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More college, more dumb . . .

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

My father insisted that if I didn’t get a college education I would suffer in life. I got the message. Dad also was quick to shake his head and mutter, “More college, more dumb,” when I did something he felt demonstrated a lack of common sense. He seemed to hold this duality of admiration for people with higher education (he was not able to attend college himself), and at the same time a bit of disdain for those same folks because they often had no “practical experience” or “common sense.”

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I should teach, since I seemed to love to help people and, as a management consultant, I insist on leaving my clients with the knowledge we develop during the engagements. An opportunity to teach at an MBA program came up and I was asked, by the institution, to provide my college transcripts. I laughed out loud at the e-mail requesting them. Then I shed a brief tear as I thought about how ancient those transcripts are.

A client recently shared with me that he only hired degreed people because the degree indicates that the prospective employee had initiative and would follow through with commitments. This in the face of the fact that we have discussed on more than one occasion that one of his highly paid degreed employees was nowhere close to meeting expectations. He showed no initiative, sat around pretty much waiting for the phone to ring; and his position is that of a technical sales person!

It’s amazing how intelligent my father has become! Way back in the dark ages when I was high school age, he understood what took me 10 years in the professional world to learn; “more college, more dumb.” Now of course, the statement is meant to be inflammatory and startling. And of course there is an element of truth to it as well. There is experience and there is academic knowledge. What my father was pointing out is that it’s fine to have all that “book learning,” but until you put it to practical use and find out HOW to make it work, it’s not very useful. I learned that lesson in my own life and then observed it as I moved into leadership roles. That’s why I laughed at the e-mail requesting my transcripts. They are of no use other than, I suppose, to verify that I actually do have a BSEE (1970) and MBA (1978) from an accredited institution. The grades and the degrees achieved are not at all indicative (positively or negatively) of what I have and will achieve in the professional world in which we now live. They are totally irrelevant with respect to predicting my present aptitudes. What would really matter to an employer, in my opinion, is what I’ve accomplished in the last five to ten years that is relevant to the position they wish to fill.

That brings me to my first point. There is only one effective way, in my book, to hire people with a reasonable expectation of a decent outcome: Success Factors. As the hiring manager, I have to understand, I mean REALLY understand what it takes to be successful in the position for which I am interviewing prospects. I then have to have the candidates demonstrate (and provide verification) that they have accomplished in the past either the exact skills I have identified or something that clearly points to how they can extend past accomplishments to the needed skills. Frankly, unless I’m interested in someone who will write scholarly papers, a college degree only shows me that you’ve (hopefully) learned some basics and maybe some problem solving skills (and that’s no longer guaranteed these days). That college degree, even an advanced degree, doesn’t really speak to the candidate’s initiative and drive today. I want to see what s/he has done in the “real” world, working with and through others to accomplish the agreed upon goals.

My second point is that if I’m in the market for employment, I had better start thinking about my own success factors – the real, practical value I bring – and gear my pitch to prospective employers to those strengths and experiences. And, as a prospective employee, would I want to work in a company where they don’t understand what it takes to be successful in the professional positions they have established? If they don’t know, then how am I to know? So ask the prospective employer outright, “What are the success factors for this position?” Or, “How will we measure success?”

The client who is so focused on degrees is himself degreed and of course very accomplished (he is the founder of the company and it’s a highly technical product they provide). The Educational Institution requesting my ancient transcripts is itself in the business of education and providing degrees. Academics, it seems, only value academics. But is it the degree itself that demonstrates the potential of the person, or is it the practical application of the knowledge the degree is supposed to represent that predicts success? In my opinion, if I have correctly determined and written the success factors for a position, and if I validate that the prospect has demonstrated that s/he actually has accomplished those successes elsewhere, then the formal education, the degrees and all the other “stuff” on the standard resume is somewhat irrelevant. The prospective employee will be successful even if they have no degree or if the degree is in “Underwater Basket Weaving” as long as they demonstrate how they meet the required success factors.

So as a prospective employer, don’t miss out on excellent talent whose knowledge comes from practical experience. Instead, understand what you really need from an employee to make them and you successful, and insist on getting those skills and attributes. You will have a better chance of success and so will they. And as a prospective employee, if the employer has not clearly defined what it takes to be successful, then question whether or not you want to take a chance there. Ask the questions, get things clear. Otherwise, you will likely be changing positions again soon. For more in-depth information on Success Factors and how to hire, you can visit my friends over at Impact Hiring Solutions.