Knowing How To Find and Hire For Talent, Not Just Skills and Experience, Can Be A Competitive Advantage

Knowing How To Find and Hire For Talent, Not Just Skills and Experience, Can Be A Competitive Advantage

by Sara Bennett | August 19, 2019

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….particularly if you are a small to medium sized company who has to compete with the “big guys” in our local Northwest job market.

So how does hiring for talent look different than hiring for specific skills or experience?

When you hire for talent you’re looking for candidates who have the innate ability, interest and motivation to learn how to do a certain type of work PLUS you are prepared to help them acquire the specific skills they need after they are hired.  Your hope is that the employee you hire will not only learn how to do the job quickly but will apply what they’ve  learned smartly.  IOW, they have natural talent.

Hiring for experience is a lot easier to do but the goals and the end result are different.    When your hire for experience or skills you are looking for candidates who already have the knowledge and skills to do the job and you are assuming they can step in contribute quickly with little to no on the job training.

The phrase “hiring for potential, train for skills” has been around for a long time….but its particularly relevant now for small to medium sized companies who, in this tight labor market,  find themselves competing for a shrinking number of already skilled/experienced job candidates.    

What are the payoffs for finding and hiring for talent in today’s marketplace?

You change the competitive landscape.   

When you first start your search for the “right candidate” there’s always that euphoric time when you make your wish list of the experience and skills you’d like to see in your “ideal candidate”.  Most hiring managers , focused on here and now productivity, tend to start there. Unfortunately, in today’s job market, there are not only fewer candidates who fit that  “ideal” profile,  but there are many many companies fighting for their attention.

By focusing on a candidate’s potential rather than their here and now skills, you’re changing who you compete with for what candidates. Rather than competing with all those deep pocket employers  who have the pay and benefit packages to compete for those few “ideal candidates”, you’re now focusing on a very different pool of candidates that your competitors are likely to overlook.

In today’s marketplace, the race for the “ideal” candidate may not be winnable , even for the best recruiters.  The race for talent is.    

You can hire faster.  

Looking for the “ideal” candidate takes a lot of time.  There are likely to be lots of starts and stops; interviews cancelled;  offers not accepted.

 And make no mistake taking too long to hire for an open role can be costly to your business.  It puts pressure on the rest of your team, it creates gaps in how your team executes.   And when those gaps impact your company’s customers, it can create dips in customer satisfaction if not revenues.

A decision to hire candidates with potential rather than a candidate with here and now skills allows you to move faster.  Not only are there more candidates to choose from,  but the candidates themselves are more open to your reach outs.  Many are just like you  in that they’ve been overlooked by employers looking for the “ideal” and will appreciate an employer willing to “give them a chance”.

That employer is you.

A high potential, less experienced candidate, often costs less. 

These are candidates who know they’re not a finished product but are willing to be paid less  just to get their foot in the door. Unlike a highly experienced candidate, they are joining your team for a learning opportunity,  not a pay increase.

 For small to medium sized companies who more than likely are already committed to developing their employees from within – to do things “my way” – targeting candidates who are willing to work less for the training and mentorship you have to offer, simply makes business sense.

You avoid the risks of hiring an expensive, highly seasoned employee, who isn’t the “right fit”.  

One of the downsides of hiring a seasoned candidate is that you are not just hiring their skills and experience but you are also hiring their mindset and attitudes that have been developed thru other work experiences, by other employers.

If their  way of doing the job, being part of a team, communicating with others, doesn’t fit with your approach or culture their previous experience may end up creating more problems than it solves.   High talent, low experience employees, on the other hand are typically moldable…easily trained to do things your way.

Your new hires will energize your team!     

Hiring for potential can fill your team with employees hungry to prove themselves.  They’re eager to learn, eager to prove  to you and the team that they can do the job.  And their eyes are fresh, able to offer up new ways of looking at and solving problems that a more experienced employee can’t.

One of the first things you’ll find when hiring high potential employees is that your whole team becomes energized by helping the new team member succeed.  They are no threat.  Additionally, when you give a seasoned employee the opportunity to “train” you build the skills and confidence of the entire team.

Your team automatically becomes more diverse – a good thing!  

High potential candidates typically come in a wide range of profiles, without a typical age, gender or experience profile that can often dominate a team who has a pattern of hiring the same type of (experienced) candidates over and over.  Diversity will make your team stronger – more creative, more innovative, more agile.

Your team is likely to have less turnover, longer retention.

An employee hired in the context of your commitment to growing and developing their potential, is an employee likely to reciprocate that commitment with their personal loyalty.  In today’s job market the tendency to change jobs every 1-2 years is commonplace, creating enormous costs to US businesses.  An employee who has personally benefited from 1-2 years of mentorship is going to think twice before leaving you for another opportunity where there is a chance that mentorship won’t continue.

The value of a loyalty factor created by hiring for potential, can be immeasurable.

If you think you’re ready for a hiring strategy focused on talent, here’s a few ideas about how to get started with your next hire:

Decide ahead of time HOW MUCH EXPERIENCE, and WHAT TALENTS are most critical to hiring success. 

Yes there are things about most jobs where you need to require a specific set of skills or work experiences simply to make sure the candidates you are reviewing “can do” the job.

  • If a role requires leadership, for example, you can’t put someone into that who has never lead others – even if they have been an exceptional individual contributor elsewhere.  People who have been individual contributors and people who have lead others, have developed very different skill sets.
  • If a position requires specialized knowledge, for example, how to process an insurance claim, you have to staff that role with someone with that particular type of knowledge or experience.

Our truth is that when it comes down to many of the important components of job placement, there are certain types of knowledge or skills  that just need to be taught in the context of your specific work environment.  If a candidate for a claims processor role comes with a good knowledge about how claims are handled inside most insurance companies, they can quickly be taught how claims get submitted to most insurance companies by your office. They don’t need 5 years of experience submitting claims to do well.

Skip (or minimize) the “number of years experience” requirement whenever possible. 

One of the first things I learned as a recruiter is the difference between work experience and transferable expertise.   We’ve all seen those employees who can work five years in a particular role,  but with respect to the talent marketplace only have one year of experience – repeated five times.  Other employees can patch together what looks very much like 5 years of work experience in one or two years on the job.  Simply stated, how candidates benefit from years of work experience varies – in many cases the direct result of their “natural” talent.

Bottomline – experience and talent are very different dimensions of what each candidate brings to the table.  Instead of setting a minimum number of years a candidate MUST HAVE to be considered for the job, in many cases screening out high talent employees, we recommend you start with a description of the exact type and level of work and decision making the job entails, and then identify those candidates who have the ability to be trained quickly and easily to perform that work.

Don’t get hung up on the resume.

Some hiring managers are what we call resume snobs – overly impressed with candidates who have the right things on their resumes – the “right” schools, the right employers, the right job titles – forgetting that is the person not the resume who eventually has to do the work.

Don’t get me wrong – resumes are needed and in most cases helpful, but they don’t replace the need for a behavioral interview where a skilled interviewer will uncover what the candidate has actually done in their previous jobs and make an assessment of their potential to do more.

An employee who has developed a successful sales team selling small ticket consumer products at IBM, quite likely will not have the skills and experience it takes to develop a sales team for a small start up company, selling a service with a long sales cycle – regardless of where they went to school, regardless of how successful they were at IBM.  In other words don’t get confused by “experience” – you have to know “experience doing what”.  Sometimes experience acquired elsewhere is transferable to your environment.  Often it is not.

Deliver the training needed – for both your high potential and highly experienced new hires.

Before you implement a hiring program focused on potential, make sure you have a training or mentoring program in place that aligns with your hiring promise.  Managers who hire for potential but don’t have the training or mentoring resources in place to develop that potential have wasted their time.

We hear stories all the time about companies who throw their high potential employees into jobs they know nothing about and let them “sink or swim”.  For the employees who “make it”, there is always that thrill of survival, but rarely do these employees believe they have performed meaningful work or contributed to the employer in a meaningful way.  Many will tell you they simply found a way to fly under the radar before they left for another, more meaningful job.

Small to medium sized companies have a special advantage when it comes to attracting candidates who want to do meaningful work.  Hiring for talent helps them lean into that strength.

And if you are a manager who has hired someone based on experience, if you don’t provide them with the training they need on how YOU want things done,  you may have set yourself up for a hiring mishap.  If the seasoned employee insists on doing things their way, they can be disruptive to the team’s work flow.  And if they underperform because they are resisting learning something new, they are likely to be demotivated by their belief that their experience has been discounted.

In summary, hiring the best candidate for any job always comes down to identifying those few qualities a new hire must bring to the table in order to be a successful contributor in both the long and short term.

While talent and experience should go hand in hand, it is clear that emphasizing one or the other in the hiring process can deliver very different advantages  – particularly for small to medium sized companies.

While previous work experience can provide an immediate solution to an immediate problem, that experience isn’t always available for the price you can afford in the current job market.  Plus too much experience can actually play out differently on the job than what was intended.

Hiring for talent, on the other hand, is a strategy that exchanges some short term gains, but may create a competitive advantage  long term.

Need help understanding the talents, skills and experience you need?  Give us a call at 425-637-3312 or e mail us at and we’d be glad to help you put together the right recruiting profile.  


PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest  employers find and hire the right employees for over 40 years.

A  3 time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditions, direct hire professional recruiting services, Employer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate evaluation and reference check services our clients can purchase a la carte.

To learn more about how partnering with PACE will make a difference to how you find and hire employees,  contact us at 425-637-3312 or e mail our Partner Solutions  team  at

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