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

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.

First Published February 3, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Jasmine Black05.08.2011

The article referred to below is, " 13 Things You Should Know By Now," by the More editors, published in October 2006. Nadia Ghaleb was offering the advice.

Jasmine Black05.08.2011

I was wondering if anyone had good suggestions for songs that help create a mood for them when they must meet a crowd of new people. I read an article (More October 2006) about how to work a room and the suggestion was to get yourself into a good headspace by watching old movies. Music does that for me.

Susan 03.06.2011

Excellent article, well written.

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