Why a Career-Changer Could Be Your Best Hire
Want your company to become more innovative? Hire talent who have never set foot in your industry.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
How do you get a consumer to stop scrolling through Twitter and click on something your brand created? That was the question Karina Wilsher, global COO of New York City ad agency Anomaly, was faced with answering for her clients. "If you look at the old model of advertising, it has an ascending story arc with a big reveal at the end, whereas in today's world, with everyone on their phones, you need to deliver the headline first to get their attention," she says. Rather than train her team to think like journalists, Wilsher went out and hired one--a former digital editor of The Wall Street Journal.
Anomaly hasn't stopped with journalists. The award-winning agency, whose clients include Beats by Dre and Coca-Cola, has also recruited data scientists and technology- product designers. It turns out Anomaly is hardly, well, anomalous when it comes to companies reaching outside their conventional talent pool for fresh perspective, new ideas, and skepticism about business as usual. "If you want radical innovation, you need to look to unusual suspects," says Marion Poetz, an innovation professor at Copenhagen Business School. As you find your industry being uprooted by technology, consider turning to outsider talent who can help push your company forward, so you don't get left behind.
For startups, that means considering different job candidates from day one. When Sarah Kauss founded New York City-based S'well, which makes a line of high-end water bottles, she wanted to set the brand apart with sleek, elevated design. "At first, we were just thinking about what's on the market and how to reflect that," she says of the cluttered category. Then she decided to hire designers from the fashion industry to create her bottles, which sell for up to $45. The gamble paid off--soon S'well was setting trends rather than chasing them. "We had [the color] rose gold before Apple had rose gold, and then they called and asked us to do a branded bottle in the Cupertino store," Kauss says. That deal and others helped the company hit $100 million in sales in 2016, up from $50 million the year before.
Even if you've been in business for decades, outsiders can become your most creative problem solvers. Ten years ago, Thomas Novacek, head of R&D for the escalator division of Swiss manufacturer Schindler Group, was stuck on how to maneuver huge, preassembled escalators around corners and fit them into tight spaces. Novacek reached out to experts in other fields, including one at a ski resort and another at a toy-train manufacturer. Eventually, a mining pro joined the team, bringing a solution that reduced the number of the escalator's components.
To ensure an outsider doesn't turn into an experiment gone awry, Wilsher says, stay strategic about the person's contributions. "Things could go horribly wrong if you just drop an interesting person into the mix and see what happens," she says. She started her journalist hire with a smaller client portfolio. "Sometimes, there's a danger in bringing a shiny new object in and everyone wants a piece," says Wilsher. "We have to be very disciplined about going slow."
When these kinds of transplants are brought into technical companies, they require more rigorous training. Novacek puts outsider hires through months of prep to ensure they understand things like the escalator industry's incredibly detailed safety specs. But once trained, they can quickly apply their expertise through that new lens. "To implement these radical ideas, you need in-depth knowledge," says Novacek, who has also poached talent from the aeronautics and automotive industries.
Ideally, fresh thinkers become in-house agents of change who will prompt the rest of your staff to remain curious and adaptable in a rapidly shifting world. When it comes to any employee these days, says John Sullivan, a talent-management expert and professor at San Francisco State University, "the number one competency is the ability to learn on your own quickly."
The upside of outliers
Confidence, contrariness, and cultural fit--the benefits of curveball hires
"There's a secret sauce in hiring a person who knows that I believe in him enough to take a chance," says David Williams, CEO of Fishbowl, an inventory software firm near Salt Lake City. Williams has hired everyone from his electrician to a guy who sold him a snowboard, and he's more likely to size up someone's creativity, sharp wit, and patience than what industry he or she hails from. That talent strategy has helped Williams steer Fishbowl to seven consecutive years on the Inc. 5000--and achieve remarkably low turnover.
"Long tenure in any industry comes with a lot of ingrained behaviors and assumptions that are hard to break," says Dan Pappalardo, founder and CEO of media company Troika. "If you make only cookie-cutter hires, everything stagnates." That's part of what led Pappalardo to hire a cultural anthropologist to help the Hollywood-based team better understand what drives consumers. A recent research report she did included an examination of what America's declining religiosity might mean for TV and film in 10 years.
When you care less about industry-specific expertise, you can pilfer personal networks and nab known quantities. That's why Mike Catania, founder and CTO of Tallahassee, Florida-based savings site PromotionCode.org, hired his former University of Massachusetts, Lowell students for tech roles--never mind that his courses were in music theory. "Since I knew their personalities and work ethic, it was easy for me to get them trained--far faster than employees I'd hired conventionally with better industry experience," he says.