In our recent On Leadership conversation with Adam Grant, he mentions one of his pet peeves is people who say, “That’s not what my experience has shown.”
As leaders, we often look at a candidate’s field of collective experiences to see if they have the history and perspective to solve similar problems or leverage future opportunities. A common refrain I hear is, “Does this candidate have the fields of experience to draw upon that will set them up for success in this particular role?” It seems hard to argue with.
A True Leadership Skills Example
For example, Captain Sully Sullenberger is heralded for his handling of the 2009 US Airways flight that successfully landed on the Hudson River. There’s no debate about how his collective flight experience, both in the air and in simulation training, contributed to his and his team’s remarkable feat. What could have been a complete catastrophe resulted in the opposite. With zero lives lost, their actions became a model of what to do versus what not to do. It serves as the ultimate model in drawing on thousands of hours of experience put into action.
Certainly, there was enormous value from his extensive flight time as an Air Force fighter pilot and decades as a commercial aircraft pilot before that. I don’t know if Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles trained for this exact air incident (a flock of birds hitting the engines), but I bet if you look beyond their experience and at their personalities, you’d find some similarities.
Beyond their exact set of trained-for experiences, I propose there’s equal value to be drawn from understanding their temperament—their emotional calibration and remarkable ability to remain calm, clear-headed, and focused under life or death pressure. And further, their level of trust in the cockpit and clear and likely very concise communication in the moments they faced the ultimate test of their ability.
Personal Experiences are Different for Everyone
My personal experiences are generally what form my opinions, mindsets, voting patterns, values, and how I judge/perceive others. I was raised in an upper-middle class, white family in Central Florida in the 1970s. My father worked a very stable corporate career, and my mother was a full-time stay-at-home parent raising my brother and me. She was a Cub Scout Den Mother, played tennis several days a week in a ladies league, and was the PTA classroom lead for most of my elementary grades. She made dinner seven nights a week for 18+ years, and we had our teeth cleaned twice annually like clockwork. We lived in the same home my entire life, and to this day, my parents are married (58 years) and still live in the same home. Church on Sunday mornings wasn’t open for debate. Red Lobster twice a year was a treat, and we had everything we needed, but not everything we wanted.
This was my experience, and I’m sure it was yours also.
Wait. It wasn’t? Yours was different? You mean Olive Garden twice a year was a treat, right? That’s the main difference in our experience, correct?
Wait? There’s more? There were other differences in your life.
I bet your life sounds absolutely nothing like what I described above—even if we’re about the same age (almost 53, people…ugh). I am grateful for my experiences and don’t discount them—ever. But when I visit my publisher and editor in Miami and look around at the twelve associates sitting at the table, not a single person can even remotely relate to my upbringing. When I talk about my “normal” childhood, their jaws hang open. Not in envy—rather in awe. Unrelatable awe at my experiences compared to theirs.
Not better or worse—just different.
My experience with the pandemic is no doubt different than yours. Likely unrelatable for many. My career ups and downs, financial and educational wins and losses, personal and professional relationships, and series of mistakes and accomplishments are also nothing like yours. My sales career is likely different. My marketing experience is different, too.
Personal Experience vs. Leadership Experience
Perhaps our experiences are relied on too heavily as leaders. We need to also build our interpersonal skills to levels that complement our experience and supersede it in many cases. Instead of looking mainly at someone’s similar set of experiences, we look for temperament, listening capability, judgment, propensity for collaboration, self-awareness, ability to extend trust to and earn it from others, and similar skills not based on experience.
So, how do we, as leaders, maintain value for our own experiences and resist making them the lens we always look through when hiring and promoting our associates? Ask yourself how you can navigate this balance the next time you’re considering someone’s professional future.
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