Is sector-specific experience overrated?

19 March 2018 -

Sector-specific experienceTwo experts debate whether leaders need industry-specific experience


Police forces are enduring, reliable and stable – but this can create many difficulties. The promotion system is linear, so, to be a senior leader, you have to have made it up the ranks. The lower ranks are primarily operational in nature, while the senior roles are far more strategic.

This means that we put our senior leaders through the operational filter in order to gauge their strategic ability. In other sectors, people with strategic capacity are often fast-tracked through the operational ranks.

There’s this weird police approach that says you have to have dealt with a sudden death, or a big fight, or a hanging, before you are suitable to lead. To be considered for promotion, it’s often not enough to be competent – you have to have worked in particular positions on particular duties, or have the right backers.

This is where the College of Policing’s direct-entry scheme comes in. It attracts those who have the capacity for strategic work from other sectors (often involving complex partnership work), and those who haven’t had to run the operational gauntlet.

The College of Policing ensures all direct-entry candidates work for some of their time as frontline operational officers, albeit for a very short time. They need to be afforded the time to take part in more traditional policing activities like strategic command, because, without this exposure, they may struggle to gain the respect of those they lead.

These candidates bring in very different perspectives, a range of networks, and an understanding of the world of leadership outside of police leadership. All of these elements can contribute positively to policing – if policing lets them.

Gareth Stubbs is a serving police officer who is studying for a PhD at Canterbury Christ Church University


In sports, you have undisputed performance measures: you either win or you don’t.

Effective leadership in sports is crucial and there are thousands of books on the subject, but my research looks for generalisable facts. In F1, I found that the people who had the longest and most successful racing careers were more likely to be successful team principals.

The same trend is found in data from 15,000 American basketball games. The most outstanding basketball players have made the most outstanding coaches.

Beyond sports, the top 100 universities in the world are more likely to be led by highly cited scholars. And high-performing scholars lead the more successful departments too. Expertise matters.

Sector-specific leadership skills also benefit staff morale. When I examined the job satisfaction of 35,000 employees in all kinds of jobs and fields, I found that, if they had a boss who had worked their way up, who could do their job and who was regarded as competent, they reported far greater job satisfaction and were less likely to quit.

Why is this the case? If your immediate manager is an expert leader, they will understand how to manage you, how to assess you and how to encourage you through your career.

Having expertise is not a proxy for management ability, but it’s much easier to teach experts simple leadership skills. We must be careful not to say that academics or technical specialists can never manage.

Instead, we all need to learn how to apply our knowledge and lead people too.

Amanda Goodall is an associate professor at Cass Business School

Image credit: Shutterstock

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