Experience or brains – Which matters more in a senior role?

April 30, 2015

Which matters more when you’re hiring someone for a senior job – intelligence or experience? You may be thinking, ‘it’s obvious, go for the experience’. On the other hand, you may be thinking, ‘it’s obvious, go for the brains’. Which one you favour tends to reflect your own biases rather than any universal truth. Ideally, of course, you’d want both, but let’s say that’s not on offer.

Imagine you’re recruiting a Senior Operations Manager in a manufacturing company. In your business, raw materials come in, you turn them into something else and store those products, before shipping them out. This manager’s role is to manage a large workforce, adjust production to meet demand, manage contracts with suppliers and so on. There are production targets to meet and a constant pressure to cut costs.

You put in a place a very thorough assessment process where you find out about the breadth and depth of candidates’ specific experience and then use a psychologist to find out who they are as people – how smart they are, how they interact with others, their leadership styles, what they’re like under pressure, what’s lurking in the shadow side of their personalities and so on. Through this process you’ve whittled it down to two candidates, both of whom have sound management skills, good interpersonal skills and seem pretty resilient under pressure. You could imagine working with either of them.

The experienced one

Alison* currently works for one of your main competitors. She has years of operational management experience, is well-regarded and knows the market well. She is of average intelligence and works most effectively in a familiar environment where she can draw on her existing knowledge and skills. It helps if she has a degree of structure, in the form of processes and procedures, to guide her thinking. Without these, and particularly when faced with very ambiguous information or situations where she has to work things out from scratch, she may be at a bit of a loss as to where to start and could risk jumping to conclusions.

The smart one

Becky* is an experienced retail manager. She is used to managing a large workforce, working to sales targets and managing relationships with suppliers. However, she has absolutely no experience of manufacturing. Becky is extremely bright and learns quickly. When faced with ambiguous or complex information, she will be able to make sense of it rapidly without making assumptions. She can work out solutions from scratch without needing structure to guide her thinking.

Which one would you take?

Well here are some things to think about:

  • Does the manager need to ‘hit the ground running’? If there’s a handover period or a really good deputy in place who could get Becky up to speed quickly then she may be a good bet. If your current manager has left abruptly, Alison may be better equipped to take up the reins immediately.
  • How clear are your processes? If Alison has clear systems and processes to follow, she may be just fine. But think about how many ‘exceptions to the rule’ there are. How often might she be called upon to use her Decisionjudgement when there’s no clear-cut answer and how familiar is she with making these decisions? Also how similar are your processes to those in her current company? There’s a risk she could assume you do things the same way her current company does (or that you’re wrong if you don’t).
  • Is the organisation fairly stable or in a state of change? Alison is likely to perform better in a relatively stable environment. Becky will probably be better able to handle change as she will find it easier to rearrange her ‘mental map’ of the world to take account of changing circumstances.
  • What sort of involvement will the person have in wider management decisions? Alison’s most valuable contribution to strategic decision-making will be to draw on her vast operational experience and identify what is possible. She is likely to be able to point out why certain options won’t work (though there’s a risk she could be a bit blinkered about this) and figure out practical ways to make new ideas happen. Becky will have less practical experience to draw on but will have a broader perspective on the business. She’s also likely to take the longer term view. She may be frustrated if she’s excluded from high level discussions about the organisation’s future.
  • Are you recruiting just for now or for the longer term? If you’re in a fairly steady state environment and need someone to fill this role for the foreseeable future, Alison may be a good fit. Becky, potentially, may get bored.  If, on the other hand, you’re growing and want this person to grow with the company, perhaps becoming Operations Director, then Becky might be a better bet, as she has more strategic potential.

There is no right answer here. It’s not as though Becky has no relevant experience – I wouldn’t suggest that a super-bright history professor would be a good candidate for the role. Neither is Alison by any means stupid. But there are blind spots in her thinking that it’s worth taking into account.

What I hope this illustrates is the importance of a) understanding what a candidate needs to succeed in the role (which may not be what you think it is) and b) assessing people properly so that you have more than a surface view of your candidates. I’d be happy to discuss either with you: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

* I know, I know – the two best candidates for a senior job in manufacturing and I made them both women. It’s political correctness gone mad. Actually if you found your attention snagged on the idea of female candidates for a senior operations job, may I direct you to my blog on unconscious biases.

Photo credits

Graduate: Nottingham Trent University

Sign up to my monthly blog mailing list.


  1. gfas2010 May 12, 2015 at 8:09 pm - Reply

    Well put Caroline. Its a case of horses for courses. You need to understand your course before you select the horse!

Leave A Comment