Experienced exec vs. rookie exec

It’s inevitable that during every c-suite search we conduct, there is a candidate pool that includes both seasoned veterans and up-and-comers. Our clients look to us for direction on which executive type is best suited for their organization based on their current needs. Giving guidance in this matter can be tricky, as a lot of factors such as company culture, economic conditions, organizational goals and customer base are major contributors to the hiring decision. 

We all know that with a seasoned executive you get an individual with a track record that has a balance of confidence and determination. More often, a veteran has led organizations through economic upheaval and can bring an arsenal of experience and staff with them. On the other hand, “rookies” who are eager, energetic and looking to prove themselves sometimes can be a better choice. Although less experienced, rookies have the ability to infuse new ideas into an organization.

Both executive types also have their own set of risks. Simply put, it’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks, while rookies don’t know what they don’t know.

So how do you decide? There is no clear-cut answer but here are some thoughts:

  • If your organization has a low tolerance for risk, a seasoned executive would be more appropriate. This is one big reason we see publicly held organizations and their shareholders leaning towards the veteran, whereas emerging companies tend to have more leniency.
  • Experienced executives are a safe bet when the goal of an organization is to simply maintain the status quo and all they need is a “steady hand” (especially if the ownership isn’t looking to infuse change of any kind). On the flip side, if an organization is looking for change, a younger executive could invigorate the company with fresh, creative, outside-the-box ideas. Think of what Fritz van Paasschen has done for Starwood.
  • An organization’s customer base could also play a role in the process. Trendy, hip companies may want a more youthful executive as the face of their organization, while companies who try to capture a more sophisticated image prefer someone with a few more gray hairs.
  • In a pure turnaround situation, where an organization is visibly broken, I would always recommend going with the more experienced individual; you don’t want an unproven executive at the helm of a company that has a huge deficit to dig out from. Getting Steve Bollenbach out of retirement would do the trick.
  • If there is a demand for mentorship and succession planning, a company will need to bring on an experienced executive. A lot of times we see privately owned family organizations bring in a leader to help grow and develop the younger execs waiting in the wings.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous instances where we see the need for a more junior executive to help bolster an organization’s depth. Within the hospitality industry particularly, there are a good amount of legacy brands whose executives are nearing the end of their career. Think of the transition at Marriott, with Arne Sorensen replacing Bill Marriott. With the right mentor in place, bringing on a younger skilled executive can make for good succession planning.

In the end, leadership is a fluid art. There are no easy answers. Support from above (owners/board of directors) and below (employees) are the key to any leader’s success.