I wrote a post in 2013 entitled Debunking the Myth of Hiring for Domain Expertise vs. Functional Expertise. In it, I talk about how in hiring senior executives, sometimes you can’t get both functional expertise (great Head of X) and great domain expertise (subject matter expert in X), but that in scaling businesses, there’s another important vector to consider, which is that if your principal business challenge is scaling, then a critical thing to look for in a potential executive is experience with scaling businesses, or at least experience working at businesses of different sizes/stages.
Today’s post is about a fourth vector beyond functional expertise, domain expertise, and scaling expertise: Context, an important vector to consider as well. When I first had this thought, I was having trouble distinguishing it from domain expertise. Now a few months later, I think I am clear on the distinction.
I worked for a while as an interim executive at a company that had giant companies for clients – very, very large companies. Tens and Hundreds of Thousands of employees. And the scope of services we provided was very internal to our clients, meaning our services touch 100% of employees. Early in my career, I worked as a management consultant and did spend the bulk of two years working in very large companies, frequently onsite for several months at a time. Most of my career, though, I have worked in startups/small companies, and while the clients I’ve worked with often included some very large companies, we’ve typically served very small, externally-oriented teams at large companies. So my personal context for this job is somewhat limited.
Why is that relevant? It’s different to work in a small, well lit, high energy, open plan, newly designed urban office than it is to work in a massive footprint office filled with high-wall cubicles and no windows in a suburban office park. It’s different to work in an environment where there are 5+ layers of management between someone and a department head. It’s different to work in a place where career paths are largely vertical (or involve switching business units) as opposed to what I’m used to, which is careers that can Scale Horizontally. And on and on. All these things are important Context for how our clients consume our services. And they’re all different from what I’m used to.
There is no substitute for actually working years on end in large companies, just as there is no substitute for working years in the startup context. Having said that, I think context can be learned about as quickly as subject matter, and about at the same depth.