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Justine Greening was in the press for ‘forcing’ an exam culture on 7yr old kids through “SATS” tests earlier this month, sparking trade-union-esque walk-outs of parents and Justine_Greening_June_2015their children…(walking-out all the way to the local park in the sunshine of last week). The cry was that tests and scoring at this age isn’t important and adds undue stress to the children. My 8yr old daughter took two of her four ISI Standardised ‘tests’ at school last month; “They were fun, quite easy, and we got five minutes extra playtime which was amazing” was her summation. Scared for life? Undue stress?

The oxymoron of these play-park residing militant parents was that despite being anti-testing, the were highlighting the fact that Justine Greening (Secretary of State for Education), with her Comprehensive Secondary Education, Second-Tier university and LBS MBA, wasn’t a qualified Teacher and so wasn’t qualified for that job/those decisions. She did however work in the real world at PricewaterhouseCoopers, GlaxoSmithKline and Centrica before entering politics.

Wind back 3 years. Lord Nash was slammed for recruiting a Head teacher for the Pimlico Primary Free School that did not have a PGCE teaching qualification. Lord Nash, a hugely intelligent, venture capitalist, founder of the Charity ‘Future’ (who set up the Pimlico Free School)…and the Schools Minister.

Lord Nash was criticised for opting for someone without that one-year PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education), opting instead for someone with experience, and arguably far greater experience than someone that spent a year at teacher-training college.  Lord Nash went for Experience over Qualification. The Department for Education is relying on collective experience, rather than just qualification.

Are they right?

We have become obsessed with qualifications. Generations of Governments pushed to increase the numbers entering University, Tony Blair famously decreeing that 50% of people should do so.  That now means that near 50% of people go to University (with almost 2m people currently studying higher education courses), including over 30% of 18 year olds. That figure was just 2% 60 years ago.

Has society benefited from such an increase in University attendance? Especially with courses on offer such as: ‘Zombie Studies’; ‘Philosophy and Star Trek’; ‘Feel the Force: How to Train in the Jedi Way’; ‘Psychology of Exceptional Human Experiences’ (based on the study of the film GhostBusters); an MA in ‘The Robin Hood Studies Pathway’, ‘Maple Syrup Technologies’, or how about a doctorate in ‘History of Lace Knitting in Shetland’….or arguably any of the 141 Computer-Gaming degree courses.

Even my own profession has seen several degrees launched, including a number of Masters in Recruitment degrees. I asked several people what they might teach…..the responses are largely unprintable.

Experience Vs QualificationsSo what of the choice between the two, generally.  Qualifications are seen by some as a way of guaranteeing knowledge and in some cases experiences. Most finance mandates we handle insist on a qualified accountant, usually with a preference for a Chartered Accountant, an ACA. It gives the hiring business the comfort that they have the basic skills, underpins their knowledge, and gives comfort through the backing of a professional body.

…but here’s the interesting thing. Most will then ask for Big-4 background (i.e., one of the top 4 accounting practices – PwC/KPMG/Deloitte/EY). Why…because of the experience it gives the individual.

Is an ACA such a vital component for a FTSE-350 CFO? Is their audit training, 20 years earlier, such a key factor in the assessment of a £m C-Level exec?

This is where qualification junkies throw in the medical example/argument. Qualifications are vital in some fields, I’d want my surgeon to have full medical qualifications before he operated on me….or my daughter. True of course. Demonstrable proof of the ability to conduct intricate surgery through years of championship winning Airfix model building is unlikely to win favour, But….. Who would you want to operate on your child:

1)     Newly qualified surgeon that graduated the day before
2)     Middle-aged surgeon that hasn’t performed that specific operation for 15 years
3)     Middle-aged surgeon that has performed that exact operation every day for the last 15 years and was credited as the best for that procedure by every medical body

I’m guessing you chose 3). Why? Because of the surgeon’s experience.  Granted, you would be unlikely to go for an unqualified individual in such circumstances, but experience is what wins the day.

Take it away from science and into business/real world, experience has an even bigger pull.

As a HeadHunter, take a look at the below links to some of the mandates I am currently working on:

Chief Experience Officer (Property)
£100-125k + LTIP & package
Chief Operating Officer (Retail)
£125-150k + Equity

Managing Director (Bakery)
£100k + Package

Marketing Director (Retail)
£100k + Package

Sales Director (Chemicals)
£80-100k + Package

eCommerce Director (Omni Channel)
£90k + Package

The key driver for every one of those roles is experience, and the person/chemistry fit.  Only one even mentions qualified… the COO role, and even then it is mentioned once, as desirable, followed by the word experience and is talking about, experience. [NB: The word experience is mentioned 3 times in that copy alone].

Qualifications to most end with a degree. Some tag on a year to do a post-grad, others 3-4 years to complete professional qualifications. Almost all will end their qualifications below the age of 25, most below the age of 21. How mature were you at 21? How intelligent would you consider yourself to be at 21? How much more developed do you feel now?

We still get people obsessed with 1st class degrees, preferably Oxbridge or red-brick at least. Straight-A students with optimum studious demeanours . I love asking them why. No-one has ever given me a real answer.  The majority of 1st class graduates I have met (at or near the point of graduation) are hugely intelligent, but have minimal life experience. Many have never worked, never developed chameleonic social skills….never woken up in a strange flowerbed after a night out. For some professions, and businesses, such traits are an advantage – but a lot less than people will realise.

We’ve all read, ad nauseum, the tales of Billionaire Entrepreneur’s & CEOs that left schools without qualifications/degrees – from Richard Branson to Michael Dell. But the argument goes a lot deeper. Qualifications are no longer an assurance of high intelligence or real-world commerciality, and are often another vain attempt at do little more than qualifying experience.

Even MBAs have lost their shine. An MBA is still a great qualification, and many people attribute their careers success to their MBA…but, the MBA is not the automatic passageway to the top table many people think, and several suppliers/business schools sell. The wider job market, MBA Alumni excepted, does not hold the MBA with huge regard anymore unless from an absolute top flight school. Much in that same way that a bachelor degree was something to be revered, now they have been commoditised, and only seen as massively beneficial if from an absolutely top flight university.

MBAs have accelerated several people’s careers, but typically only once a career is underway and most commonly within the individual person’s current role/business – when they are able to match learning with experience. They do not dramatically improve your chances of securing a new role in the wider job market, and certainly not as much as strong business experience.  Many employers will go one further and take MBA to stand for Maybe Best Avoided as many MBA graduates are given unrealistic expectations of their marketability.

I have interviewed many MBA grads who are very good, very bright and academically well above average, but their experience is often not complementary, significantly diminishing their value in the business world.  Add to this the advice that business school’s will often give their students, instructing them that an MBA translates to a salary that should begin with a ‘6’ as a bare minimum, and that they should refuse to accept less – this often to an individual with less than 5 years practical experience, and at times no (relevant) practical exposure.

That said, I would still love to undertake an MBA as I love learning and improving my knowledge base. Alas, I simply don’t have time and the investment (time and money) would be better employed elsewhere, in my case in actually owning, running, developing and growing a business and rely upon the practical/collaborative guidance of others to help me do so.

….and that becomes the way to view qualifications. Undertake them because you want to, because you crave the knowledge that they will afford and because they will improve and/or facilitate personal development in your chosen area….not as a free-pass to career greatness.

The dot-com generation has highlighted that the direct correlation between traditional education and success in a corporate environment was a bygone assumption.

So back to the question. Qualification or Experience. The easy answer is both. You cannot decry academic credentials, they provide an understanding and exploration of theory that is vitally important….but it is experience that translates theoretical knowledge into practice…and profit.

Does it matter whether knowledge is gained from structured teaching, or whether knowledge is best gained from the acquisition itself? Common sense dictates, knowledge gained through personal experience will always prevail – just ask any parent who has repeatedly told their child NOT to touch something hot, only for the message to only sink in once the child experiences what happens when they do. Basic NLP.

Most of the skills so important in modern business cannot be taught, they have to be experienced. How many people decried modern business leaders during the economic conditions of the last 5 years because they had not experienced running businesses during the previous recession. The massive spike in mature NEDs and executive leaders was testament to the importance of experience.experience

The move most businesses have made to a less autocratic leadership style have also bolstered the argument for experience over qualification. The need to engage with colleagues, collaborate internally and externally and approach most business decisions in a more humanistic manner, all require greater experience. To the best of my knowledge, there is no module on a business degree titled “Be a human, not an arsehole”, yet at least. These skills have to learnt.

Qualifications are used as a primary measure of intelligence – usually a simple filtering tool for lazy recruiters. For many 18 years olds, that is reason enough to study towards a degree. But without the experience to back up the academic instruction, you will likely fall at the second screen.

Management positions especially, require far more qualification than academic. Skills such as leadership, entrepreneurship, vision, team-work, collaboration and the ability to work towards a common goal can all only really be gained from experience.

For that reason, job seekers young and old, need to focus on getting the qualifications you want, but focus harder on gaining the experience you need, whether learnt from business, the sports field, a social enterprise, charity work, a part-time job….or the pub. (and remember to note them on your CV – this is why we say to put your hobbies/interests on a CV as per our CV writing guideHERE).

And remember, Experience is usually the best Qualification.