Finding Talent Outside the Box

Art Petty’s prime candidate for a product manager position at a global consumer electronics manufacturer in the mid-1990s had his human resources executive team perplexed.

With the candidate’s background as a convenience store worker, not in product management, many in HR might feel the same way. “Why are you interviewing her?” one of the executives asked Petty, now an independent principal and founder of consulting firm Art Petty Group.

But Petty pushed ahead, convinced that the candidate’s domain experience, while not directly related to the job at hand, would ultimately transfer well. And by the time the interview process concluded, his executive team was convinced as well.

“I understand now why you want to hire her,” Petty recalled the executive saying after the interview process. The candidate got the job.

Petty’s hiring approach in this instance isn’t all that unusual. As the labor market tightens and leaves many companies in a lurch when it comes to finding highly skilled workers, sourcing candidates from outside fields or industries has become a plausible talent strategy — in some cases, even a recommended one.

“The choice becomes: Do we compromise on quality, or do we accept bringing someone in from a different background, believing they have the transferable skills that will make them successful?” said Tony Restell, director of social media marketing at social recruiting firm Social-Hire.

Restell said for any company finding it hard to recruit the quality or quantity necessary, looking to outside of the core industry of their company is a creative — and often highly beneficial — strategy.

Still, the strategy comes with plenty of special considerations talent managers should take into account.

Outside Perspective

While most talent leaders and recruiters will say hiring someone with prior industry experience to the job is highly important, many talent experts tout the benefits to looking outside the industry. Finding someone who’s worked in another industry or has a different but skill set could ultimately be a better hire because that person brings a different perspective, HR experts say.

Clothing retailer Kohl’s often hires from outside its industry for customer service employees, according to Shanan Lesselyoung, the company’s vice president of talent acquisition. She said the “ultimate benefit to hiring outside of your industry is the opportunity for innovation.” With fewer restrictions on who to hire, Kohl’s is able to “cast a wider net,” she said, “which broadens and deepens our candidate pools, making those pools more diverse.”

“There is great value in diversity of perspective, thought and approach. It can help drive creativity and innovation farther forward,” she said.

Hiring outside a given company’s industry can also be beneficial because it helps the company avoid potential issues with noncompete agreements, whereby a departing employee from one company signs a contract agreeing not to work for a competitor.

Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of Chicago-based staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network, said this is a major benefit because then both employer and employee are able to start without prior commitments. “Just starting off clean is a positive,” he said.

Still, recruiting outside the industry requires talent managers to tweak strategies already used for conventional hires.

Restell said for people to see these new job postings, the employer’s brand needs to be seen far outside of the normal pool of candidates. This can be done cheaply through social media, but companies should also work to broaden its social media reach to attract candidates from other industries. Moreover, employers need to be explicit in their online presence and job advertisements that they’re open to candidates from outside of their industry.

Employee referral programs are also effective in recruiting from outside industries, Restell said. As is the case with any employee-referral hire, if current employees refer a job to their friends, the new hire will be more likely to stick. Restell said referrals can also come from social media networks such as professional networking website LinkedIn.

Gimbel said he thinks companies should sell the opportunity the job provides, not just the role. That starts with job descriptions. They might be discouraging people from applying, when “you want to open up the funnel and get as many people applying to you as possible,” Gimbel said.

Gravitating Toward Graduates

By showing a willingness to hire from outside of the company’s core industry, more people can have job opportunities they didn’t know were available.

Tony Restell, director of social media marketing at Social-Hire, said many recent college graduates are looking to make a switch before they even formally enter the workforce because they try to get into fields not associated with their chosen major.

For whatever reason, people change their minds. They might have spent a year or two in the field they studied before realizing that industry isn’t right for them. They are looking to make a change.

To find these candidates, Restell said it’s important for the employer to express a willingness to consider candidates from alternative backgrounds.

“The main reason that candidates struggle to move from one industry to a different industry is that they’re never being considered by employers for those openings,” Restell said.

To encourage senior management to consider hiring from outside of the company’s industry, Restell said talent managers should sell managers on the broader range of possible candidates with relaxed criteria. He said this practice opens up a larger candidate pool for talent managers to fish in.

—Lauren Dixon

To identify which types of candidates might be best for a given role, Gimbel said hiring managers should map out the job to see which skills are transferable from different jobs. There are other aspects of the job to sell to candidates, which Gimbel said are the company, manager or position. Pick which of the three to sell and learn to market them to get people excited about the job.

“Those are the three things that really have sizzle,” Gimbel said, later adding, “It’s all about knowing what you need to present and what you need to sell to the candidates in order to get them to be excited about it.”

Transferring Skills


 Hiring candidates from different industries doesn’t necessarily mean hiring people with completely incompatible skills, however. When determining what kind of person the company is looking for, HR experts say attributes don’t veer off too far from those who would have industry experience.

Tony Martin, executive vice president of recruitment process outsourcing and talent management at staffing and recruiting firm Hudson Global, said many transferable skill sets might lie in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — backgrounds. When a candidate has adaptable certifications, that’s a good indicator that they’ll transition well.

In addition to these backgrounds, Martin said companies should “look at where the direction of the organization is going and how you’re looking to change the model of your workforce.” Martin used a luxury car company as an example. Rather than recruit someone who has worked in the automotive industry, the company might consider hiring someone who has experience with luxury brands.

Apple Inc. took this approach in 2013 when it hired Angela Ahrendts away from high-fashion retailer Burberry to run the electronics maker’s retail stores.

Martin said he would rather hire someone who’s worked for Louis Vuitton than a former Toyota salesman, as those skills from a luxury brand could translate to luxury car sales.

But talent managers shouldn’t only evaluate hard or technical skills when looking outside the box. Gimbel said interpersonal skills, creativity, judgment and thought processes are what he looks for in a candidate, no matter their background.

When evaluating something like people’s thought processes, Gimbel said to ask many follow-up questions. For example, Gimbel said if he asked candidates why they’re leaving their current company, and they replied that there’s not enough growth opportunity, he would follow up with: How big are their companies? How big are their departments? How long has the manager been there? How many promotions have there been?

If people truly have good answers, rather than making things up, he’ll know. “I don’t care what people’s thoughts are,” Gimbel said. “I care how they got to those thoughts.”

In terms of soft skills, Petty listed four core skill sets that he uses when finding new job candidates: leadership, perceptual acuity, operation acuity and professional presence.

In addition to the importance of leadership, he said perceptual acuity — the ability to evaluate complex situations — and operation acuity — a deep knowledge of a business’ operations — are vital.

In addition to these skills, good job candidates, no matter their industry, need to be able to handle adversity.  

“People who have tended to run into walls at different points and have had the fortitude to navigate through those turns,” Petty said. “Those are certainly characteristics that I as a hiring executive tend to gravitate towards.”

L&D Kicks into Gear

When hiring from outside a company’s core industry, employee training and development is of premium value.

“I’m a big believer that you want to train people,” Gimbel said. “I believe that rather than hire people who have tons of experience or a book of business, hire a corporate trainer to develop your people. … You may have a slower ramp-up period, however, you’ll have a more loyal employee. You will end up having a better service and delivery because they’ll be selling it and training it your way.”

Lesselyoung said Kohl’s has an early talent program that’s made complete with a library of resources and residential experts, both of which assist in the onboarding process. In addition to its expert resources Kohl’s takes a situational approach to “provide each individual what they need to be successful.”

Martin said a good way to create that training and development culture for outside hires is to buddy them up with someone who has worked in the industry — and the company — for a long time.

“You want to be sure you’re augmenting  their [the new hire’s] deficiency with someone who’s probably a little bit stronger from a knowledge base,” Martin said.

This buddy can act as a mentor to the new hire, telling them about the culture of the industry and their specific office, in addition to helping them develop whatever new hard and soft skills they need to make the transition.

While Petty said hiring someone with direct skills and experience is almost always advantageous, outside candidates can be just as successful as long as they have great character.

“There’s no substitute for great character,” Petty said. “There’s no substitute for people who have had experience accomplishing tasks similar to the types of tasks that you need. The leap of faith here is that people can apply them in different circumstances.”

 Hiring people from outside industries won’t always work. Still, “don’t give up on the concept,” Petty said. “This concept can work for the right roles. It can be an incredibly powerful tool.”