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WEB-EXCLUSIVE: 3 reasons to hire for potential over experience

By Milan Ford

In a recent study performed by professors at Stanford University and Harvard Business School, it was discovered that several industry-leading companies now favor new job candidates who appear to have the “potential” to succeed in the roles they were applying for over those who had already demonstrated some measure of success in the past in a similar area or field.

474637667The reason for this preference in hiring was due primarily to the belief that in order to remain competitive and relevant in their respective industries, candidates with fresh ideas and a passionate desire to be trained and developed were far more valuable than candidates already trained and perhaps heavily devoted to previous achievements and older methods of getting things done.

At Vanderbloemen Search Group, we partner with local churches and organizations all over the nation to assist them in their searches for new staff hires. It is interesting to see how many churches — regardless of their differences in vision, mission, size or denomination — tend to rely more on education or “previous experience,” rather than a candidate’s untapped potential and possible contributions if hired.

Whether we as ministry leaders admit it or not, there is an inescapable comfort that comes along with hiring a new staff member that appears capable of ‘hitting the ground running,’ where learning the DNA and culture of the church or organization would require very little effort or extensive training. Leaning on years of previous experience, personal traits and skills, and denominational affiliations can take much of the guesswork out of the hiring process, helping to narrow down the number of applicants to those who will most likely produce results as soon as they arrive.

Yet, despite this widely adopted approach by many churches when it comes to hiring for their staff, here are three great reasons why you should also begin considering a candidate’s potential — and not just his or her experience — when making a new hire for your church:

1) Curiosity. It was the famous French philosopher Voltaire who once said, “Judge a man by his questions, rather than his answers.” Candidates who lack experience but are full of potential are often also full of questions about the vision, mission and strategic direction a church is moving in, whereas candidates who possess a long ministry background tend to draw their own conclusions. When interviewing new candidates, pay very close attention to whether or not they have any unprompted questions for you to answer, such as: “What does the church celebrate most or consider a huge win?” or “What do you think the church’s children’s ministry will look like in 3 years?”

New hires that are no longer curious about ministry and cease to be inventive or fearless may one day be a source of apathy when a new course of direction is needed for a church.

2) Moldability. There is perhaps nothing more dangerous to the culture of a church staff than for a new employee to join it who can no longer be taught anything. Well-accomplished and experienced leaders can sometimes demonstrate an unshakable loyalty to what has brought them success in the past, or as Dr. Samuel Chand describes in his book, Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code, become “unconsciously incompetent.”

New hires with limited experience often possess very teachable and moldable attitudes when placed in new ministry or leadership environments, simply because they are fully aware of the skills and talents they know they lack, as well as being incredibly grateful for how the grace of God led them to the position. When interviewing your candidates, be sure to ask questions like: “What do you hope to learn from being a ministry leader here at our church? or “Name three things you do often to improve yourself as a leader?” The answers to questions like these could help save you and your church from making some very bad hires. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

3) Longevity. Perhaps one of the greatest reasons for hiring for potential over experience is longevity. As our friend Thom Rainer, President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, has indicated in several of his books and studies on church growth and management, the average tenure of today’s pastor is sadly between just three to four years. In more skill-specific areas such as worship, communications or children, we have found the turnover rate often to be even higher.

While some churches view experience and previous commitment as great indicators of future longevity in ministry, candidates with less ministry exposure can also provide years of service and dedication, as they are less likely to view their roles as ‘stepping stones,’ but as ‘entry points’ into a life-long vocation of ministry. Hiring a 34-year-old proven leader from a thriving church several states away as your new youth pastor can have several advantages, such as experience with recruiting and leading volunteers, as well as interacting with parents and teachers — but so can hiring a 23-year-old college graduate who developed through leadership inside your own church, is ready to learn and is equally ready to be invested in.

It is important to remember — as Claudio Fernández-Aráoz states in his new book, It’s Not the How or the What but the Who, — most people will “assume that the best hiring strategy is to find the best performers in a given field and get them on your team. But … some who are shining stars in one context can fall out of the sky in another.” So, if your church is no longer interested in short-term fixes but in long-term results, don’t be too quick to toss away candidates with potential.

Honestly speaking, hiring for potential can be risky at times. It requires an enormous amount of faith in not only the candidate, but in your church staff culture. So, if you are struggling whether hiring for experience or potential is the best way forward for your church, always keep this in mind: Never hire for potential beyond the level of your commitment to develop it.

If you are unable to invest the time and resources necessary to develop new talent, then it is better to ‘fall’ on the side of experience.

But when possible, dare to leap. Falling is far less exciting.

Milan Ford serves as a Search Consultant at the Vanderbloemen Search Group in Houston, TX. 

This article was originally featured on Vanderbloemen Search Group’s blog here.


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