The Ruse of Experience

The Ruse of Experience



The growth of technology and social media has generated new meanings for familiar words. Viral now refers to popularity, not an illness. A ping is an action, not a noise. A tool is someone with an over-inflated ego, not an instrument. Following means to subscribe, not to pursue.

Experience has expanded to mean you achieved something—not that you were there.

From a CEO trying to secure the trust of a board to an executive moving to a C-level role to companies working to gain a position in a competitive market, leveraging the word “experience” as a differentiator is wasted energy. Experience is about participation, observation, perception, encountering something, and practice that results in superior knowledge or mastery. In short, whether its an executive or a company, experience simply means you were there. You participated. You interacted with a situation or event. You maybe even learned something.

Companies can serve an industry for the same amount of time with very different results. A quick look at Fortune 500 companies shows that a decade committed to a task can yield widely differring results.

Texas Instruments has been in business 66 years. Their Fortune rank in 2007 was 185. In 2017 it was 206.

JC Penney has been in business for 115 years. Their Fortune rank in 2007 was 116. In 2017 it was 221.

Wal Mart has been in business for 55 years. Their Fortune rank in 2007 was 1. In 2017 it was 1.

Weyerhaeuser has been in business for 118 years. Their Fortune rank in 2007 was 105. In 2017 it was 341.

Apple has been in business for 41 years. Their Fortune rank in 2007 was 123. In 2017 it was 3.

A look at top executives reveals the same range of outcomes. During Jeff Immelt’s tenure at General Electric, stock slipped 25%. Since Facebook became public, Mark Zuckerberg has led growth from $153 million to $40 billion. In ten years, Indra Nooyi has grown PepsiCo from $39 billion to $63 billion, while Ginni Rometty has watched IBM shrink from $98 billion in 2007 to $79 billion in 2017. Obviously, length of time on a road does not equate to distance traveled—or results achieved.

Selling experience alone easily becomes a ruse. If you don’t have a story to tell, don’t try to pretend one exists. Without quantified results, your ability to distinguish yourself from competitors is diminished.

Your experience doesn’t differentiate. Your client’s experience creates market differentiation. What consumers tell about how you helped them, how your product or service impacted their lives—that sells. When a board or other execs talk about your impact in an organization, that creates more credibility than talking about your number of years of experience.

Strong brands sell what people buy—and people buy results.

Tactical Success. Strategic Failure.

High Potential Failure

High-potential Failure?

Companies investing in developing “high-potential” employees also need to invest in helping top performers not drown in the wake of their own success.

From sales to finance to technology to marketing, the technical and tactical strengths that get an individual recognized and promoted are not the skills that will make the person successful as a senior leader. New executives often don’t realize that the independence that got them to a senior role can derail them once they arrive. Fast-tracking high-potential employees is another version of the scenario that has played in sales organizations for decades–a top performing sales person is promoted to sales manager where the individual stumbles, struggles, and eventually fails.

A successful marketing executive was hired by a world-renowned non-profit and she quickly set out to accomplish the aggressive agenda placed before her. She achieved what she was hired to do, but she did it without building a network of relationships in the organization. As soon as she completed the initiative, the executive’s employment was terminated. Tactical strength resulted in strategic failure.

Dartmouth management professor Sydney Finkelstein has conducted extensive research into corporate mistakes and failures. His insights are captured in his book titled, Why Smart Executives Fail. Finkelstein says that one of the most prevalent warning signs of executive failure is success and the arrogance that often accompanies it.

Outstanding results in one role won’t equate to great performance in a senior leadership position unless the individual is equipped with the interpersonal skills needed to interface with, lead, and relate to diverse groups of people. Finkelstein notes, “It is important to remember that corporate mistakes are about people.”