Forced Mediocrity and the Experience Paradox: How Organizations Miss Top Talent

Most of us who have spent time in the job market has seen many a job posting for jobs with what appears to be a ridiculous amount of experience required. In the world of information technology, it has even become meme-worthy, with one I recall showing that the experience requirement for a particular software package was twice as long as the software was in existence. While somewhat humorous and leads one to question the competence of the hiring manager along with the human resources department, this is indicative of a larger problem. In a job market that has been screaming from the rafters the merits of soft skills for some time now and how to retain top talent, organizations are missing the forest for the trees by not taking into consideration one very important factor. That is, that capability and capacity for learning can be inversely related to years of experience in a given role. The following is a discussion and a couple of examples building the case for the need to restructure the hiring and promotion process to avoid missing top and gifted talent.

Before progressing further for this article and my future articles, I want to clarify that there are two types of experience. The first is years of experience; the other is practical experience. The first is easy to quantify and is why virtually all organizations use it as a metric; the second is more intangible but far more valuable. In the emergency response world, there is a phrase that says, “There is a lot of difference between twenty years of experience and twenty ‘first’ years of experience.” That statement infers that there is a lot of difference between those who constantly learn and build experience, and those who stop growing after their first year, feeling comfortable and thinking they know enough or know it all in order to be successful in a role.

One personal example of years versus practical experience was when I was working in the information technology industry, and there was a networking issue impacting an entire state for a program I was hired for as a field engineer. At this point, I had worked as an authorized service provider for about two years (and pay attention to the time as it is the heart of this discussion) for Cisco, Dell, Lenovo, and HP with their enterprise systems in a previous position which was some of the same hardware this contract utilized. I knew approximately where the issue resided; however, the network and infrastructure team would not listen to a field engineer. After enough wrangling, I was authorized to access the servers. Once I found out the operating system running the network servers (Windows 2012 Domain Controllers for those who are interested), I gave myself a crash course on the operating system, and in a little over a week’s time, while also going to school full time, performing my normal job functions full time, and also working as a volunteer fire dept training officer, I learned the system, and was able to troubleshoot, find, and resolve the problem that both the network and infrastructure teams with individuals with ten-plus years of experience were unable to solve for over three months. While it may be argued that this is a one-off, as described below that instead of being an exception, this is often the rule.

To illustrate the frustration I and many like me have experienced and why top talent often cycles out of organizations quickly; I have many accomplishments such as this for the previous positions I have worked in, ranging from microbiologist to fire officer to field engineer that includes front end, back end, project, and client management. So I have to ask myself, why am I never hired for something beyond entry-level skilled positions when I am able to pick up a specialization in a matter of weeks and solve issues that more senior organizational units with significantly more years of experience are unable to solve? Put simply, I do not have the years of experience to make it past the job application and resume algorithms for the more advanced positions where my talent can be utilized (not to mention the salary required). It is quite the kick in the teeth when accounting for inflation I was making more working in retail information technology before my degrees, certifications, and mountains of experience than I have been in my highest-paid positions, be passed over for promotions, have management hired above you who are far less competent, but you are required to work under because of lacking the years of experience. “Paying your dues” is an excuse by organizations to justify keeping top talent suppressed and held in positions until the timer dings and are applicable for promotion.

So what are the ramifications of this for the organization and the individual? From an organizational standpoint, top talent will be missed, and under the current system, the mediocre will be promoted as they will be the ones who remain in positions long enough to be promoted. The top talent will usually become frustrated and move to another organization in hopes of finding a faster track or get hired into a promotion. The ones that stay become disillusioned and will work at minimum capacity knowing that putting more energy into a position would be a waste of time at best and at worst be viewed as a threat by management (Trust me, I have had interviews that opened with “This is not a management position and you are not taking his job” …as the regional manager gestures to the state manager).

From a holistic view, focusing on just credentials and years of experience rather than accomplishments can lead to systemic weakness in the organizational structure, the entrenching of weaker management, and a forced mediocrity as a whole. Strategic management looking at the balance sheets and metrics wondering what is going on should take a long hard look at their hiring and promotion practices. For what appears to be chronic problems, ask the newer hires what they see. Odds are, you think one unit is a problem, I will almost guarantee you that there is a larger systemic problem at play. Working directly for 25 different companies of all sizes, from multinationals on six continents to mom and pop shops throughout my life (when I was younger, I would usually work between two and three jobs at a time), and indirectly as a contracted vendor for 27 organizations, six state, and four federal agencies over the years I have seen this pattern persist in virtually all organizations sans just one or two unicorns. This experience is what led to me concentrating my MBA on project management and process improvement and my doctoral work on global management.

For an individual who is talented in a specific area, it can be infuriating, lead to depression, significant burnout (which frankly I think is one of the reasons we are seeing burnout across the board in the United States and what I will be talking about next week), and speaking from personal experience, anxiety, self-loathing, learned helplessness, self-medicating, and general existential dread. On more than one occasion, I have been found screaming at my email, “ARE YOU NOT IMPRESSED?!?!” at the 50th denial letter. Forever stuck in the career purgatory of being either overqualified or lacking “industry-specific experience,” which is a copout on both sides.

For the individuals who experience this, I wish I could tell you that there is a clear solution. A few things you can do is focus heavily on your accomplishments and less on your job description. For top talent, you will often find that your original job description bears little resemblance to your current duties. Additionally, when presenting your job title (and some may frown here, but honestly, if so, you are part of the problem), do not use the job title you were given but use the job title that is representative of your current duties. As an example, in my previous job, I was officially a “Customer Service Engineer,” but duty-wise, I was a Problem Analyst and Lead Enterprise Systems Engineer. In more entrenched organizations, I have found that job titles will be used to make it more difficult for an individual to find a better position or keep a few degrees of freedom between a talented individual and weak management. My last job as an example, Field Service Engineer was replaced by Customer Service Engineer, which qualitatively is a lower position. Do not fall into this trap. For some such as myself, the only escape has been migrating into consulting or entrepreneurship.

There is a real solution to all of this, and that is to stop looking at “years” of experience and rather “practical” experience. Top talent can have a decade’s worth of experience compressed into a year or two. For the same price, you would not pass up a high-end sports car for an old base model sedan just because the sedan has more than five times the miles on it. While that should seem obvious, that is literally what the current structure of the hiring process presents us with. When framed in that manner, does it not seem insane? That is because the current hiring process is.

Futurist and Standup Philosopher