Last year, my employer of 15 years let me go. I had become what was defined as a corporate restructuring casualty. After the initial phase of disappointment and surprise, I sat down to answer a couple of questions and plan my next move. What would I enjoy doing? In what type of culture or environment would I like to work? What kind of vision should this company have, and which business phase should it belong to for me to be able to add value? Finally, I broadly defined the type of business I wanted to be involved in: not necessarily prioritizing my previous employer’s industry, but also considering adjacent markets with similar or complementary business models.
What I experienced was not what I expected. More often than not, one of the first considerations in a recruitment process I would face was whether I had that specific industry knowledge from, for example, the chicken wing folding industry. Having worked in one specific industry for 15 years, my obvious answer to that consideration was, “No, I don’t”. Some executive search consultants I spoke to call this the Plug & Play phenomenon of recruitment. In their view, it is a remnant of the post-2007 crisis years when companies were very risk-averse in their recruitment efforts for leadership positions and needed instant return on their new recruit. Plug & Play isn’t just a challenge for candidates, but also for companies seeking a set of leadership skills, not just industry-specific knowledge.
Why Plug & Play isn’t the way forward
A company’s success is mostly determined by how its mission, values and culture are defined and executed. This is what I had in mind when I sat myself down to reflect on my easy-to-ask but difficult-to-answer questions. My personal belief, coupled with my own experience at large companies, is that if a newly recruited leader’s personal values and leadership skills are in line with the company’s mission, values and culture, then specific industry experience is nice to have but not a must.
Companies, or other types of organizations, pursue a change agenda with their customers and other stakeholders on a continuous basis. This agenda is determined symbiotically, requiring both factions to be open to change. It’s possible that at a certain point, industry experience becomes limiting. The customer, or the company, finds it difficult to look beyond certain boundaries and needs a fresh perspective. So, when you have to replace a certain role or create a new one, it becomes an opportunity to upgrade your company’s skill set and improve its diversity. Not only in ethnicity, gender, or other differentiating characteristics, but also diversity in experience. Getting a fresh and complete perspective is often necessary to be able to drive change.
It is tempting to try to reel in the competitor’s top performer. It certainly seems easier to go on LinkedIn and enter an industry search query. However, as a business leader, you need to insist that shortlisted candidates possess the necessary fundamental values that fit your culture, fulfill your mission, and that they have the ability to upgrade your business whether they come from your industry or not. If your search for the right industry leader hasn’t manifested what you hoped for, consider searching for a values and culture fit instead. This is the added value an executive search consultation should provide you with. If you get that covered, the rest will follow.
By Lennard van Soest
Lennard van Soest is a Brussels-based Sales & Marketing Executive with more than 15 years of global experience in B2B-related industries.
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