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The name Ron Barassi won’t mean a lot to most of you. For those readers who follow AFL, it will mean a lot.

Ron Barassi is an official legend of the (VFL/AFL) game. He was a champion player (6 premierships) and a champion coach (4 premierships). Those 10 premierships are irrelevant to this story. Where Ron Barassi has enormous relevance to this week’s article is in the area of recruitment  .

Barassi turned AFL player recruitment on its head and the game has never been the same since.

Barassi’s courage and genius as a recruiter   was that he decided to ignore the traditional recruitment path for league footballers – the under-age and junior VFL/AFL teams that were full of experienced   junior footballers – and instead turned his sights to the other side of the world, all the way to Ireland. The Irish didn’t (and still don’t) play Australian Football but they did play their own home-grown version, what we call Gaelic football.

Barassi reasoned that the athletic competencies   required of the two games, that is catching (marking) and kicking, were similar enough to try to convert outstanding junior Irish footballers to AFL-standard Australian footballers.

In 1985 Barassi brought over to Melbourne a small number of young Irish lads in what was known as the ‘Irish Experiment’.

Barassi’s recruiting gamble confounded the sceptics and produced a result way beyond Barassi’s own and his club’s wildest dreams.

A tall and athletic Irishman named Jim Stynes   made his debut for Melbourne in 1987 and started an amazing 13 season AFL career that lead him to (among many other honours) be awarded the 1991 Brownlow Medal for the best and fairest player in the competition, play the most ever consecutive senior games (244) of any player in VFL/AFL history and, in 2003, be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame. Not bad for a player who had no AFL ‘experience’!

Similarly, In 2005 (when he was a key player in the Sydney Swans triumph over the West Coast Eagles), Tadhg Kennelly became the first Irish-origin player to play in an AFL premiership team. This season big things are expected of his Irish compatriots at Collingwood (Marty Clarke) and Carlton (Setanta O’Hailpin).

So what can we learn from Ron Barassi and his successors in the AFL recruiting ranks? From the very people who unearthed a champion by ignoring the time-honoured path of ‘previous experience’ when recruiting new blood for their club?

The most important lesson is that only   seeking ‘previous experience’ in the same field   is a sure-fire way to miss out on potential superstar employees.

Here are some statements to watch out for that may be limiting your selection pool of talent:

‘I’m looking for X years’ experience’
‘Sorry, you need Australian experience’
‘Previous industry experience is essential’

Recruitment companies are some of the worst offenders. I am forever being asked by owners and managers of recruitment companies whether I know of any ‘experienced recruiters’ looking for a job. I happen to know of quite a few. The problem is their ‘experience’ hasn’t led to a great deal of competency in recruitment! What their experience has   led to is a number of bad habits that have prevented them from being anything more than an average recruiter.

Just because a person has, say, ten years’ experience in a particular job, it doesn’t automatically follow that they have improved their effectiveness over that time. They could have had one year of learning followed by nine years of repeating that first year nine times!

When I was hiring recruitment consultants for my own team, I actively avoided experienced recruiters.  My conclusion (based on a painful track record) was that a vast majority of ‘experienced recruiters’ took too long to coach out of bad habits and too long to coach into good ones. So long in fact, that it was much more worthwhile to hire graduates who were far more coachable and didn’t start with bad habits and   an attitude.

What I looked for was a combination of behavioural competencies   and motivators   that indicated that the person could quickly   learn what was necessary to become an effective recruiter. In a job with a relatively easy technical skill set, like recruitment, previous experience is far less relevant compared to a person’s competencies (also known as transferable skills  ) and their motivators.

The more technically complex the job (such as a lawyer, doctor or engineer) the more relevant ‘previous experience’ is. The less technically complex the job (eg sales jobs, call centre jobs, administration jobs, labouring/process jobs etc) the less relevant ‘previous experience’ is.

It all needs to be applied in context. For example, I don’t want a non-experienced, motivated, university graduate preparing my company accounts and tax returns – I’ll take the accountant with ‘previous experience’ any day, thanks very much!

The problem is that far too many employers focus on how effective the employee will be in the first few months   of their employment when ‘previous experience’ enables them to generate some results more quickly than the employee without ‘previous experience’. A much smarter view is to look at which employee will be more effective after 1 or 2 years of employment in a new job   (given appropriate training and coaching).

Consider the following scenarios, detailing seemingly, ‘long shot’ candidates who each appeared to lack the necessary ‘previous experience’ for the roles they were successful in obtaining:

What ‘previous experience’ did Eric Bana have in playing a starring role in a full length feature film before playing Chopper Read in Chopper?

Answer: None – he was a stand-up comic.

What ‘previous experience’ did John Buchanan have in test cricket before he became Australia’s most successful ever coach in test cricket?

Answer: None – he had only played 7 matches for Queensland in state cricket and averaged a mediocre 12 runs per innings as a batsman.

What ‘previous experience’ did 44 year old Marius Kloppers have in running publicly listed companies prior to be being appointed CEO of Australia’s largest public company, BHP Billiton, last year?

Answer: None – he had previously run divisions of BHP Billiton.

After one year of playing Australian football, Jim Stynes was still playing with Prahran in non-league football, and yet to play a senior AFL game. If you were judging Ron Barassi’s innovative Irish recruitment strategy at that point then you would have told him to give up on the Guinness and potato footballers and go back to trawling the country football ovals of Bendigo and Ballarat in search of potential AFL champions.

Yet five years later when Stynes won Australian Football’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal, nobody doubted that Jim Stynes’ initial slow return on Barassi’s investment wasn’t worth the wait for all involved.

Is this skill-short market, we are doing both ourselves and our clients a grave disservice by relying too heavily on ‘previous experience’ as a valid criteria for short-listing candidates and ignoring or under-estimating a candidate’s relevant behavioural competencies and motivators that may lead to a greater level of performance in the long term.

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Thoroughly enjoyed this article and agree with differentiating our previous experience selection criteria and basing it on the level of technical skill required for the role.

The biggest challenge for me is selling this concept to my clients.

I would love to hear some tips that have worked for others on how to get around a client who demands particular previous experience, even though it is not in the best interest of the client.

Nick M

I have to be careful who i send out to work on the building sites as some builders are not very tolerant with less experienced workers even though all they wanted was someone ‘to dig a hole’, but some of my best workers have been those who didn’t have much experience, but had a willingness to work and a great attitude! This does not mean that they all work out but that simply i have given some persons a go and they proved to be very good workers! Of course sending people to work on building sites without any experience as opposed to having some experience, has greater risks, but all the qualities of a person are weighed up to determine whether we think they can do the work and will work out in the long run.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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