Is Experience Overrated?

Give up the idea that you need training to succeed. In times like these, when the status quo seems stale, an outsider can be a savior—which can put women in the catbird seat.

By Amy Davidson
Photograph: photographed by Reinhard Hunger

When New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose Cathie Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, to be chancellor of the city’s public school system, there were about five seconds of media speechlessness, followed by several weeks of outrage. huh? squawked the Daily News. Parents protested and threatened lawsuits. Despite her long and successful career as a publishing executive—Bloomberg called her a “superstar manager”—Black had never worked in education and didn’t seem to have thought much about public schools. Her own two children had attended private schools. And this was a troubled moment for New York administrators: A recalibration of state tests had resulted in a drop in scores, and a documentary, Waiting for “Superman,” made the entire American public school system look like an elaborately constructed failure machine. Nor would Black be undertaking a small job: There are more than a million children in the city’s public schools, served by 135,000 teachers and staff (at Hearst Magazines, Black oversaw a team of 2,000). In addition, Black needed to get a waiver from the state because there were legal ­requirements for the position—graduate ­training, time in a classroom—that she didn’t meet. In the end, though, neither that nor the public dismay mattered. Black got the waiver, although she had to appoint an experienced deputy chancellor as her “chief academic officer.” She started work in January, less than two months after the first shocked headline.

Whether Black makes a success of the job won’t be clear for many months, if not years (though her recent joking suggestion that birth control might be a solution to school overcrowding was an inauspicious start). But her appointment is not an isolated example of inexperience rising to the top: Recent hires in business and elections to Congress suggest that when institutions and organizations are alarmed by the status quo, turning to someone from a different field can become acceptable or even fashionable. Cathie Black most likely wouldn’t have been considered for the spot if there hadn’t been deep unhappiness with public school systems across the country—if it hadn’t come to seem that knowing how schools were run meant simply having practice in repeating the mistakes of the past. “If an organization is in trouble, it is more likely to bring in an outsider,” says Boris Groysberg, associate professor in the organizational-behavior unit at Harvard Business School. The idea conjures a compelling image: the white knight riding in to restore order to the kingdom. Or as Daniel Pink, author of the best-selling business books A Whole New Mind and Drive, puts it, “It’s an image you see even in religion—the untainted hero who will come in and solve the mess.”

There’s also the heroine. For women, who may be denied access to traditional paths to power, a moment in which outsiders are welcomed pre­sents tremendous opportunity. Of course, taking a chance in a new field is not without risk, and a woman who leaps can find herself teetering on what is known as a glass cliff, cousin of the glass ceiling. “In difficult or transitional times, women are more likely to be chosen for leadership jobs in which the likelihood of failure is high,” says Barbara Lee, a Boston philanthropist who started a foundation, which bears her name, to promote women in politics and the arts. Cliffs are dangerous—but they’re also exciting for the chances they offer.

In 2001, Claudia Kotchka was a department head at Procter & Gamble when the new CEO asked her to lead the company’s design efforts. She refused at first, but when he pressed, she agreed to take the job. Kotchka had never trained as a designer—her background was in accounting—and now she was, as Fast Company put it, “one of the highest-ranking design executives in the country.” In her new role, Kotchka pushed to have design-thinking integrated into the way
everything was done at P&G, a shift that was part of a broad transformation that saw the company’s net sales more than double in 10 years, from $39 billion to $79 billion. Kotchka says her outsider status turned into an asset, allowing her to see early on, for instance, that the designers “didn’t really understand what they knew and didn’t know, and what they had to offer.” Among other initiatives, she set up the Clay Street Project, an in-house think tank that drew people from all over the company into efforts to reimagine product design. “Finance turned out to have some of the most creative people, which was a surprise,” Kotchka says. “Companies don’t make use of the talent they have, because they define experience narrowly.”

Looking for talent in unexpected places can pay off for a company. For example, when Gucci hired Robert Polet away from Unilever, where he had been in charge of frozen foods, Polet was roundly mocked. But the move worked; profits have nearly tripled since Polet was hired in 2004. In education, Teach for America is premised on finding teaching skill in people who’ve never attended teacher-­training schools. (In a way, Cathie Black’s hiring is Teach for America writ large.) And the strategy can work even in sports: Last year Iowa State University, with a troubled basketball team on its hands, hired former NBA player Fred Hoiberg, even though he had never coached before. Now the team is expected to make the NCAA tournament, an outcome so surprising that the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Hoiberg’s running start is raising a provocative question for college basketball: Is coaching experience necessary?”

In 2008, when Gail McGovern became the American Red Cross’s CEO, she had no experience in disaster relief or in the public sector; she had been an executive at AT&T and Fidelity. But the Red Cross had gone through six leaders in seven years, assembling a catalog of scandals involving everything from an extramarital affair to dodgy blood collection. It needed a change—and McGovern was teetering on a classic glass cliff. “If it was going to be a walk down easy street, I wasn’t interested,” she says. “I made a lot of trips; I did a lot of listening—to our staff, our donors, people in shelters.” Two years later, McGovern has eliminated a $209 million operating deficit and mounted a fund-raising campaign for Haitian- earthquake relief that successfully made use of social networking and texting. So far, she’s kept her balance.

In government, the definition of experience has always been relatively broad. The ideal of the citizen politician is very American—think of the Norman Rockwell painting of a laborer standing up at a town meeting. Men who have won praise in business or the military have often run for elective office, and no one seems to think they needed to apprentice themselves. The first office General Dwight Eisenhower tried for was president; same for General Ulysses S. Grant. Ronald Reagan had a career in Hollywood, though not just as an actor—he led the Screen Actors Guild, then spent years as a speaker for conservative causes before winning the California governorship. Michael Bloomberg, Cathie Black’s new boss, built a media company and made a few billion dollars before he ran for mayor, but he had zero experience in politics. Bloomberg exemplifies how troubled times can make such moves seem more plausible: As Pink points out, Bloomberg won the primary just after “one of the most traumatic days in American history”—September 11, 2001.

But the most prominent example of the increasing irrelevance of direct experience in politics may be the rise of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. This past November saw the election of Tea Party candidates like Kentucky’s Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist, to the U.S. Senate. It helped Paul that he had a well-known name—his father, Ron Paul, is a congressman and former presidential candidate—and that his opponent ran a brutally negative campaign, which backfired by reminding voters of what they didn’t like about professional politicians. Another Tea Partyer, Ron Johnson, who had spent his entire career in the plastics-­manufacturing business, defeated Russ Feingold (who had been representing Wisconsin in the Senate for nearly two decades) by telling voters, “I’m just a guy from Oshkosh” and “I’ve never been to Washington”—as if D.C. were some sort of infectious zone.

Then there’s Palin. When John McCain named her his running mate in the summer of 2008, she had spent 18 months governing a state with a population smaller than that of Columbus, Ohio. Before then, she was the mayor of tiny Wasilla. Her nomination robbed the McCain campaign of one of its strongest arguments against Barack Obama: his own lack of experience. And yet Palin, excoriated for her lack of knowledge and know-how, is now one of the country’s most prominent Republicans. Palin sometimes argues in speeches and interviews that instinct and character can carry a person through; she even presents inexperience as a sort of advantage. “Your résumé not being as fat as your opponent’s in a race, perhaps being able to capitalize on that . . . being able to use that in campaigns—I don’t have 30 years of political experience under my belt,” Palin told Time. “That’s a good thing, that’s a healthy thing.” Palin, of course, quit her job as governor of Alaska, giving up an opportunity to gain more executive experience in order to write a book and star in a reality-TV show. Still, even her Facebook posts make headlines, as they did in January after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson. It is unclear whether Palin will aim for the presidency in 2012—she says she hasn’t “closed the door”—and no one knows where she will end up next.

If she did win the top job in 2012, Palin would have something in common with another woman who ended up running a country after a dramatic and relatively late career change. In 1989, Angela Merkel was 35, divorced and working as a researcher at a university in East Germany; her specialty was quantum chemistry. Then the Berlin Wall came down. Merkel joined the protests against the East German regime and, once the two countries were reunified, was elected to the ­Bundestag. There she impressed Helmut Kohl, the chancellor, who ­unexpectedly named her cabinet minister for women and youth. Kohl’s nickname for her was das Mädchen, “the girl.”
Merkel could easily have topped out there, somewhere in the upper-middle tier. The party she and Kohl belonged to, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was run like an old boys’ club. Then Kohl and the party’s top leaders became enmeshed in a campaign-­finance and influence-­peddling scan­dal. Merkel, whom they had never completely admitted to their circle, wasn’t implicated. One of the few CDU leaders left standing, she took over. The party had been voted out, but six years later, in 2005, she led the Christian Democrats to victory and was re-elected in 2009. Being an outsider had saved her from being caught in a mess that could have destroyed her career.

Still, competence counts. Sometimes an outsider can’t, or won’t, leverage his or her out-of-the-box skills while assembling enough in-house expertise to fix the broken parts. In 2000, Robert Nardelli left GE, where he had lost a fight to succeed Jack Welch, and took over at Home Depot, despite having no significant retail experience. Instead of becoming a savior, in 2009 he made Portfolio magazine’s list of the “Worst American CEOs of All Time” (he stepped down at Home Depot in 2007). Nardelli was criticized for not respecting Home Depot’s culture—for example, the way it retained salespeople who knew a lot about fixing things—or what anyone but he himself had to offer. In a very different field of endeavor, Michael Jordan discovered he couldn’t just change out of his basketball uniform and play a serious game of baseball.

Even in politics, a promise of change—magic for Barack Obama in 2008—is often not enough to inspire voters. This election cycle saw the failure of three women, all Republicans, who hoped to turn business success into political power: Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, who ran for governor in California; Carly Fiorina, who had been CEO of Hewlett-­Packard and aimed for the Senate, also in California (and who was on that Portfolio list with Nardelli); and Linda Mc­Mahon, who built up World Wrestling Entertainment and ran for the Senate in Connecticut. In those cases, it may have been the candidates’ inexperience in running for office—rather than in governing—that became the problem. “They ran bad campaigns,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. In billionaire Whitman’s case, it was made all the worse by dramatic overspending (she put $144 million of her own money into the campaign) and what Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, called “personal missteps” (one involving a housekeeper who was an undocumented worker). Pink thinks Whitman should have investigated the ways in which politics and business are not alike, and taken the time to figure out who the “stakeholders” were. “My guess is that Meg Whitman did less due diligence in her own transition than she would have allowed in eBay making an acquisition,” he says.

Sometimes no one notices that in­experience is a problem until something goes wrong. When Michael Brown was appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003, few people registered that the most elevated title on his résumé was head of the International Arabian Horse Association. Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and a lot of people noticed. Brown is best remembered as a paragon of obliviousness, the hapless recipient of George W. Bush’s now-legendary compliment, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” As an agency head, Brown seemed not to even know what needed to happen when disaster struck, much less be able to make it happen. FEMA turned away relief trucks and planes sent to evacuate people, and Brown himself became overwhelmed. (“Can I quit now?” he e-mailed a colleague the day of the storm.) Three days in, he told Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News that he didn’t realize there were refugees in the New Orleans Convention Center, even though there had been live television broadcasts from the scene for some time.

So what are the ingredients of success for those who leap into a field in which they lack direct experience? For one thing, it can help to be a woman. Harvard’s Groysberg has studied the “portability” of skills, using a sample set of financial professionals. He found that even in moves between familiar settings, there tends to be a dip in performance as executives figure out things like “where the bodies are buried,” in his words. But there is an interesting caveat: “The dip is only applicable to men,” he says. “Star women do really well when they move.”
One reason for women’s exceptional resilience may be that they know how to build connections outside their firms, as when Kotchka reached out to the larger design world. “What I find is not that men and women build franchises differently because of innate differences,” says Groysberg. “Instead, women become more portable because they’ve faced institutional barriers.” In the financial industry, for example, women historically “found themselves unemployed faster than men” and missed benefits like the sharing of information in informal settings. Since resources and allies were harder to find, the women who succeeded had looked for them beyond the next cubicle. Says Groysberg: “Most women at the top are survivors.” Or as McGovern interprets it, “Never turn down the job no one else wants. You’ll learn a lot, and if you’re not challenged, you’re not growing.”  

Amy Davidson is a senior editor at the New Yorker.

 

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First Published Thu, 2011-02-03 17:32

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