Why hiring only from within your industry may be a mistake

Remember The Mighty Ducks? The 1992 sports-comedy-drama tells the story of Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez), the reluctant coach of a pee-wee ice hockey team in Minnesota. Faced with a losing streak, Bombay decides to recruit new players from outside of the game, namely a pair of figure-skating siblings and a thuggish kid who can whack the puck harder than most. With these unconventional players on the team, the Ducks rocket to the top of the ladder and eventually win the state championship.

 In the world of business, recruiting from outside of your industry can be a similarly winning strategy. In this article we examine the benefits of widening the talent pool and some of the challenges involved in determining if a candidate from another industry is the right fit for your organisation.

Benefits of hiring from another industry

Wanting to hire for hard skills and industry experience is understandable. After all, employers want people with technical knowledge, a network of contacts, and a familiarity with their customers and competitors.

But hiring only from within their industry can lead employers to miss out on some excellent candidates. Widening the pool to include people from other industries can give access to:

  •  New perspectives through increased diversity of experience.
  • Fresh eyes and new solutions to long-standing strategic or operational challenges.
  • The recruitment of people from industries that are known for a particular skill-set that your business currently lacks. For example, if your business is performing poorly in terms of customer service, you could consider recruiting someone with experience managing a call centre, or from the hospitality industry.
  • The incorporation of new ways of doing things.
  • Fresh channels, customers and network contacts that could potentially grow your business.

Learning from the Special Forces

Heston Russell, a former Commando Officer turned Leadership Coach, explains how the Australian Defence Force increases diversity through its ranks via the Special Forces Direct Recruiting Scheme (SFDRS). “Usually, people in the Special Forces have served four years in the regular Defence Force, and have gone through a common process. This creates something of a collective mentality, so the SFDRS was created to bring people into the Special Forces who haven’t been through that commonality,” he explains.

“It was enormously successful. By recruiting people from all walks of life, we gained access to out-of-the-box thinkers who looked at life through a different lens. Their approach was so, so different, and I learnt a lot about focusing on where someone has come from and the value that lies in what they’ve experienced.”

In another example, Wondrwall Chief Commercial Officer Mark Lufkin explains why he hired a brewery sales manager to sell electronics products for the business.

“Different industries and markets have different ways of working and the key to competitiveness is differentiation. I hired an area sales manager from a large Irish brewery to do the same for consumer electronics products. She had been hugely creative in the ways she presented and promoted her product… and did a great job applying some of the same ideas to selling consumer electronics products.”

Workers are keen to move between industries

Recent research found that 51% of Australians are considering a career change in the future. Around 90% of candidates in customer service, sales and business development, insurance and superannuation, real estate, and marketing/communication are willing to move industries. The research also found that candidates in mid-level roles express a greater willingness to change industries than those in senior or junior roles.

What to look for when hiring from outside of your industry

While the benefits are clear, hiring from outside the industry presents recruiters with a challenge – if you can’t use the usual KPIs (such as the possession of technical skills), what should you look for?

The answer lies in soft skills. Unless you are hiring for a highly technical role such as engineering, hard skills can usually be taught – either by sending the new hire to a training course, or teaching them on the job, or by connecting them with a mentor to help them get up to speed. But soft skills – communication, leadership, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, creativity, teamwork and so on – are much more difficult to teach, and in some cases are innate. You either have them or you don’t and none of these soft skills are industry specific.  

 The risks of hiring from outside your industry

Of course, there’s the obvious risk that a candidate from outside your industry may be slow to pick up the hard skills required by the role, which is why there are two key attributes that should always be assessed in the hiring process: a willingness to learn, and adaptability.

“To eliminate the risk of hiring someone without industry knowledge you need to conduct thorough assessment on their potential, capabilities and motivations. Interview questions that focus on values, combined with psychometric assessments can screen for this,” says Heston.

The key word here is “potential”. It’s often applied when hiring junior candidates without significant experience, but it can also be applied for even the most senior hires, such as a CEO-level candidate stepping across into an industry with which they are unfamiliar.

Heston comments: “Shift the focus from experience to potential. Even if the candidate doesn’t possess a particular skill, think about their potential if you were to give them the training, the education, or the opportunity. Where might they be in one or two years?”

Interviewing for adaptability, transferrable skills and values

Getting to the core of a candidate’s soft skill level relies on asking intelligent and targeted interview questions. These can include:

  • What challenges has the candidates faced in the past when learning a new skill, technology or process, and how did they overcome those challenges?
  • How has the candidate demonstrated a willingness to learn in their past roles?
  • Ask for an example of a time when the candidate successfully transitioned into an area outside of their core skillset.
  • What does the candidate believe their diverse experience and background enables them to bring to the table?
  • Which of the candidate’s skills (hard or soft) do they believe are transferrable, will benefit your organisation the most and why ?

Besides soft skills, Heston also recommends focusing on the candidate’s sense of purpose and personal values to determine if they will be a good or poor fit for your organisational culture. Use behavioural interview questions to first establish if they have the potential to adhere to your organisational values, then explore the marginal values that can bring value and diversity to your team.

Ensuring job descriptions do not restrict your pool of candidates

SEEK recommends reviewing the criteria in your job advertisement to ensure it isn’t unintentionally narrowing your pool of potential candidates. Keep an eye out for required experience or technical skill sets that unnecessarily exclude talent from outside your industry.

Because the bottom line is, done successfully, hiring employees with different experiences and backgrounds can bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to your business, giving you a competitive edge.

About Heston Russell

Heston Russell is a Leadership, Strategy & Operations Expert Coach, specialising in developing and testing High Performance Teams, Leaders & Culture. His background includes over 16 years’ service in the Military including nearly a decade in the Special Forces including many operational deployments around the world. Heston has also played a leading role in the development and expansion of a number of international companies throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. Today, he draws upon his vast experiences working within high threat environments and solving complex problems.

Heston Russell Leadership Strategy Operations Expert Coach


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