Hiring Outside Your Industry Could Give You a Boost

Years ago I was involved in trying to figure out how to use an in-house system to replace two cobbled-together commercial products.  I know, I know, everyone thinks it's supposed to go the other way, but in this case, the in-house-developed system was far superior.  It was already serving a large part of the business well, and the idea was to add to it capabilities we'd need to support a second area of the business, freeing us from all the problems of the existing solution, including having to depend on relatively unresponsive vendors inhibiting product development, and thus stunting revenue growth.

During an initial exploratory meeting, I was sitting with VP and director-level people around a table listening to all the challenges we would have in pulling the one system's business into the other.  One of the biggest sticking points was how external stakeholders viewed these two areas of the business – they were seen and treated as two separate companies.  I won't go into the gory details of why this was a problem, but suffice it to say that it was perceived as a significant stumbling block to moving forward.  A few ideas were put forward, including such extreme measures as running the in-house system in two separate instances, and creating two divergent code bases (not a good idea).

Finally, I interjected, and said, "What if we looked at this slightly differently?"

Naturally, I got a few quizzical and perplexed looks.  After all, I had been in my role at this point only a couple of years, and this was my first job in this industry.  Everyone else around the table had been in the industry vastly longer than I had, and their combined experience completely dwarfed mine.  They politely listened to me, the neophyte, as I continued.

"What if instead of looking at this as two separate companies, we just looked at it as two separate brands from the same company – from the same manufacturer?"

More blank looks.  So I took a deep breath and carried on with my explanation.  As I covered how the change in perspective could not only accommodate the various challenges cited by the group and would also allow for a far simpler technical approach than other options that had been proposed, I could see some lights going on in people's heads.

"What about the external view of them being two different companies?" someone asked.

"Well, I don't think that's really a problem," I replied.  "It's a simple technical issue to make them appear as two separate companies to the external world, and so there's no reason that we need to be confined by that external constraint for our internal view."

It was (not to blow my own horn too loudly) a perfect solution, and everyone got it, and agreed!  So how did the neophyte come up with that?!

Well, interestingly, not from anything I had learned so far in my time with that company, and thus not from that industry.  The idea came from my time in a completely different industry – consumer packaged goods, where a single manufacturer can and often does have multiple brands and different product lines, all produced in the same plant, and often on the same line.  In other words, I took experience gained from a completely different industry and applied it to my current one.

There's varying opinion on hiring from outside your industry, with various write-ups on the pros and cons of doing it (see http://onpeople.knightsbridge.com/h/i/8052249-the-left-field-candidate-t... and http://www.hireology.com/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-hiring-outside-of-you... for a couple of examples).  In my experience – both as one being hired and as a hiring manager – the pros outweigh the cons.  In particular, other-industry experience allows smart people to look at presenting challenges in novel ways, arriving at innovative solutions that are often better than those that would be devised otherwise.  If your competitors are all hiring from the same relatively small pool of individuals, all with the same backgrounds, education, experience, and ideas, then that innovation can give you a substantial edge!  That's not to minimise some of the challenges in hiring someone from outside your industry, but I believe those are manageable, and shouldn't deter considering an excellent candidate who might be culled simply because the "industry experience" box isn't ticked.  That candidate will learn the business fairly quickly in my experience.

Shortly after we finished the aforementioned project, and had completed transferring that product line to the in-house system, I was speaking with the VP who dealt directly with the group of external stakeholders most affected by the change.  He related a conversation to me he had had with one such stakeholder, who started off the exchange by asking what had happened.  My colleague responded by asking why the query, and what was wrong.  The external stakeholder responded, "Oh, nothing's wrong! In fact quite the opposite – it's so much better! What did you do?"  That's what can happen when you hire outside your industry.  Best feedback ever!

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