Should you promote on experience or potential?

Wowcher's Roland Bryan thinks time served is overrated.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2019

Ageism, as you’ll know, is illegal. But there’s a reason the senior echelons of established corporations are generally over the age of 40: experience.

In purely quantitative terms, experience can be seen as a proxy for age. If you require five years of experience minimum in a junior role to reach middle management, then another five to become a senior manager, then another five even to be considered for the C-suite, then you’re not exactly going to get many 23 year olds sitting on your executive committee.

Roland Bryan, for one, thinks this rigid approach is misguided. The CEO of UK-based ecommerce marketplace Wowcher thinks experience – in and of itself – is overrated. He instead prefers to hire – and then rapidly promote to positions of responsibility – on talent alone.

Isn’t experience a decent indicator of capability – they could only have reached a given level if they’d been proven before?

Starting off my career as a management consultant, I found myself in an environment where bright, young people were solving complex issues for large organisations. Our clients were senior executives in their 40s and 50s struggling to find the right path for their businesses. It struck me that raw intellectual horse power, coupled with the right analytical tools, can deliver more value than experienced leaders.

This has shaped our approach to people at Wowcher. We’ve created a culture based on potential, where we seek out the brightest in the field and give them more responsibility and freedom than one would expect of someone working with that level of experience.

How do you identify potential though? It’s easy to spot if someone’s smart, but there are multiple dimensions to talent, not least people skills and response to pressure.

I look for an enterprising spirit. The one question I love to ask at interview is "did you set up any businesses while you’ve been working, studying or at school?". The responses to this question are very revealing. I either get people who haven’t set anything up at all, or I get stories about school boys and girls buying and selling phones, and setting up side-hustles to their day job. The latter ones are the ones that have potential to be self-motivated business leaders

What can go wrong with promoting untested but high-potential people to positions of responsibility?

There are of course considerations for this approach. There have been times where promotions have caused friction from longer-serving staff, which has led to some departures. However, I have a duty to my colleagues to build a strong business, so I need the best talent- whatever age or stage of their career. The flipside of the departures is that we find that people are more motivated to take on more challenges and raise their game because they realise that will be rewarded by their own output and performance.

One of the less obvious but equally valuable upsides, is the quality of debate across the business. When we’re facing a fundamental fork in the road, we can make the best decision quickly because we have a company filled with bright and engaged people who know the business inside-out because they have worked their way up through the company.

Image credit: it'smeneosiam/Pexels

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