When does talent trump experience?

Mar 05 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

How do you decide between hiring John who has ten years of experience and is a certified expert, versus Deborah, who has talents that fit the job but only two years experience?

Traditionally, experience and expertise have tended to trump talent. But in today's dynamic work environment, talent for a particular type of work may be more important.

Certain jobs obviously require basic levels of experience and knowledge, regardless how much talent a person has for a particular type of work. No one is about to hire a tailor to work as a surgeon because he has a talent for cutting and stitching. The question is how much experience and expertise is enough. Is there a point at which talent should trump experience and expertise?

One reason that experience and expertise are given more weight than talent is due to the assumption that people with more experience and expertise will do a better job. This may be true in the short-term but not necessarily the long-term.

Organizations are filled with people with expertise and years of experience who do an adequate job but not a brilliant one. An example is the recent sub-prime mortgage collapse. The CEO's involved had expertise in the industry and years of executive experience but they didn't have the analytical talents to accurately assess and anticipate the risks in the market.

Even in an area like surgery which requires extensive expertise and experience, talent can make an important difference. In his book, Gifted Hands (p. 101-102), Dr. Ben Carson, one the world's top pediatric neurosurgeons, states that a key reason for his success is his talent for seeing in three-dimensions. During operations surgeons often can't see the other side of an area on which they are working which means that they must be able to visualize in three dimensions what is on the other side.

Levels of experience and expertise aren't always what they seem.
While Dr. Carson can do this, many surgeons lack this talent. As a result, they never become outstanding surgeons and are more likely to encounter problems and complications during their surgeries.

Greater weight is often given to experience and expertise because on the surface they appear easier to quantify than talent. A closer look shows that levels of experience and expertise aren't always what they seem. Candidates can overstate and inflate their experience. Others may have mindlessly performed a job through pure effort but never understood the processes involved. It may also be that how the candidate performed the work in another workplace is very different than how you do things.

Determining the actual level of a person's expertise is an even thornier problem. Most degrees and certifications are awarded based on a person's factual/book knowledge of a particular area. They don't provide information about how well a person can use and apply this knowledge in particular types of jobs. In nontechnical areas certificates and accreditations of expertise can often be obtained simply by paying a hefty fee. All a person needs to do is show up for a training program. They don't need to demonstrate understanding and mastery of the material.

Completion of online programs and degrees similarly doesn't guarantee that someone has expertise in an area. In most instances there is no way of knowing whether the candidate personally completed program assignments and tests or had someone else do it for them.

So how do you decide how much weight to give to talent, experience and expertise? The best way is to do a work process analysis of the job you are trying to fill. What are the specific tasks and processes that a person must be able to perform to do the job well? Which ones require experience and expertise and which ones depend more on special types of talents?

It is also important to decide whether you are hiring for the future as well as the present. Is the job likely to be transformed by technology in the near future? Is there a reorganization on the horizon that will drastically change job responsibilities?

In these latter situations, talent becomes far more important. Most people can master anything with enough effort but people who have talent for a particular type of work will be much more nimble at learning new types of expertise as the job changes.

Talent should also be given an edge when you are hiring people whom you plan to groom for higher level positions. People who have special talents for the work involved are much more likely to become your future superstars.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.