If most competitors in an industry only know that one industry well, but Competitor X benefits from the insider ideas, knowledge and history of ten industries in addition to its own, which organization is going win in the long-term in today’s rapidly changing world? If you’d bet on Competitor X, then you are a proponent of Wildcat Hiring.
wild·cat v. - To prospect in an area previously supposed to be unproductive. The term wildcat comes from the early 20th century oil prospectors who looked in less likely places in hopes of striking it rich. Wildcat Hiring applies the same principle to uncover strong talent. To make our organizations more innovative, we need to prospect outside the usual suspects from within our own industry and drill for new talent in areas not previously thought productive… different industries that don’t resemble our own. Industry disruption is no longer an if but rather a when, and industry insiders usually do not see it coming. Wildcat Hires are well-positioned to recognize below the surface threats, repurpose good ideas from another industry, and catalyze new ideas without the baggage of past industry experience.
In many industries today, there tends to be a recycling of the same ideas. Companies hire from within their industry, which only serves to pass the same ideas from company to company. This practice does not incubate or even encourage transformational solutions; it simply reinforces the status quo.
The environment for almost every industry is changing more rapidly now than ever, putting a significant premium on adaptability and new ways of doing business. Completely brand new (good) ideas are few and far between, so repurposing old ideas is to some extent necessary. But if we are going to repurpose old ideas, why not apply them in a completely different context? This can be just as effective as a new idea and is likely to be way more efficient.
By grooming leaders from within or hiring externally from primarily the same industry, most organizations have little understanding of other industries and even less ability to tap those industries for great ideas that can drive their business forward. They are travelers in a foreign land with only the map of their hometown to guide them.
What companies need to do then is to find people with different maps that might be applicable to the land in which they are now traveling. We need to “wildcat” in our recruiting and hiring. In other words, let's hire some people that have not been raised in our industry, but have had a completely different set of obstacles they've overcome. This may have been unproductive in the past, but the world is so interrelated now that almost any work experience is relevant to an adaptive eye and their insider understanding of ideas from other industries will be a needed catalyst to driving new ideas in their new organization.
A leadership team of a company that has engaged in Wildcat Hiring over several years is having a strategy meeting to discuss some major shifts coming in its own industry. 6 of the 10 people at the table grew up in this industry. Comments from several of these leaders include:
- “We’ve never faced challenges like this before.”
- “It certainly is an unpredictable time. How are we supposed to make good business decisions at a time like this?”
- “How are we going to continue to make margins of 5% on this business like we always have?”
- “I suggest we just play it safe to see how it develops. We can then get aggressive once the industry has stabilized in a couple of years.”
Luckily, there are 4 other people at the table that came from other industries but yet have a couple years of experience in the current industry. Their comments look more like this:
- “We faced something similar several years ago and we had the same trepidations. We sat on the sidelines and missed out on what would have been a great opportunity to grow our business.”
- “It’s not exactly the same, but we also faced the threats of a changing industry. Here’s what worked and what didn’t in our reaction to it.”
- “We identified some challenges that appear similar to what I think we will face as we deal with these changes. Here is how we prioritized them.”
- “This is how we leveraged a competitive advantage in my prior industry in a time of great change.”
The conversation is now more balanced. Several of the leaders have some applicable experiences from which they can offer insight as this company moves forward into its industry’s undiscovered country. There will still be trepidation and mistakes, but this company is well-positioned to make some informed bets that have a high probability of paying off while others in its industry are likely just holding on for dear life.
This example is at the more senior level of the company for ease of illustration. Since much of the really important work gets done several levels below the executive committee, it is imperative to apply Wildcat Hiring throughout the organization to realize all of its benefits. This will also embed adaptability in the organization's DNA and over time an innovative mindset will be a reflex rather than something employees consciously have to do.
To do this will not be easy. It, in fact, requires the company to be innovative in even undertaking a Wildcat Hiring strategy. Here are some likely challenges and potential ways to address them:
- It starts with accepting that some hires will not work out. This is the case hiring from within a company’s own industry anyway, so the risk is not necessarily greater. But with any new approach, early adverse evidence can cause one to turn back to the old ways. This is not a button that can be turned on; there will need to be some learning along the way.
- The existing company culture needs to be accepting of the outsiders. This will be a bigger challenge for some companies than others. Leadership will need to continually reinforce the thinking behind and the importance of a Wildcat Hiring initiative well before hiring any high profile Wildcat into the organization.
- It requires removing the "candidate must have X years of experience in Y industry" from our job qualifications listings. For some roles, a qualification should be X years of experience in a non-Y industry. Finding a certain depth of knowledge in an industry is important and will likely lead to better applicability of the insights from that industry. The job qualifications need to be focused on broad skill sets and depth of general business knowledge.
- We must be proactive in our recruitment of talent; great talent from other industries is not likely to blindly apply for our openings. Effective Wildcat Hiring is dependent on a strong network from which to recruit.
- Some alternate industries will make more sense than others. Strong business leaders in the organization should develop a list of 5 - 10 different industries from which they could likely learn something related to the challenges they expect in their own industry in the next 5 years as a place to start and focus networking and recruiting efforts on those industries.
- Pay needs to be competitive with the industry from which a company is “stealing” talent.
- Onboarding becomes crucial. Providing the Wildcat Hires with a strong mentor and well-prepared industry education is essential to getting them productive quickly.
- There needs to be a dedicated channel for the Wildcat Hires to educate their new leaders on best practices from their prior industry and to share their ideas on how those best practices have some applicability in their new company.
- Their performance must be measured in a way that does not penalize them for a lack of industry knowledge for their new industry. This item is fine for a development plan, but rating them lower than other employees because they don’t know the industry as well will quickly get them rethinking their choice to be a Wildcat Hire.
- Their career progression needs to be at a level consistent with their industry-expert peers. Once the approach has been in place for some time, future potential Wildcat Hires seeing a strong progression from their predecessors are going to be more willing to take the risk on a new industry.
A good test of this idea is for an organization to bring together the Wildcats it already has in its organization for a series of ideation sessions facilitated by a relatively senior leader. Most organizations are going to have at least a sampling of talent that started outside its industry that they can use in the experiment to see what ideas can be generated by practices from different industries. Recommended steps:
- Appoint an industry insider senior leader to facilitate the exercise. It is important that this leader be someone who is supportive of the initiative in this position.
- Identify talent with other industry experience and/or seek volunteers. A team of 7 – 12 plus the senior leader and one or two facilitation support staff is ideal.
- Brainstorm ideas for company strategies and initiatives coming from other industry experiences. Over the course of 4 – 6 weeks document the ideas and winnow them down to 3 – 5 initiatives.
- Have one of the Wildcats from the team present the ideas to senior leadership to get their buy in.
- Communicate these initiatives and their origin widely with regular status updates.
- Evaluate the value added from this exercise. The time resource is the primary investment cost, but this exercise should not require any new resources. If this is deemed successful, the return on investment will be significant. It will also go a long way to creating cultural acceptance of a Wildcat Hiring strategy.
Assuming the company is satisfied with this test exercise, it could then decide to make Wildcat Hiring a part of its regular practices and begin required investments in the identification of target industries, the development of recruiting networks, the creation of onboarding and education materials, and the establishment of a mentor program for those identified as Wildcat Hires.
With these steps, the company will develop an adaptive culture that creates a competitive advantage in its capability to deal with even the most surprising opportunities and threats with which it is presented.