Reengagement 180 Podcast #4: Sapience, or Not Hiring into the Same River

Do you base hiring decisions on relevant experience and past accomplishments? The ancient paradoxical wisdom, that “you can’t step twice into the same river,” suggests that particular approach might not hold water. This week on the Reengagement 180 podcast, we’ll take a deep dive into the idea of sapience in place of experience.


[Zen chime] “Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” [Zen chime] Okay, so it wasn’t a Zen master who uttered that famous paradoxical aphorism. Rather, it was ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, in the 6th century BCE. The important learning, though, is that context is critical when it comes to realizing who “we are and are not,” and that context is constantly changing. When it comes to predicting whether a new hire will succeed in the role for which she or he has been recruited, the fact that they have “stepped into” that particular river before – that is, they have specific prior experience in doing what you believe might have been the same job as the one you’re seeking to fill – is only of minor relevance. Because, there is no such thing as having done “the same job” before. Just as the flow of the Heraclitus’s river renders it never the same twice, so too do the circumstances of prior experience ebb and flow—the job is never the same, twice.

Consider the case of Ron Johnson. Johnson transformed Target, into “Tar-jay,” a brilliantly conceived, successful transformation from generic department store into an upper-middle-brow retail experience. He parlayed this success into a massive triumph with the Apple Store and was the driving force leading its revolutionary concept, layout, and culture-driven customer experience— the singular genius behind the Genius Bar. Because of these spectacular goal accomplishments, he was recruited once again to “step into the same river”—and flamed out miserably if not spectacularly, as the short-lived CEO of moribund retailer JC Penney.

Here’s the thing: Instead of licking his wounds and settling into semi-retirement, Ron Johnson learned the lesson of how accomplishments combine with context to create not experience, but sapience. He figured out the message that I spoke about in last week’s podcast about understanding what transformation a business requires, and matching that requirement – not the job description – with the most appropriate person for the role. Johnson is now the founding CEO of the so-far successful start-up, Enjoy, which has transformed the seemingly trivial act of online shopping delivery in a way that brings the Apple Store experience right into people’s living rooms.

At the end of last week’s podcast, I asked the question, how relevant is relevant experience? You may have candidates who present with the requisite “5 to 10 years of progressive experience” and an impressive list of specific, goal-oriented accomplishments. But remember the lesson of Ron Johnson: In the same way “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” a candidate cannot be hired twice into the same job. Your organization’s current situation is not that person’s prior experience because that river has already flowed past. In today’s complex business environment, hire not for experience but for sapience: The candidate’s deep contextual wisdom, and their potential to transform your organization as it flows in its unique stream. A résumé may point to the best person for the job. It so often misses the person your company actually needs for its future when “nothing remains still.”

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Reengagement 180 Podcast #5 – Creating Power and Meaning in Your Job – Yes, Even YOUR Job