A: Not as much as you think.
I was reading a quote the other day from John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 was battling perceptions in his presidential campaign that he didn’t have enough experience.
Experience, he said, “is like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going“.
This quote got me to thinking about the value of experience in being a great leader, and my own struggles to overcome a perceived lack of experience in becoming a leader.
The bottom line for me is that while experience is a factor, it’s not as critical as it is commonly portrayed to be.
The best example is my own – I got my first leadership job at the ripe old age of 27, overseeing a company generating over $200 Million in annual revenue. Someone took a chance on me based on reasons that went beyond a “long” resume – it was based more on the hirer’s keen intuition of educational and cultural background, intelligence, character, personality, and above all, common sense.
And, I was REALLY focused on what was in front of me rather than what was behind. I also think he knew that I was bound and determined to justify the risk that he took on me.
I jumped in the pond, head first, and worked, and worked, and worked. This “fish out of water” helped build the company I managed into one that was later sold for a very healthy profit.
The funny thing was, once the company was sold and I was back looking for a similar opportunity, they were hard to come by. The reason? I didn’t have “enough experience“. I KNEW I could lead, but it seemed like what everybody wanted to focus on was tenure – like there was some magic number of years that I needed to have under my belt.
I eventually got back to a place I wanted to be (after a personal declaration of independence), but it only hardened my resolve to put experience in the proper perspective, especially in my own hiring practices.
And so as I’ve made management hires over the past 5 years, I too have done my utmost to use the same intuition my first boss did with me over 20 years ago. It has paid great dividends for our company, for there are several less “experienced” leaders doing a fantastic job for us.
As noted by Lois McMaster Bujold,
“Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.”