Stanford Study Suggests Potential More Crucial than Experience

by Kelly Keenan Trumbour

A recent study by Stanford Business School reveals that human nature prefers future potential to past accomplishments. In a series of experiments, researchers looked at the evaluation of job candidates and noticed that the applicants who scored well on a test of leadership potential despite not having relevant experience were more likely to get offered a position than those with two years of relevant experience and a high leadership potential score.

The study also found that people prefer the artwork of artists who are likely to win awards over the ones who already have won. They even found that we tend to flock to restaurants run by chefs who might become “it” rather than patronize those who have already established themselves.

I first read about the study in Fortune, and this little insight into our culture irritated me because I am a self-proclaimed ducks in a row kind of gal. I believe women’s potential rests in no small part due to their ninja like abilities to dot “i”s, cross “t”s, and check off an achievement list. If any of you pushed Thin Mints door-to-door like I did for two years, you know the motto “Always be prepared.” Isn’t highly relevant experience the best way to be prepared? What gives?

Assuming the data was statistically representative (I was really curious what would have happened if they ran these same experiments with women decision makers alone), there’s good stuff to learn from it. It’s important to note that no one in the study entertained hiring a person with great potential, but a lousy history. You had to leave a positive impression to get considered.  The results suggested that the mystique of what “could be” acts like catnip in our brains. Wanting to understand an enigma and connect with something promising makes us concentrate longer, whereas a solid track record is like knowing a book’s ending. The quality storyline is still there, but the chance for awe diminishes.

Why is this important for women who are considering a run at their own business? Because I think there are many instances when women use their resumes to reassure rather than shine. You’re not crazy for picking me! See? Other people have picked me! That money I’m asking for won’t go to waste because if you look closely at line 6, this person with the really impressive title gave me money too! I sometimes think that if it were professionally acceptable, some of us might be tempted to offer a warrantee with our CVs.

When I imagine the study’s participants sitting down for the interviews with perspective candidates, I can envision a crucial difference between the people with, and the people without the track records. Consider for a moment what you would do if you walked into a room knowing you could only talk about your potential because your experience didn’t exist. You would have to start telling a story about the relationship you and your perspective colleagues could have together. The narrative becomes about what you will build together, how you will help each other, what each of you will miss out on if this great collaboration doesn’t happen. That’s a story that includes the person across the desk. Your past achievements don’t include them. Maybe we dismiss the artist with the awards and the Top Chef because we can’t help them succeed. They already did it without us. Give us the aspiring go-getter, and we want to back the rising stock and get in on the ground floor.

I don’t think the idea is to deny your past successes or forget your mentors. I think this is about emphasis. You wouldn’t go on a first date and start rattling off the names, achievements and tenure of all your previous relationships. Will they come up if the relationship progresses? Of course! Just maybe, not all at once and definitely not over your first salad together.

A business relationship is not that different from any other committed relationship, and before it can go anywhere, there’s a need to concentrate on the mutual attraction. Maybe when we lean on our resumes we don’t reassure our colleagues that we believe in the match. It might actually suggest that we need outside references to find our confidence. Show your collaborators that you are comfortable in the present moment without a posse of achievements, and your audience might settle in and get comfortable. Especially as an entrepreneur, you want to entice. After all, if you could fall in love with your vision, why shouldn’t everyone else?

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About See Jane Invest — For the women who are motivated and passionate about their ideas, connecting with other women who are eager to support them and learning about small scale funding options can make the difference between project and product.  See Jane Invest wants to show emerging female entrepreneurs how they can start where they are and collaborate with a community of women ready to invest.