The Left-Field Candidate: The advantages of hiring outside your industry

January 30, 2015 Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions

If you’re like most organizations, not very often. In the early stages of a talent search, many clients will set parameters that inevitably lead them to the same pool of candidates. These will be people who have the very same education, professional designations and industry experience as the people they are replacing. Many times, the search criteria is so restrictive, the only true fit is someone at a competing organization within the same industry.

However, what if there was a candidate that could fulfill all your expectations but didn’t come from within the same, often-visited talent pool? What if there was a great opportunity waiting for you out there in left field?

The left-field candidate – a top talent that comes from a different industry with an atypical resume – can be, under the right circumstances, a tremendous advantage. Many of the world’s largest companies – IBM, Eastman Kodak, Times Mirror, AT&T and General Motors to name just a few – have enjoyed various levels of success by bringing in CEOs who previously toiled in significantly different industries.

Left-field talent can be a source of innovation, a new set of eyes to study a long-standing problem. Or, perhaps they see the same product or service from a completely different perspective; instead of looking at it from the manufacturing point of view, they see things from the perspective of the end user.

These candidates can also be very cost-effective. Recruiting top talent from competitors is, ultimately, very expensive. Many organizations even end up paying above market value to bring in a proven producer from the same industry. However, talented left-field candidates that have already embraced the idea of changing careers can often be obtained more cost-effectively.

In addition, a left field candidate can function as an injection of energy in to a stagnant workforce, a person that does not view the work as the “same old-same old.” A person that does not fall prey to the same hurdles or limitations.

At the outset of a talent search, good search firms will always ask whether an organization is willing to look outside its industry. Most will simply say no right off. Others may consider the idea at the outset, only to pare and hone down the search criteria until left-field candidates have been culled out. A small constituency will show interest in a left-field solution but, at the very last moment, lose faith in the idea.

Although there are good reasons for doing that – for example, if the job requires very specific technical knowledge or expertise – in many cases eliminating left-field candidates can mean a tremendous missed opportunity to bring in top talent that is otherwise flying beneath your industry’s radar.

Many organizations would find, for example, that including more atypical candidates would help avoid having to perform multiple talent searches to fill one position. The failure to find the perfect candidate is many times attributable to search criteria that are too specific or restrictive. Opening up the process to candidates with unusual or even conflicting expertise can bring that process to a close more rapidly.

But not all organizations, and not all positions, are a good fit for left-field candidate. Before canvassing a broader talent pool, it will be important to confront some difficult questions about the position being filled, and the organization itself.

Are you already competing in a rapidly changing industry? Organizations that are comfortable with change can be very good candidates to look outside normal channels and sources for new talent. There is no way to get around the fact that bringing in someone with an atypical background is, in essence, an injection of change. It’s a signal to your employees that it’s not business as usual. This can come as a shock unless your organization is already tolerant of change.

Are you looking for immediate impact, or a long-term bump in your talent? Sometimes, a new hire is expected to produce immediate results. That is not likely to be a position that will be filled adequately by a candidate from outside your industry. If, however, you’re looking to boost leadership and general talent capacity, then a left-field hire can be a perfect fit.

How hands-on is the role you’re trying to fill? Hiring a left-field candidate to head up a team with a very specific task could be a mistake. Leaders need specific knowledge to build credibility among team members. Without that credibility, you’ll be forcing a square peg into a round hole, and likely disrupting the confidence and progress of the team. On the other hand, if you’re hiring a business leader – someone who can manage people as opposed to a specific, technical project – you will find the left-field candidate is a better fit.

Are you hiring to upgrade technical expertise? Some organizations look outside normal channels for talent because they want to fix or improve some aspect of their business. However, if the need is technical expertise, then once again, hiring a candidate from outside your industry may be a bad fit. Whereas an organization that is confident in technical expertise, but weak in broad management skills, may find that onboarding a left-field candidate is mutually beneficial.

It’s also important to note that bringing in a new leader with little industry expertise can be in some instances, even with the most thoughtful planning, a difficult process to manage. “Outsiders” can in many scenarios be treated with skepticism, even hostility. Many business leaders may see a left-field hire as a comment on their own performance. These are challenges that must be confronted head on if a new leader is expected to succeed.

It will take an organization with a sense of creativity to see the long-term benefits of hiring from left field. For those that do have the courage, and a level of comfort with innovation to look beyond the same talent pool, the benefits will far out weigh the risks.

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