When you are in the business of providing human capital at the executive level, one of the misperceptions you uncover over time is how little impact industry experience has as a factor in delivering results for clients in spite of its almost perpetual inclusion in job description criteria.
I would never argue the technical experience required in day to day operations. Nor would I argue the in-depth understanding of regulatory and compliance issues required in certain industries. Nor the merits in a family run company with leadership “growing up” in the business. And, industry experience in terms of spotting and taking advantage of trends is valuable.
However, a good leader who is surrounded by that company’s industry experience can depend on the management team to very quickly learn what industry information he or she needs to make the right executive-level call. With open and frank dialogue around the management table the experienced leader can be assimilated into the company’s operations in short order. Rapid business “assimilation” is a trait common to those with extensive experience at a senior level of responsibility. Qualities that make up good executive leadership are frequently transferable skills and a leader with good internal support can learn the company’s product quite quickly. But someone who knows the product cold from years in the industry can’t always be the good executive leader. One cannot “learn” leadership skills overnight.
Leadership and (tough) decision making capabilities trump industry experience any day, yet boards of companies continue to be overly focused on the latter. When Ford Motor Company tapped Alan Mulhally from Boeing back in 2006 to turn the company around, he brought with him no experience in the auto industry but clearly the relevant skills and competencies to do the job. The rest as they say is history. Ford was the only one of the big three that didn’t need a government bailout in 2008 and one could argue that good leadership saved the day for Ford.
What most businesses we encounter today need is clear communication of vision, strategic direction, and effective implementation of developed strategies. Executives coming from the outside can ask the tough questions and refocus the business by not continuing to look at it in the same paradigm. Often they need to be agents of change, because it’s change that has created their opportunity in the first place.
Not-for-Profits in particular benefit from leadership not encumbered by the proprietary culture that may have developed in an organization over the years. A former colleague after only a year removed from moving to Canada from Europe took over an Alberta based organization and transformed it into one of the most well respected social agencies in Western Canada. His background? Food services and production.
Effective executives are like those athletes that can play almost any sport and excel. They’re the quarterback turned into a receiver or safety, the 12 handicap who just started to golf a year ago, the top NHL draft choice who didn’t play hockey at all until they were 13. What they bring to the position is the drive and tenacity to succeed borne by the confidence of having tasted success and learned from failure many times in the past.
Managing Partner & Principal