No One Ever Got Fired For Buying IBM

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Don’t be too timid or squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”  Hiring managers, more and more often, are hesitant to make experiments. They’ve been taught when something explodes in the laboratory, they won’t be the last ones to blame.

As recruiters, positioning ourselves primarily in the media and technology space, we’ve found ourselves asking this question: “How do you penetrate a new industry?” It seems that most hiring managers are looking for a candidate who is smart, capable, a fast learner, a great listener, and a strong seller with a proven track record, ideally with experience in the industry. Is this a quest for the purple unicorn? Let’s ask.

Photo by George Doyle/Stockbyte / Getty Images
Photo by George Doyle/Stockbyte / Getty Images

We asked Joanna Harp, Ad Director of Crain’s New York Business, what was more important: Industry Knowledge or Sales Ability. To Harp, it’s sales ability. “It’s what I feel on a gut level is teachable versus not...You should be able to learn the ins and outs of an industry. Someone who knows an industry might make a great salesperson, but by no means does industry knowledge alone make a great salesperson.” In her opinion, listening, and knowing how to frame a question to get the most information, is what makes a great sales-person.

Ed Diller, SVP of Stitcher, agrees. Diller looks for four characteristics when he’s hiring: Smart, Creative, Personable, and Hardworking. The rest can be taught. Diller sympathizes with companies that look for industry experience, though. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” he reminded us. Hiring managers hedge against failure when they bring on the candidate with industry experience. When they take a risk on a candidate, and that candidate struggles, the blame is often aimed at the hiring manager.

Still, the risky choice often has the greatest pay out, which is why using a trusted recruiter is so important. It’s the recruiter’s job to be creative and see the bridge between what the candidate was doing previously and what they would be doing in their next role. Diller expressed, “If I trust the recruiter, and they come to me and say, 'I’m going to put someone in front of you that you wouldn’t have otherwise looked at,' I will look at them 100% of the time.”

Harp agrees that it’s important to have someone justify the connection—why the candidate would be good for the role if coming from a different industry. When asked whether she’s ever hired “off profile”, Harp fondly recalled hiring a candidate who wrote directly to her. “The cover letter is so crucial,” Harp explained, “It almost trumps the resume.” The candidate, a waitress, explained how her job related to a sales job, and further expressed her passion for digital media. She then asked Joanna to take a chance on her. Her letter was so compelling that Joanna hired her, and she was a great success.

Luck or creativity and vision? Hiring managers have a job to do, and that job is to successfully hire new employees. Not all hiring managers are able to see beyond the industry, but if the candidate or the recruiter can connect the dots and tell a compelling story, perhaps more hiring managers would resist the temptation to play it safe.

 Interviews by Cynnie King, written by Stephanie Kronenberg