The importance of experience

“Experience” is a tough word to use in the digital marketing industry. Quite often, it’s used to encompass one’s adventure and awareness through a user interface of an application. It’s one of the most common applications for “experience”, but it’s not the only one.

There’s also the definition that includes knowledge and wisdom, held by those who have spent years honing skills, learning from mistakes, and becoming enlightened from real-world execution.

And it’s the latter that I’m finding, more and more, to be a key to delivering the former.

Throughout my career, there has always been a struggle with experience. Early on, it was to get experience. Everyone starts with a blank slate; you’re not born with knowledge, you have to earn it. Later on, it was to define experience. My experience differed from others, so how do we determine whose experience is correct, or how do we determine which parts of said experience are worth learning? That was followed by using experience. It’s all fine and dandy to showcase a resume with a lot of who’s-who, but if you have no method for explaining that history to anyone else, your collected wisdom accounts for little. In my current position (whether this remains a final state remains to be seen), it’s about recognizing experience in others, and getting them to their next steps.

Early in my career, there were precious few who understood digital delivery. Some had a sense of how it worked, but exceedingly few had anything under their belts of any significance. Most of us ended up figuring it out collectively, step by step, bit by bit, success and failure. But learn, we did, and we built on those events much like someone builds a wall: stone by stone, with the mortar of validation to cement things in place.

Back then, experience was also a liability. Because, back then, experience meant “expensive”. Experienced folks could (usually) deliver at a faster, more reliable pace, which commanded a higher dollar. And while that’s not uncommon to the digital marketing industry — it’s common pretty much everywhere in the knowledge industries — everything was kept tight and slim, and expensive wasn’t an option. Ironically, we compensated for expensive experience, with cheap inexperience.

I cannot adequately convey the imbalance of that comparison. Inexperienced staff are liabilities: they don’t have the knowledge or wisdom, which means they don’t have insights to their own faults or flaws. It takes a team to make an inexperienced person into a valuable asset, through assessment and management, reviews and feedback. Left unsupported (or to their own devices), inexperienced staff will under-deliver.

In my (far-too-many) years in this industry, I have seen countless inexperienced staff produce poor results. It doesn’t matter if this is creative, technical, analytical, or managerial — the end result is a detriment. Worse still, an inability or unwillingness to identify and correct situations such as these invariably leads to personality conflicts. The manager’s challenge is to identify these situations early, and coach individuals through these difficult periods. It’s a poor manager who can’t identify the problems; it’s a terrible manager who refuses to help.

Once experience is defined, the next challenge is often comparative: faced with someone else’s experience, who is correct? No two experiences are the same, even if faced with the exact same challenges. Everyone is moulded by their backgrounds, education, psychological leanings, and their own individual histories prior to a shared event. This is, after all, why humans are often so very different from one another.

Assessing where one experience is more dominant, or more accurate, or has more depth than another requires tremendous insight, and open-mindedness. Typically, someone with a lesser experience will feel threatened by those who come with a broader or deeper level of skills and knowledge. Humans are driven by ego (even those who claim not to be so), and it’s only those with sufficient insight and self-awareness who can willingly accept those with a deeper wisdom.

This is where clashes form between different groups (such as between two divisions of the same department), or between two classes of the same skillset (such as salaried staff vs. contractors). There’s an almost automatic sense of fear (someone knows more than me) that quickly leads to distrust (they will make me look bad to my manager). It’s an observant manager who either ensures a division between permanent and temporary staff; it’s an engaged manager who encourages one team to learn from another.

Putting experience to use requires a leap of faith, especially for hiring managers. As I have written many times before, managers cannot be directly hands-on: there is not the time, and it’s the manager’s responsibility to care for the team. As time wears on, a manager’s former skills will naturally wane; in the digital field, that is highly accelerated, and it does not take long for unused skills to become redundant. At some point, a hiring manager must come to terms with the reality that bringing someone into their team means allowing that person to have more knowledge.

The assumption is also that the new team member will also bring their experience to the team as a whole. However, how that person will use their skills and knowledge is another matter. The comparative nature is still present: someone who isolates themselves, ignores feedback, and promotes themselves to others who do not share the same perspective, will encounter objection and distrust. This difficult situation requires careful management, not unlike someone who is trying to define their own level of experience.

In this case, it’s more about coaching someone to apply their experience in more effective manners. With more senior staff, this is likely a matter of attitude and ego, which often forms over years of successes. (This is particular prevalent in the technical fields, leading to the “superstar”, who eschews outside feedback for their own tried-and-true successes.)

Here, the manager must look beyond the personality, disregarding opinionated behaviours to focus on the skills that lie underneath. It also means a careful ear to hear the important parts of the experience, understanding the value, and applying a direction that makes use of a person’s skills without belittling or affronting their sensibilities.

I have failed on that many times, myself. Finding someone with a strong skillset is often not the challenge; getting past someone’s own sense of self-worth to see the true value is a skill unto itself. I have had to learn to listen to a particular person’s need to apply their skills, and help them apply that knowledge in a team context.

Experienced staff often have difficulties within teams, largely having to be self-reliant for their own development. That’s both a burden and a boon: someone will naturally be saddled with long lists of reasons why things need to be done a certain way; however, that can also be a form of mentorship. In my experience, those people can become great teachers, helping the less experienced with their challenges, and bringing new perspectives.

Relatedly, there is also the rarer case of inexperienced staff moved into more senior roles, where the expectations create false support, and similarly difficult attitudes. Many organizations have individual such as this, and while they do tend to stand out, these are not as common as we would generally like to believe. (Otherwise, organizations would fail far more frequently.) In cases like this, people tend to panic: they’re asked for information they cannot understand, and they become unable to process requests because they have no experiences to provide an adequate framework for common comprehension.

As a manager, you either have to take responsibility for promoting someone ill-prepared for the role, or you have to accept that you’ve adopted someone who isn’t capable of handling a role. In either case, as a manager, you have a responsibility to support that person with their development, and to ensure that the team as a whole does not suffer from a lack of support. These are difficult situations that are not easily addressed, and often require that the under-experienced person be aware of the challenge that’s before them, so that they can be more receptive to external feedback.

And that comes to recognition of experience. My previous employer’s original basis for hiring was fairly simple: only senior staff. That seems counter-intuitive to some (refer back to my comments about using cheap, inexperienced staff), but by using well-heeled employees, there was less of a need for management, there were fewer mistakes, and there was a faster delivery. Because people understood the jobs and the industry, it was easier to engage with new clients, as the general models were already well-known, and the more specific questions could be asked right away.

To be fair: that’s an ideal scenario, and it’s hard to do at scale. You can’t hire only senior staff. Besides the cost component (remember, experience = expensive), you also have ego (experience means opinion, too). Not to mention the fact that some would much rather work on the “fun” work, and leave the dull, dreary, repetitive stuff to others. And for that, you need inexperienced, junior staff, who can learn from the seniors.

The challenge of the manager in these cases is to determine appropriate blends of experienced vs. inexperienced staff. Experienced staff tend to be more mobile; it’s easier to find new positions elsewhere by mere fact of experience. Inexperienced staff may linger longer, but they haven’t the oversight of more knowledgeable folks to validate approaches and teach techniques.

There is one other risk of experience, which is often overlooked: pride. Experienced staff have validation through the work they’ve done, from awards and accolades, from feedback and reviews. And when these people are not engaged to assist with new work, that pride quickly turns to insult. Senior staff deeply appreciate hearing their opinions heard, their experiences put to use; ignoring, disregarding, or outright avoiding engagement is nothing more than a slap to an experienced person’s history, all the way back to their first steps into the working world.

Managers need to be keenly aware of people’s knowledge and experiences, leverage them when appropriate, and never disregard the sage advice when its given. Not accounting for these sorts of engagements leads only to disillusionment, impudence, and indignity. Ultimately, that leads to poisonous environments, and team breakdown.

A person’s experience is a difficult topic. It’s hard to gauge, it’s hard to apply, it’s hard to manage, and it’s hard to acquire. The challenges exist for a given individual, for a team working with that individual, and for managers responsible for the individual’s assignments. It’s a strong individual who can respect and understand where their own experiences lie, how they should be applied, and how to identify those with valuable lessons.

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