Playing to Win: 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Industry "Expert"

Harry West

Vice President of Services Product Management, Appirio

The Cleveland Browns are a 70-year-old football team that has been struggling to win consistently for the last 25 years. A steady stream of bad news emanates from the Browns—failed draft picks, struggling quarterbacks and a biannual pummeling by their archrival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the Browns did something this year that made the sports world take note: For a key executive position, they hired a baseball person. After struggling with "football people" for years, they decided to turn to someone whose general expertise is founded in another sport entirely, but still focused on collaboration, analytics and improving decision-making.

Your company may not be in as precarious a spot as the Cleveland Browns, but you likely face a similar challenge when deciding to bring on expertise to help your organization succeed. For many years, the answer to a sinking ship has been to find the leading industry expert—someone who has spent decades in a particular industry (pharmaceuticals, insurance, CPG and so on). But if you are truly looking to transform your business, there are three main problems with this traditional "industry expert" approach:

1) Your Company Is Unique

In order to differentiate your company from competitors in your industry, you need unique talent. Otherwise, your company is simply a commodity business within your industry, only competing on price. One of the key ways you can differentiate in terms of "talent" is hiring a company leader who has a different background from other industry leaders. Career "pivoters" can offer a fresh perspective on engaging with talent, approaching problems and solving crises.

2) No Matter Your Industry, You Need to Be a Digital Business

If you think of Amazon as a retailer or Uber as a taxi company, you are thinking in old industry terms. To stay ahead in your industry, a digital strategy cannot simply be an "add on." Data silos need to be removed, and your entire relationship with customers and employees needs to be reinvented at each point of contact. Twenty years of industry knowledge that makes an "expert" can be made irrelevant by an iPhone app—so think about people you can pull in that push your business into the digital future, instead of steeping it in the tradition of the past.

3) To Win, You Need New Thinking

Being a digital business takes more than just moving processes to the internet — it's about rethinking your business and industry. As Forrester Research recently wrote in its landmark report, The Digital Business Imperative, "The organizational structures, processes and ways of working that have proven so successful in the past are now your firm's greatest enemies in its race to embrace digital technology."

Industry experts can show you how to get to the middle of the bell curve for operational efficiency. But in the current competitive environment, it's the outliers on the efficiency curve that can (and will) swallow an entire market. Ultimately, industry experts can impart knowledge that will allow you to move into a competitive arena, but not take the lead. In order to compete and win, you need forward-thinkers, new ideas, and the capacity and foresight to act on them.

While it remains to be seen if the Browns will turn things around, shifting away from an industry expert to a transformational thinker may be the first step to ending their decades of losses. What can a shift in thinking do for your talent strategy — and, subsequently, the fate of your business?

Photo: Creative Commons

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