Rethinking experience: why years alone aren't the secret to success
I love listening to stories as much as my kids do. Stories put me to sleep very easily.
One that is frequently heard in the corporate world is that the more years you work, the better you become.
Let me come clean on this.
Years of experience don’t mean as much as most people think they mean.
Think about it this way: in fields like art or sports, people don't count the years you've been practicing before they appreciate your talent. Nobody asks a painter how long they’ve been painting for before they like their artwork. But in business, for some reason, they often judge you based on how many years you’ve worked.
I once had this German fella as a colleague who, like most Germans, was direct and to the point: he always said what he meant.
“You can do things wrong for a lifetime”, he told me.
Hello 👋 one quick ask before you keep reading.
If you are new to this newsletter, please subscribe: it’s free… and interesting ✔
If you are already subscribed, please share it: don’t be selfish! 🤗
At that time, I was quite young and rather naïve, so his viewpoint struck me as a bit irrational and weird. However, as I look back, I realize that many of the notions I held during my early days in consulting were simply echoes of the prevailing sentiment around me. This was yet one more example.
I used to work for a big consulting company which we’ll call A Advisory. I became a Partner there, and I was the youngest one in my geography.
Being the youngest at achieving something had not been really that unusual in my life up to that point: I was often the youngest at accomplishing some school achievement, some promotion, to run some largest program in a region, or to make Partner at some firm.
I don’t write this to brag - because who cares about what some strangers on the internet think of me 😁 - but I say this to set some context: throughout my life, people often questioned my age and ability. They wondered how I could do well in a job when there were others with more years of experience than me. I got used to this.
At A Advisory I managed a colleague whom we’ll call Romeo.
He had more years of experience in the industry than me – about 6 or 7 years more. He was a nice guy outside of work, but managing his insecurities and his constant grievances about his perceived seniority was a hell of a job for me.
In consulting, evaluating and managing performance is relatively straightforward at senior levels due to the quantifiable nature of relevant metrics such as revenue, margins, and team billability. Romeo didn’t do so well in those areas, but he believed his 20+ years of experience made up for it.
I had this conversation with him once:
“Romeo, your years of experience means nothing. Every day, we are judged by our actions and, above all, by our results. Where are yours? What makes you think that you would achieve better outcomes as a Partner, when your targets will double, if you are a poor performer at the level before?”
He never had a good answer for it, but, deep down, I still think he believes his years of experience mattered more than they did.
Experience only gains value when coupled with introspection about the mistakes made throughout those years. The importance of experience lies in the extended period for making mistakes, reflecting upon them, and - hopefully - learning from them, something that someone with fewer years of experience hasn’t had the opportunity to do to the same extent.
Experience isn’t synonymous with talent; someone more talented than me could achieve similar outcomes in a shorter time span. We often overrate experience because it provides a clear metric for assessment - an indisputable number. However, this can be a flawed proxy for true capability.
What holds greater relevance is what I call reflective experience.
This involves traversing the highs and lows of a career over many years while taking the time to comprehend your past errors, learning from them, and internalizing strategies to avoid repeating them. Reflective experience holds immense value and sets apart a successful consulting executive from someone who is there because he kept breathing for 20 years while submitting their weekly timesheets.
Reflective experience combines the best of two worlds: the time you've spent in your job and your understanding of how things work in your industry. Lacking either of these aspects prevents one from being an outstanding executive:
With years of experience but not enough industry understanding, you are simply a guy “who’s been around”.
Conversely, if you have some kind of industry understanding but don't have enough experience, you probably haven’t seen enough situations to really know what to do, and your behavioral patterns are modeled around a limited sample of situations.
To close today’s post, one last caveat: as years of experience accumulate, the ROI on this metric shows diminishing returns.
There comes a point beyond which additional years don’t equate to a corresponding increase in wisdom, regardless of how skilled or talented an individual might be.
Your goal should be to strive for the optimal balance.