Aside from a few obvious technical and vocational roles, there are very few positions in most organizations that absolutely “Must Have” someone who has held the identical role in the same industry with the same job.

Nonetheless, the use of “Must Have” remains a staple in recruiting and hiring.  It’s too bad, because over-reliance on “Must Have” can lead to a chronic case of mediocrity or worse, a terminal case of recycled bad ideas from industry participants.

Who Fits this Description?

Recently, a friend sent me a series of executive position descriptions he was considering responding to. His excellent qualifications exceeded the scale and scope of the roles, but didn’t quite match the exact requirements. The “Must Have” lists were long and loud, and just as they caused my colleague to pause, they are certain to frighten away most talented people who have not lived a life that precisely matched this  nearly impossible-to-replicate list of required experiences.

While I get the need for some “Must Haves”…I don’t want a mechanic setting my son’s broken arm, and no one wants a real estate broker advising them on estate planning, there’s a point when the list turns from essential to ridiculous.

Now as a bit of truth in advertising, I’ve made a career out of scouting and engaging talent from everywhere but my competitors. I never had an urge to reinvent their same lousy practices or to recycle the people who have been busy changing badges but going to the same trade shows for years.

The excessive reliance on “Must Have” is particularly disturbing in an era when:

a. There’s so much remarkable talent available for hire.


b. Now more than ever, firms need to infuse established businesses with different ways of thinking and acting.

Measure Twice, Cut Once on Your “Must Haves”

The “Must Have” issues I am focusing on are for managerial or leadership positions where the keys to success are much more about critical thinking, leadership effectiveness, talent development and operating effectiveness, than they are about specialized industry experience.

“Do not apply unless you have X years working in Y industry.”

Great people with highly transferable and mature skill-sets are kept out of the game by an irrational belief that there’s something particularly special/unique/special about your industry and business.

Newsflash: your firm and your industry have the same general issues and challenges as every other firm and industry.

That’s crazy! We’re different. We’re unique.

No you’re not. You have the same challenges in your firm for creating winning strategies, engaging and keeping the right talent, operating effectively and responding to or acting upon global and industry forces. The variables change from sector to sector and firm to firm, but when you peel back the layers, the issues are the same.

It takes too long to bring people up to speed. We don’t have time .

When it comes to getting the best talent on your team, you always have time to help them learn an industry or marketplace. It’s much easier to teach someone an industry and market than it is to teach them how to think strategically, lead effectively and operate efficiently.

Having shifted industries four times in my life, I can tell you from experience that there is a learning curve, and once you power through that curve, the issues are eminently comprehensible. It doesn’t take a long career or a rocket scientist to understand industry forces, to plug in to customers, and to understand your firm’s “unique” position and value proposition.

A Few Dividends from Relaxing the Must-Haves in Your Hiring Decisions:

  • You gain a broader pool of talent to draw from. Yes, this means more work for you. Take solace in the fact that it is the right work.
  • The outsider offers a a fresh set of eyes with a broader base of knowledge on how problems have been solved and how customers in other worlds have been served. The observations and ideas can infuse a team and business with new life.  (And yes, it will annoy those who are practitioners of the “That’s not how we do it here” religion.)
  • You have an excuse to challenge conventional thinking. People with diverse experience aren’t burdened by the baggage of looking through the same narrow industry lenses for many years, and their presence provides an opportunity for you to tee up some “sacred cow” discussions in front of the barbecue.
  • Professionals with a fresh view regularly ask annoyingly good questions, including: “Why do we do it this way?” Or my favorite, “What if… ?” followed by “Why not?”
  • The effort you expend to help people learn and understand your business and market affords an opportunity for you to rethink issues and approaches. It’s always good to refresh your view and challenge your assumptions.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The best ideas might be found far afield from where you’ve been working and watching.  Whether they come from a different industry entirely or from a different part of the value chain, your best talent may be a non-traditional candidate who fails the “Must Have” test.

Relax the “Must Have” filters in the right places and take a broader look before you make your next hire.  You might just be bringing in the individual who can help you rethink your business.