Skills, experience or potential: What matters most?

What trait matters most in a candidate: skills, experience or potential? Experts weigh up the pros and cons of hiring based on each attribute, and reveal how to decide on the ideal combination when advertising for an upcoming role.

Skills

Finding candidates with the right technical skills is the number one priority for many employers when filling a role, says Shannon Roberts, director of talent management Queensland and New Zealand at global recruitment company Hudson.

The advantage of hiring solely on skill is “you’re going to bring someone on who can hit the ground running, with little induction and ramp-up time”.

But Roberts says employers tend to overemphasise technical skills when selecting candidates at senior levels, at the expense of culture fit, motivation, leadership and potential.

As a result, “employers are going to perhaps miss out on some potentially great candidates”.

“And with the way jobs are changing and evolving, you could end up with someone who isn’t able to have flexibility and adaptability in terms of how they grow with the organisation.”

Samantha Barnett, Digital Talent Lead, EX - Product Management at MYOB says if the company needs someone with specific skills, they will focus on finding that, but even in those cases they would prioritise the candidate’s alignment to company values and culture.

“You can teach skills; it is extremely hard to ‘teach’ cultural fit,” says Barnett. “If we don’t look beyond skills, the cost and damage of the wrong hire is too great.”

Experience

Hiring candidates with experience in a similar role means they are more likely to have transferable experience that reduces training, induction, and speed to productivity, says Roberts.

“They are more of a ‘sure bet’ hire in terms of their ability to walk into a job and perform from day one.”

The risk is that the organisational context, role expectations, culture, and team may be very different, says Roberts.

“Experience in one company or role doesn’t always directly transfer to another. If role requirements change, the person may not possess the flexibility to adapt to new requirements.”

Barnett says sometimes a wonderful candidate may not have found the right environment, or have been provided the opportunity to gain the necessary experience.

As well, a candidate’s previous experience in certain roles and companies may create a bias in the mind of the hiring manager and stop them from seeing the candidate’s potential. 

“Past performance or experience, whilst helpful, is not always a true indicator of an individual’s future success. We look beyond what people put on their CVs.”

Potential

“Hiring for potential is very important to us,” says MYOB’s Barnett. “We have a learning culture and seek to understand ‘how can this person develop with us?’.”

When hiring on potential, an employer may not benefit from the employee’s specific skills or experiences immediately, says Barnett, but “we’re conscious about choosing long-term gain over short”.

Roberts says looking for potential in candidates will open up the selection pool. “You might get someone who not only succeeds in the current role but has potential for sideways or upwards roles within your company.”

There is a risk, though, that if the assessment of potential is made purely on gut feeling – rather than objective assessment - the candidate’s potential may not actualise on the job, says Roberts, whose expertise is in psychometric assessment.

And if the organisation doesn’t provide support and training, “that person could be left to sink on their own”.

Finding the right mix

“It’s the combination of all three – skills, experience and potential – that is going to provide you with the best outcome,” says Roberts.

If a job ad is too specific, many great candidates might not apply, but if the selection criteria is more open, there will be a more diverse pool of applicants.

“There could be a couple of real gems in the mix that might have transferrable skills from another industry,” says Roberts.

For instance, a job ad might ask for experience in the energy industry. But the pool of candidates will be larger if the position was open to those from the water industry, who have the capabilities and can bring insights from their experience in a complementary industry.

“You could find someone who is an amazing fit and could bring diversity and innovation to the company,” says Roberts.

Barnett agrees that a combination of traits is always going to give a richer result.

MYOB values employees’ potential to learn and grow over their previous skills and experience, she says.We are therefore keen to understand whether an individual is curious, passionate about what they do and invested in improving themselves.”

If roles at MYOB require high-level skills, such as developers, candidates’ skills are assessed. But even then, “years of experience is less important for us,” says Barnett. “For example, a developer with two years’ experience may have better coding skills than a developer with ten.”

MYOB’s DevelopHER program hires career changers and return to work mums with no experience and develops them into elite software developers. “The assessment is purely based on passion, attitude, and potential,” Barnett says.

“As a growing tech business with a demand for talent we focus our mind-set on hiring for high potential over experience.

“Failing to look at potential will limit our access to great talent.”

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Helen Tobler

Helen Tobler is an experienced freelance writer, editor and proofreader. Helen was a journalist for The Australian for 10 years, starting as a cadet and then working as a medical reporter, then sub-editor and digital producer.

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