Does Experience Matter? #UnBookClub

Does Experience Matter? #UnBookClub
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The following blog is part of The UnBook Club series, Learn[ED]Leadership’s attempt at a book club without books and with no commitment.  If you missed our initial post about The UnBook Club check it out here, and please add to the discussion in the comments below.  We’ll feature new UnBook Club topics periodically, and you can receive updates on the latest topics by subscribing to the Learn[ED]Leadership Monthly (or so) Newsletter, or for immediate updates Like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

So last week to start our inaugural UnBook Club I proposed the following question: Does Experience Matter?  And supplied you all with Liz Wiseman’s Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders talk.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here).

Does Experience Matter?

I suppose it depends who you ask, and when you ask them.  Early in my career as a young educator with little experience, I’d like argue on the side of inexperience and that with fresh blood comes new ideas.  Of course, the flip to this is that as a more seasoned educator I’d be more likely to argue that my experiences brings with it an expertise that new educators lack.

Let’s consider outside of education.  Few of us (at least at my current age), want to visit with a doctor that looks fresh out of medical school.  I’ll also admit that when boarding a plane, I’d prefer to see someone my dad’s age in the cockpit opposed to someone who could have been a student of mine a few years back (doesn’t that scenario bring a few chills?).

Still, it’s hard to argue that all of these fears are grounded in fact.  Of course, experience–especially in a trade like heart surgery–is valued, but also comes hand in hand with age, as becoming a surgeon takes years of training.  So maybe for our discussion we need to keep in consideration that experience can be relative to the trade.

Who Would You Hire to Paint Your House?

Perhaps the trouble, and what Liz Wiseman is getting at, is that we often think our experiences matter much more than they really do.  This point specifically reminds me of a time in my life when I learned this the hard way.

Fresh out of student-teaching and with a college diploma in my hand I spent the first few months of my working life substitute teaching in various schools in Minnesota.  Of course, as a substitute not only was my job uncertain from  day-to-day but I knew I would become unemployed as soon as summer began.  With this reality approaching as well as my wedding day, I found a job working as a production manager for a franchise owner with College Pro Painters, a painting franchise that specializes in developing college aged franchisees to run their own house painting business.

I had had some experience in a previous summer painting and I quickly found myself in the throws of a busy summer leading painting crews.  However, things didn’t go well for my boss.  A combination of unmet promises and poor business decisions left him fleeing the state, avoiding creditors, and not answering his phone.  By August with no teaching job lined up yet, I accepted the task of fixing his mess and subsequently gained more experience than I could have imagined cleaning up a failed painting franchise.  (Read more here in a previous blog about what I’ve learned through poor leaders)

“the most powerful learning isn’t ever in the classroom… it comes when we’re desperate, when it’s more painful not to learn than to scramble up [the] steep learning curve.”

Later that spring I was asked by College Pro to consider running my own franchise.  I accepted their offer and confidently prepared for the summer.  As a 23 year-old I was already 2 or 3 year older than the average College Pro franchisee and I had a summer full of unique experiences to launch my future success.  Unlike some of my new franchisee peers, I fanageled my way out of some training events and freely gave out my advice and opinions to the “rookies.”  With my “experience” to lean on I confidently took steps to build my business.  All spring I worked busily to book work for the summer, but oddly continued to fall behind my weekly goals.  Afraid and a little ashamed to ask for help, I continued working in isolation and using strategies that weren’t successful.  In the meantime, other franchisees who were younger, inexperienced, and who were also busy college students managed to book more business, build a stronger network of support, and by the end of the summer build businesses that were much more profitable than mine.  So what happened?  Simple.  I let my “experience” (and pride) get in the way of successfully building a business.  I think this might be what Wiseman means when she says “when we [looked at] data in the knowledge industries we found that people without experience tend to out perform people with experience, but where they really out perform is when the work is innovative in nature, and they out perform in speed.”

See, what I misunderstood when starting my own painting business was that I believed my technical experience would provide me an advantage and expertise in the area of sales.  It did not, because sales and working with people in their homes has little to do with managing a crew or moving ladders.  Instead, it takes humility, the ability to listen, and lots of innovative and creative thinking.  Something I didn’t pay attention to at the time.

When the Leader Knows the Least

For me, I’ve found that the hardest aspect of changing jobs isn’t the new commute, making new friends, or setting up my office.  It’s knowing absolutely nothing about how to get anything done.  Often when changing a job, a person leaves their current position at the peak of their knowledge of the organization, and trades it for being dependent on everyone else.  As I moved to my current position at Punahou School, I initially saw this as a weakness as every question asked of me took forever to get an answer and often could just be fielded by my secretary.  However, as Wiseman points out it’s in this stage of the development curve that you realize the gap between what you know and don’t, and have an “oh sh#t!” moment.  You know that moment, where you realize you have no idea what you’re doing.  Has this ever happened to you.  Luckily, Wiseman also goes on to point out that it’s this moment that we become super absorbent learners because as she says, “the most powerful learning isn’t ever in the classroom… it comes when we’re desperate, when it’s more painful not to learn than to scramble up [the] steep learning curve.

For me this happened last year as I attempted to lead a group of 6th grade teachers through an exercise around inquiry-based learning.  As I dutifully planned for the meeting I was confident that I’d forge a pathway forward for the teachers.  However, 5 minutes into my talk, with confused stares looking back at me, I knew I was about the be overrun by questions.  Long story short, by the time the meeting came to a merciful ending I could see that the gap in my learning was large enough for a heard of antelope to tromp through.

Yet, it was in this moment where I experienced great learning as I pursued not only deeper understanding about inquiry but also about the school culture, and found that what the teachers needed from me most wasn’t the answer but honesty and an openness about next steps together.

Are You Still An Expert After 30,000 hours?

Many of us have heard the Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule that he outlines in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.  If you’re unfamiliar, the theory concludes that success and expertise comes with practice (experience) and that this is accomplished once a person reaches over 10,000 hours of practice in their field.  Nowhere have I seen this more than when I sit and listen to the much more seasoned leaders I work with on a daily basis.  Their knowledge and context is stunning and has been crucial to the success of our organization.

Being surrounded by this expertise on a constant basis has continually reminded me just how much I still have to learn.  In fact, I often joke with my wife that I’ve never felt so young (and inexperienced) then I do working here.  Granted, I am young at 32, but I feel younger than I did when I started in my first school over a decade ago.

Yet, despite my inexperience I find moments when naive questions can do more to move an idea forward or bust up a sticky debate.  This is one of the great benefits of hiring someone new, and if you’re as lucky as I have been to have a boss that has continually encouraged me to ask questions, you find that being an expert can have a way of isolating one from reality.  However, in other aspects of my job, especially when meeting with some prospective parents I can tell that some would prefer some more gray hair.

So Does Experience Matter?

Well if I stick with the logic from my first paragraph, I think I’ve outlined that I still lack a lot of experience and therefore I’d argue “No.”  Of course, many of you might think differently, but I’d argue that it’s been in my moments of least experience where I’ve been able to make the biggest impact in the communities I serve.  Granted this must come with curiosity and humility, which Wiseman also outlines in her talk.  Or in other word humble inexperience can be exponential it’s ability to transform organizations for the better, but watch out for the blind and prideful inexperienced leader as they can leave a wake of destruction.

Or to sum it up with Wiseman’s words “my value [doesn’t] come from having fresh ideas, my value really [comes] from having no ideas at all.”

Your Turn

But enough from me.  What do you think?  How were you as a rookie?  How are the rookies your work with doing? What would happen to your organization if you handed over control to your most humble and inexperienced leader?

Share in the comments below.  My goal this week is to get at least 5 different people to share.  Who will bravely help us start this conversation?

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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  1. Andy,
    See! You pulled up your awesome website on my computer so I was forced to read what was on the front page. You’ve got me engaged and really thinking! That’s exactly what I love about this doctorate program. Now I can see that your website will also stimulate my brain!
    It’s evident that you will have an easy time writing your dissertation. You are so lucky! You’ve got me hooked. Now I will be a fan of your website.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Kari…You know me, I’ll do anything for attention. Glad you like the blog, but now you need to listen to the UnBook Club podcast from Liz Wiseman and contribute your thoughts. I can’t wait to here them. Have you considered signing up for our free monthly (or so) newsletter? There’s a link at the top of this article.

      Post a Reply

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