businesses across diverse industries?

Is it more important than, say, the knowledge these executives have gained from their experiences in working in diverse industries and its potential for igniting innovative solutions to the business challenges facing their potential new employer?

I don’t think so. Industry experience is important in some cases. But, in far more, the requirement for direct industry experience is more likely to keep the best people out. And that’s a shame. And that’s my point.

About ashleykonson

STRATEGY CONSULTING | EXECUTIVE COACHING | CORPORATE TRAINING | KEYNOTE SPEAKING | Ashley Konson is the Managing Partner of Global Brand Leaders Inc., a new kind of brand consulting company dedicated to making brands and their teams leaders across the globe. He is a Brand Leader, Business Consultant and Award-Winning Educator, and a recognized thought leader and fervent advocate of the premise that strong brands and businesses achieve and sustain their market positions because they are strong Inside out™.
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16 Responses to The inanity of “Must have 20 years experience in ________ industry”

  1. Michael Wilson says:

    Hi Ash…love the point. Will chat to you about Marc as I got to know him quite well in Switzerland…



  2. John Szold says:

    I just chaired a board meeting at which the topic of the imminent Marketing VP hire came up. Several directors weighed in with the must-have experience needed. By the time they finished, the requirements were longer than a Kotler textbook, that is to say, completely unreasonable.
    To your point, Ashley, we are not our resume — that’s about our past. It is our potential to lead, manage, solve problems that equips us to do a job…or not.
    John Szold
    CEO, Planning For Succession

  3. YGuterm says:

    I would add that it’s a very Canadian expectation…

    • ashleykonson says:

      Hello Yana, my thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. Yes, I have heard from others that this seems to be a uniquely Canadian problem. But, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen it in the United States and in a number of other countries in which I’ve done business. Cheers!

  4. Jamie C says:

    Great post. It’s a new world and many of the new challenges faced are faced across industry borders, not necessarily within them.

  5. Not a must have, provided that there is a good team surrounding him. The ops aspect is different from CPG, definitely, but not insurmountable. Given TH’s recent comps, it will be interesting to see what he does differently. Any guesses?

    • ashleykonson says:

      Hello Jennifer, my thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. Yes, I agree it is. But in his role as President of Nestle Foodservice worldwide, Marc’s customers included every major quick-service business around the globe. So, I’m sure that his superior knowledge across these businesses more than compensates for any perceived gaps he may have related to operations. I’m certain that for someone of Marc’s calibre and experience that this challenge is not insurmountable. And, like you I believe he will make sure he has the right team in place. Cheers!

  6. Having worked in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., I would say this is a global issue. What it demonstrates is an HR department (or hiring team) lacking the imagination and vision to see how real-world experience can be applied to different situations. The more visionary companies I’ve worked for understand that true leaders can quickly learn a new industry, and bring a new set of skills. Sadly, there are many organizations that are so inbred they can’t conceive of an “outsider” learning the skills they believe are confined to a very small, elite group of individuals. (There is another side to this: I’ve also worked in organizations where they think EVERYONE can do everything. I’ve reported to Marketing VPs whose backgrounds did not include any marketing experience or education whatsoever. They were promoted to the position after serving as Director of IT. As you’d expect, the results were disastrous.)

    • Shirley Li says:

      Add to Deborah’s point, it is a common issue according to my experience in China and Japan. Maybe simply because it is a easy way for HR department to eliminate big number of candidates. However, I believe a real visionary hiring team will not constrain them with this technical line.

  7. HOrav says:

    For simplicity’s sake, it is easier to eliminate candidates for specific positions from a large pool by implementing such requirements. Unfortunately this can be very limiting and short sighted. It is important to consider the situation underlying the need for a new candidate which may merit looking outside of such restrictive parameters. Does the company require a new and fresh approach? Does it need to improve current operations? There are many reasons to look outside of the industry as well as many for keeping the search within the industry. Looking somewhat outside the industry (Parmalat is not completely unrelated after all) may be a good choice for dealing with Tim’s specific challenges, but only time will tell.

  8. Great post – and the issues are also just as relevant here in the UK. I was brought up to think that what mattered were the skills I developed and the ability to apply them to a wide variety of situations – not where I gained them.

    However, my experience has been that HR teams have got increasingly risk-averse over the last 10 years and are more likely to discount applications from candidates who have a resume showing they have developed and applied skills across a diverse range of sectors and company sizes. They are also very focused on recruiting candidates already operating at a certain salary level – effectively creating a glass ceiling for age and experience…

    It’s a vicious circle – you won’t be considered for a post unless you have x years experience in that sector and salary level – which you can’t get unless someone takes a chance and offers you a job. I suspect that this attitude is one of the key drivers that is seeing people in their mid 30s to mid 40s (especially women, and including myself) setting up their own businesses.

    It does kind of leave you wondering where these hidebound and HR driven companies will be in 10 years time. I suspect that any business that focuses on where you worked rather than what you did, learned and experienced is, by virtue of its hiring policies, far less likely to look for a fresh approach to solving challenges to its future…

    • Carri, believe me, these are not the companies you’d want to work for. They’re insulated, unimaginative, and often stagnant. But, I’ve seen worse examples of weeding out resumes. At one company in Atlanta, the big question was, “What sorority did she belong to?”

  9. Phulvir says:

    Great post. A mind that has proven itself to be brilliant in varying situation can adjust to any such similar situation provided it gets some time to attune itself. In addition it brings a fresh set of eyes and perspectives which is so very important to keep a business redefining itself.

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