When I began working, I had managers who wanted to help steer me in the right direction with what I could reasonably expect out of my career. Some of the advice - well, it was not good. Techniques on how to fire people without consequences were not something that I felt made me the ‘team player’ I wanted to be. But some of the advice was really useful and I have always kept it in mind. One particular piece of wisdom was given to me by multiple managers and it was this - be careful how you treat people on the way up, as you never know where they will be when you are on the way back down. This is sensible advice, as it acknowledges that much of your success will not be due to your own actions but the reactions you trigger in other people. In some organisations and certainly in some industries, this may not seem to be relevant - for them, success is built on the bodies of others, rather than them giving you willing support. But this opens you up to the risk that you make a lot of enemies, with many people who would not only enjoy watching your downfall, but maybe even get actively involved in making it happen.
Meeting the same people at different stages of your career, for better or for worse, is very likely because of another significant factor - in most industries there is a stagnant workforce. What do I mean by stagnant? I mean those individuals who have done the full carousel, switching between organisations, getting their new job as a consequence of having their old job, getting maybe a little more money, or a grade promotion, an office, maybe even a PA for themselves. By the time they come back to their original company (which they invariably do) they cost more and expect to be a lot more senior than they were initially. We talk about industries being full of exactly the same people, just moving from business to business, and you can tell how long your career journey has been when every name that is mentioned in a conversation is someone you have worked with at some point. These individuals may have experience of the role, and experience of your organisation (and of your competitors) but with no ‘fresh blood’ entering the organisation, the likelihood for innovation or creative disruption is severely reduced. Put simply, they get paid better and better for doing a job that they have done time and time again - why would they change how they operate?
Now this isn’t to criticise this approach - every person does their best in the system within which they need to operate, and for vast amounts of workers this is a system that seems to benefit them and - as importantly - minimises the likelihood of competition for those roles from people who lack the pre-requisite of experience. But eventually, doing the same role over and over again impacts their ability to perform, to stay on top of new industry ideas and directions, to be motivated and to feel good about the contribution they are making. Yes, they may be able to sit back and think about what they are earning, that they are able to do the job without really thinking that hard about it. But at some point, and increasingly as they reach the latter part of their career, there is a tendency to look back not just at how much money or status you amassed but the difference you made to the companies you worked for and the impact you made on your family and those around you. When I worked with senior leaders who had recently been made redundant, almost every one of them described how they wanted to use it as an opportunity to do something different, to walk a different path. This may have been a gap year to go travelling, to start their own business, or even retrain. Even those who wanted to go straight back into the same kind of role that they had held previously, expressed a desire to shake things up a little by moving industry, or even just the area of the organisation they worked for.
So you have the same people, moving around the same organisations, no doubt using the same techniques and strategies that have worked in the past. Meanwhile, your competitors or more likely, the new companies emerging within your market, create ground breaking products and services that fully engage with the customers and, before you know it, your market share is reducing and the senior leaders are frantically trying to engage and inspire their incumbent (and dare I say it, too comfortable) people to work in a way they have never worked before to try to keep up.
You could argue that maybe the solution would be to retrain those with the experience, helping them understand how to do things differently. But what you do is only half of the equation for true innovation - how you do it is far more important. You can teach someone the principles of creative innovation, trying to inspire them into some blue sky thinking, but if they are not naturally inclined to view the world in that way (and if they have had a similar role for any number of years, I would suggest they are not big on doing things differently) then not only will the fresh thinking not happen but you are then setting them up to be in an uncomfortable position of uncertainty. And when people feel uncertain they instinctively reach for certainty by doing what they have done before, and any true new thinking is forgotten in “let’s just do it how we’ve always done it”.
Knowledge of the role, business or profession is always critically important, but not so much more important that everything else should be ignored. If you already have a lot of experience in your organisation, maybe the real value of a new hire would come from someone who wants to contribute in a different way and can help the rest of the team by giving new ideas and perspectives. Using CVs to identify people to work in an organisation creates the assumption that the only people of value are those who have already done the job before, and so all you start seeing are those individuals who managed to get that first lucky break into the industry and they have been able to get all future roles off that. But once the carousel has done a full circle, and those people come back to you, albeit with the experience that comes from having more organisations listed on their career history, where is the mechanism and controls needed to know that you are getting fresh ideas and innovative thinking? That they are using that experience and exposure to understand how to move the organisation to the next level? The recruitment process in many organisations only looks for those who have done the role before, and this is evident from the keyword search done on the CV through to controlled interviews full of standardised questions. This is further compounded if we are talking about competency based questions that begin “Tell me about time when you …”. These are my personal nemesis; even though there is an opportunity here to talk about your approach and thought process, the vast majority of people will immediately answer the question by talking about when they came across that situation in a previous role, thus showing the interviewee that they know the topic but it is also a not so subtle nod towards “see, I’ve done this role before”. And it works - the role is offered to the candidate who had the most ‘relevant experience’ which could mean that the ideal person to move your organisation forward is sidelined because their way of thinking couldn’t be immediately applied to a previous comparative role.
There has to be a shift in focus, a change in approach, that turns the current process on its head, and starts to look for the right person to add value to the company, who will bring a fresh approach and new perspective to how you work, and offer ways to keep your organisation relevant and at the top of the marketplace. This is true in all industries, but is most critical in industries with significant disruptors coming in and taking market share - doing what you’ve done before makes no commercial sense against newer and more agile companies who are open to making up new rules and approaches to follow. Commercial success no longer comes from continuing on with old methods of doing things. We know this to be true of our products - any bank who is not able to offer online services to their customers would struggle to compete in today’s world. And services like AirBnB are forcing the hotel industry to think more innovatively and creatively, to attract customers who now have other options. None of this can happen if you don’t also shift your approach to your people, being open to bringing people in who challenge the status quo because they haven't worked in the role multiple times before. Sometimes it is the obvious questions, the ones that people with experience stop asking, that launches a team or business into a more exciting and profitable future.