The value of experience can be hard to judge. You only know for sure when you find yourself in a situation that demands it, and you perform – or not.
I’ve been reminded of this whilst working on a project for an SME client that’s involving a significant rollout of product across the UK. Unsurprisingly, there have been some challenges and I’ve been able to draw on experience from my days in the Auto industry, in particular about how to handle supplier quality issues.
The steps I developed were to first focus on fixing the problem, then clearing up the fall out, and finally investigating why it happened. Without that, it’s easy to get stuck in why it happened, who was to blame etc – which will take you away from the solution. So my experience has allowed me to stay focused and systematically work through the issues.
Without the right experience, it’s easy to get oneself and others bogged down in the less important items. Looking back at one role I did earlier in my career, as MD of a car component company, with hindsight I could see that I spread myself too thin. I had to think hard on every move as I didn’t have the prior experience to just “know” what needed to be done, and in what sequence.
To give some context, there were problems to be dealt with in virtually every area: behind on a multitude of new projects, high scrap levels, poor quality (and unhappy customers), lack of business in one overseas subsidiary, a problematic start up of a new plant in another, cost overruns, no long term strategy…
My mistake was trying to do a bit on all of them and in particular initiating work on developing a strategy. Whilst it made sense, the fundamental issue, as any experienced business person would spot, was cash flow. The poor performance all round meant we were losing money today – and if that didn’t get fixed, we wouldn’t be around for any new projects or fancy long term strategy! Learning from the experience, I now work with a clear list of priorities: cash, existing customers, new customers.
Other symptoms of lack of experience I’ve observed include people coming in to a situation with a belief that “the answer is X”, where X might be things such as process mapping, improved accounting software or product line profitability. It might well be that they are part of the solution, but a fixation with preconceived ideas is dangerous. In one case, a consultant totally buried the client in detailed process maps – great work but inappropriate at that point.
In many situations, you can work your way through. Experience is less important as you have time to consider your next move, talk to experts and work out solutions as you go along. It’s only in crisis situations, where there can be little margin for error, that experience is worth so much more than even its weight in gold.
Back in my auto industry time I recall the words of the grizzled manager running the Body Assembly area, Derek Godsell. Talking about man-management skills, he said, “you need a good selection of tools in your box, you need to know how to use each of them, and you must know which one is for which job.” I think it applies to many areas, though of course one can’t be expert in all of them. Bringing people in to your team who do have the relevant experience will strengthen your performance.
The challenge with SME’s in particular is often the lack of resource. So fewer people – perhaps just you – have to cover many bases. Secondly, even if you want to recruit expertise, without at least some knowledge, it can be hard to tell whether someone really has it, or is just a good talker. The truth is only revealed when that crunch moment arises and they’re put on the spot.
So what are the key benefits of experience? What I value most is:
1. Knowing what to do instinctively – picking the right things to focus on and what to leave out
2. Knowing how to do things – in particular handling a variety of people
3. Having a nose to sniff out whether something is a big issue or not
4. Having a big contact base – being able to call up others for advice straightaway and having people I know and trust
5. No – or at least few – surprises. I’m less likely to be shocked by something, and better able to anticipate. It helps me to keep calm in crisis situations, with clearer thinking and lower risk of panic measures
It all adds up to the ability to focus effort more effectively and get results faster – exactly what’s required in high pressure situations. So to the crunch question – how to get it and get old ahead of your years?
1. Being on the planet for longer helps! Although, in my opinion, having a range of experiences is just as important as having depth of experience in just one field
2. Ensure you’re getting good quality of experience. The things I most value now are having handled high pressure situations – for instance product launches, cash flow problems, operational problems, presentations to Boards of plc’s, preparing and delivering a major address to over 1700 people – in German etc. My recommendation would be to seek out challenges that continue to stretch you – whatever stage you’re at in your career. Of course they carry a risk of failure – but if you stay in your comfort zone, you’ll never get the scar tissue that makes up truly valuable experience
3. Observe and learn from others. You’ll be in contact with people with more experience than you – perhaps in different fields – whether at customers, suppliers or high profile business people through the media. Take the time to notice what they do and understand their approaches. They’re likely to have developed strategies to handle all kinds of situations that crop up in business.
For most people it’s inevitable that the older you get the more experience you have, so it really does pay to be old and to have older employees around you (preferably mixed in with younger ones). If you want the experience of an older person then seek out opportunities to grow and stretch yourself. If you’re willing to learn from each experience then even ones that feel like disasters can add to the tools and knowledge in your box and ensure that you behave as someone with experience beyond your years – however old (or young) you are.
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Hilary Briggs is a profitable growth expert with over 15 years of industrial experience, having held senior management positions at Rover Group, Whirlpool Corporation and The Laird Group plc. For the last 10 years, she’s worked with SME’s to improve their profitability. Hilary is Managing Director of profitable growth specialists R2P Ltd.